- The Washington Times - Friday, March 2, 2001

America is in the midst of a new "spiritual awakening," Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman declared yesterday.

"This new awakening manifests itself in spiritual and communal acts, in the upsurge of men and women of faith who are doing good works to repair some of the worst tears in our social and moral fabric," the Connecticut Democrat said in his keynote address to the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life.

In addition to "expressing itself in the lives of individual Americans," Mr. Lieberman said, this awakening also "is leading to the rising pressure to bring religion more actively into America's public life."

Mr. Lieberman, whose expressions of his own Orthodox Jewish faith drew some criticism last year when he was Democrat Al Gore's vice-presidential running mate, cited President Bush's creation of a White House office of faith-based initiatives as an example of the increasing role of religion in public life.

"The president, I believe, has made a convincing case for the constructive contributions that faith-based groups can make to meeting real social needs," Mr. Lieberman said. "He has seen firsthand the extraordinarily good works these nonprofits often do, as have I."

A greater role for faith in the public sphere can go hand-in-hand with respect for differing faiths, he said.

"What makes this revival, to me, so different from some of the previous awakenings we have had in our country is its pluralistic contours," Mr. Lieberman said. "And I think this is not just an expression of tolerance, but of real respect for the multiplicity of faiths that work in America today and the common origins and purposes that we share. In one sense, of course, it's a reflection of the fact that we have become a more tolerant society."

As an example of that tolerance, Mr. Lieberman cited his own experience traveling across America during the 2000 campaign, saying he never encountered "one whit" of anti-Semitism. That was "powerful evidence of just how tolerant and inclusive of a nation we have become," he said.

Previous religious awakenings in the country sparked the 19th-century abolitionist movement and the 20th-century civil rights movement, Mr. Lieberman noted.

The new upsurge of faith began, he said, "in the hearts of millions of Americans who felt threatened by the vulgarity and violence in our society and by the degradation of societal limits and standards, and turned to religion as the best way to rebuild the wall of principle and purpose around themselves and their families."

Intertwining religion and political life is not a new topic for Mr. Lieberman.

"My religion is central to my life," Mr. Lieberman said in an interview on "The Newshour with Jim Lehrer" on PBS in August, not long after he accepted the Democratic vice-presidential nomination. "It helps me answer those questions 'Who am I, and what am I doing here?' That's part of the value system of discipline that I have put around my life. So it informs a lot I do, but it doesn't control what I do, certainly not as an elected official."

Mr. Gore's pick of an Orthodox Jew as his running mate was immediately acclaimed as "courageous," but the praise quickly turned to criticism. Mr. Lieberman noted yesterday that he was caricatured during the campaign as "Holy Joe" for his public avowals of faith.

During the campaign, the Anti-Defamation League, founded to combat anti-Semitism, harshly criticized Mr. Lieberman's invocation of religious belief: "We feel very strongly, and we hope you would agree, that appealing along religious lines, or belief in God, is contrary to the American ideal. Language such as this risks alienating the American people."

Yesterday, Mr. Lieberman reminded his audience of more than 300 at the National Press Club that religion in the public square is nothing new.

"We need to make the point that religion in America, beyond being a unifying force throughout history, has also informed and strengthened our sense of purpose and changed our country for the better," he said.

He emphasized that he is not advocating an end to the separation of church and state.

"We are not calling for government funding for religion and certainly not for government endorsement of any one religion, or even government favoritism for religious groups over non-religious groups," Mr. Lieberman said. "We are talking about lessening the legal and social hostility toward voluntary religious expression in public."

The "wall of separation" between church and state as Thomas Jefferson once called it may have become too high, Mr. Lieberman suggested.

"Those of us who are seeking a larger, suitable space for faith must engage those who feel threatened in a broad and open conversation about what it is we are seeking and why," he said. "The wall of separation has grown to such mythological proportions that some Americans believe it is not just inappropriate but unconstitutional for a public official or clergyman or woman to praise the Lord in public."

Yet Mr. Lieberman acknowledged that turning faith into policy can be tricky, and cited Mr. Bush's plan to allow religious groups to administer government-funded social programs as an example.

"This is one case where the devil really is in the details," he said. "The critics have rushed to fill this vacuum, turning the Bush plan into a kind of political Rorschach test, with people projecting their worst fears onto it."

Mr. Lieberman expressed his own concerns over the Bush plan, including questions of how government will decide which faith groups would qualify, and if these organizations can require their employees to adhere to the "teachings and tenets" of the group.

"Regardless of whether one thinks religious groups should have such vast discretion when using their own money, it is understandingly troubling to many that this provision would effectively give federally funded workplaces far greater leeway to discriminate that their privately funded counterparts," Mr. Lieberman said.

Despite such concerns, he said, society will benefit from the faith-based initiative.

"Does society have more to fear from a rehabilitated drug addict who has broken his habit through a faith-based treatment program than society has to fear the untreated, unrehabilitated drug addict?" Mr. Lieberman said.

Americans are now more open to such programs because of greater understanding and tolerance, he said.

"We have begun to make demonstrable progress in dealing with some aspects of the church-state balance, thanks, in large part, I think, to the growing inclusivity, tolerance and mutual acceptance of the American people," said Mr. Lieberman.

He hopes that the success of faith-based public programs can turn skeptics into believers, he said.

"I'm an optimist, and I believe that if we continue talking … we can all have faith that we will sort through these theoretical thickets and find a true and lasting common ground, in which religion can play a larger and still-lawful role in our public life," he said. "And when we come to that moment, I hope that we will all feel comfortable in saying publicly and loudly, 'Amen.' "

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