Closing the piety gap

With Joe Lieberman, the Democrats have someone who can take God back from the right. But do we really need more moralizing about private issues in public life?

By James Traub
Published August 16, 2000 4:43PM (EDT)

Wednesday night Joe Lieberman makes his formal debut before the American people when he speaks at the Democratic Convention, and we are bound to hear a great deal about his relationship with God, and with his faith. In the first six sentences of the speech he gave after Al Gore picked him as his running mate, Lieberman managed to invoke the name of God nine times, a figure that even the Rev. Billy Graham would be hard pressed to match.

Suddenly a risky move looked like a masterstroke: Here was a man who could speak to America in its own intensely religious tongue. Just as President Clinton in earlier years had successfully neutralized the Democrats' vulnerability on welfare and big government, so Lieberman could help them close the partisan gap on religiosity and, above all, on personal probity. Lieberman could testify; and he has spent the last week testifying to Gore's character.

It was, and is, a strikingly private and personal use of religious morality -- more Baptist, to my ears, than Jewish. In the Jewish world in which I grew up in the mid-1960s, morality meant caring about poor people. Social justice was the great watchword of the temple and of the entire Jewish milieu. Because we had once been slaves in Egypt, because we had been oppressed and dispersed among strangers and because we had brought the scripture of democratic socialism with us from Eastern and Central Europe, we identified with the downtrodden.

There was no greater feather a rabbi could have in his yarmulke -- if he wore one -- than to have marched in Mississippi, as ours had. And of course we believed in the government, and in the state's obligation to mobilize itself on behalf of the poor. The one sermon from the High Holy Days that I recall is a thunderous denunciation of Barry Goldwater two months before the 1964 election -- to have voted for the man would have been the closest thing to a sin in our lexicon.

Now, it's perfectly true that the species of 1960s suburban Reform Judaism in which I was raised was so thoroughly reform that it was scarcely distinguishable from Unitarianism. Mentioning God was practically bad form, and we would have cringed at Lieberman's invocation of "Dear Lord, maker of all miracles." Lieberman's faith is a true and demanding one, while ours required principally that the grown-ups vote for LBJ and the kids leaflet the commuter trains to protest the Vietnam War.

But whatever its devotional deficiencies, the Judaism with which I was raised embraced the spirit of universalism, of moral obligation and moral passion, that lies at the core of the faith. Of course you were supposed to be upright, but what mattered was doing good in the world.

Moral engagement was, of course, the spirit of the moment. First the civil rights movement, then President Johnson's Great Society and finally the protest against the war had the character of a holy crusade. Everything felt like a battle to the utmost, up to and including our high school English curriculum. It was a time when the language of public discourse was intensely moral but almost wholly secular.

President Johnson talked about justice, not divine will. It would be inconceivable for him to have announced that he asked himself, as George W. Bush recently said he did, "What would Jesus do?" And it would have been unnecessary: Secular morality did not have to be authenticated by a show of religious faith.

The coordinates of our own world are almost exactly the opposite of that vanished one. Piety has now become not just permissible but obligatory in political debate; public figures compete for proximity to God. And yet the effect of all this religious profession has not been to moralize policy debate but to politicize private behavior.

President Clinton's moral nature has become the great consuming issue of a presidential campaign in which he is not running; Bush and Dick Cheney promise moral renewal, while we are asked to admire Lieberman's courage because he was the first Democrat to denounce the president.

A great rift has opened up between a theologized and passionate debate over private behavior and a policy discussion that seems narrow, cool and technocratic. Can it really be that the most burning issue the nation faces -- besides, of course, the question of precisely how much we should despise the president for his extramarital sex life -- is whether to permit 20 percent of the Social Security trust fund to be privately invested?

I wish that Lieberman would use the words "social justice," or speak of a religious obligation to do something about poverty, as modern Catholic theology does when it speaks of the "preferential option for the poor." Perhaps he'll do so Wednesday. But I'm not asking him to bless the traditional liberal agenda, nor expecting him to use the outdated vocabulary that all we naive lefties deployed in the '60s.

Lieberman favors the use of school vouchers for inner-city children locked in bad schools, a policy that most liberals abhor -- and that Gore opposes -- but that answers the prayers of many desperate parents. It is also obvious now, as it wasn't back then, that welfare shouldn't be viewed as an inalienable right, that violent criminals should be locked up for a long time no matter how disadvantaged their background, that demanding less of black students is, as Bush has deftly put it, "soft racism."

We are rightly chastened by past failures. But where is the urgency to act, to do it right and, yes, to spend the money that needs to be spent? Wouldn't a religiously inspired person feel that urgency?

But so would a not religiously inspired person. In the end, we don't really need a liberal Jewish moralism to oppose to a conservative, largely Protestant moralism. In fact, if the function of piety in the public sphere is to further personalize politics, and to elevate matters of character at the expense of policy, then what we need is less faith and more secular moralism. We need to remember that politics matters not because it is the theater of public virtue but because it is the means by which we distribute public goods and adjudicate matters of public policy.

And so let us admire candidates for the personal qualities evinced by their sincere religious commitments, and then have done with the whole thing. Or better yet, let's leave religion out of it altogether. Indeed, it would have been really brave if Gore had nominated an atheist -- but that's one minority group the American people may not be ready to accept.

James Traub

James Traub is a New York writer and contributor to the New York Times Magazine.

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Al Gore Joe Lieberman Religion