A lot has been made of Joseph I. Lieberman's comments and emphasis on religion since Al Gore '69 picked him as his running mate last month. It has been a long time since a member of the Democratic ticket spoke so openly about the role of religion in public life, and many people are surprised. Groups that usually reserve criticism for conservative Republicans, such as the Anti-Defamation League, have asked Lieberman to stop speaking so overtly about his faith on the campaign trail.
But the critical question has been lost in the shuffle. Before one can decide whether Lieberman's religious references are kosher, one must wonder why Lieberman has put so much emphasis on morality and religion in this election.
There are two possible explanations for Lieberman's frequent religious rhetoric. The first, and the most common in a campaign setting, is that he is trying to exploit his religion for political gain. This is a very valid concern, for there is little more dangerous than an appeal for votes on a religious basis. There are hundreds of examples of politicians attempting to invoke religion for their own gain.
One of the most recent and, if it were not such a serious issue, most laughable, attempts to profit via morality was the transformation of Republican presidential hopeful Steve Forbes from 1996 to 2000. In the 1996 election, Forbes's name was synonymous with one idea--the flat tax. He trumpeted it everywhere, and earned a small but devoted following. He was a one-issue candidate, much like Arizona Senator John S. McCain was this year.
Discovering that he couldn't win the Republican nomination with such a narrow base, a startlingly different Steve Forbes suddenly appeared in the 2000 election. Now, Forbes mentioned faith and family values almost as often as the labyrinthine federal tax code. Assuming Forbes did not undergo a drastic personal metamorphosis in the last four years, he began to speak about religion solely to attract voters. Actions such as this deserve scorn and condemnation.
However, Joseph Lieberman does not fit into this mold. He is, and has always been, devoutly religious, and he has never been afraid to say it. In his very first senate race, Lieberman's opponent criticized him for his unabashedly religious outlook. This is not an opportunistic attempt to gain votes. Few doubt his sincerity when he speaks about his faith, whether they agree or disagree with him. Lieberman has lived his life by his religion and his morals.
Which brings up the second, and much less common, reason that a politician would speak about religion on the campaign trail. When people run for as high an office as the presidency (or the vice-presidency), it is their duty to present themselves to the American people in an honest and straightforward manner. People expect them to speak forthrightly about their vision for America, the policies they hope to implement, their personality, their ideals and their beliefs.
If devoutly religious candidates like Lieberman did not speak fully or truthfully about their values, beliefs and faith, then they would be guilty of a far greater crime--an attempt to hide an important part of their personality from the American people.
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