Lieberman candidacy moves nation closer to religious-liberty ideals

Sunday, August 27, 2000

Whoever wins in November, just having Joseph Lieberman’s name on the ballot greatly advances the cause of religious liberty in America.

True, Jews have been free to run for president or vice president since
the founding of our Republic. As Article VI of the Constitution boldly states:
“No religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any
office or public trust under the United States.”

With the adoption of “no religious test” in 1787, America
became the first nation on earth to guarantee that the government could never
use religious affiliation (or lack thereof) to disqualify a citizen from
holding national office.

But the Constitution can’t prevent voters or political parties
from applying their own religious tests. Until the 1928 nomination of Al Smith,
a Roman Catholic, all presidential and vice presidential candidates from the
major parties were (or claimed to be) Protestants. And only one non-Protestant,
John Kennedy, has served in the nation’s highest office.

Now Senator Lieberman’s candidacy breaks several more unwritten
but widely accepted taboos of presidential politics.

First and foremost, of course, he is the first Jewish American on a
major party ticket. For anyone familiar with the long and ugly history of
anti-Semitism in American history, the nomination of a Jew for vice president
suggests that we may have reached a new plateau in the ongoing struggle to end
prejudice and discrimination.

But Lieberman’s nomination is about more than a repudiation of
anti-Semitism, as important as that is. It’s a symbolic statement about
what kind of nation we are – and what kind of nation we want to be.

As early as 1790, George Washington articulated the ideal of religious
liberty in America when he wrote these words to the Hebrew Congregation in
Newport, R.I.: “All possess alike liberty of conscience and immunities of
citizenship. It is now no more that toleration is spoken of, as if it was by
the indulgence of one class of people, that another enjoyed the exercise of
their inherent natural rights.”

We didn’t live up to this ideal of religious equality rather
than “toleration” in 1790 and, even now, we have some distance to

Throughout much of our history, one faith – a generalized
Protestantism – has been the semi-established religion in the United
States, especially in the public schools.

In more recent decades, many religious Americans have felt that a
wholly secular understanding of the world has dominated schools and other
national institutions to the exclusion of religious worldviews.

Lieberman’s candidacy simultaneously challenges both of these
unjust models. As a Jewish American, he reminds us that this is not a
“Protestant nation” where the presence of others is merely

And as an observant Jew who frequently articulates the religious
sources for his convictions, he reminds us that religious voices are a vital
part of our national life that should be heard in the public square of

This nomination moves us closer to becoming the nation Washington
envisioned. Genuine religious liberty means that citizens of all faiths or none
compete on a level playing field in public life and are free to enjoy the
privileges of citizenship without regard to religious affiliation.

None of this has to do with voting for or against Joe Lieberman in
November. Citizens should make that determination by examining his position on
the issues, his ability to govern and the content of his character.

If those factors – and not religious affiliation – are the
basis for the American people’s decision, then whoever wins the election,
we will have taken another giant step toward fulfilling the promise of the
First Amendment.