By Pollitt, Katha
The Nation , Vol. 271, No. 8
"The Constitution guarantees freedom of religion, not freedom from religion," Senator Joseph Lieberman told a rapturous audience at a black church a few Sundays ago, just after being chosen as Al Gore's running mate. Given that the whole purpose of Lieberman's nomination was to detach Gore from Clinton's scandals by public displays of family values and sanctimoniousness, you can't blame him for starting right in--and so far the gambit seems to be working (Monica who?). Still, you would think the first Jewish major-party VP candidate in US history might hesitate to cast to the winds the traditional secularism of American Jews. And that's what the Anti-Defamation League thought too, rebuking Lieberman for excessive use of "expressions of faith." After all, right-wing Christians are the 800-pound gorilla of US church-state relations today, and given their triumphalism--"every knee shall bow" and all that--does one really need to encourage them? When a Jew endorses, or seems to endorse, an intrusive public role for religion, the Christian right is inoculated from charges of bigotry. No wonder Lieberman has drawn praise from Jerry Falwell and Jewish-banker-conspiracy fan Pat Robertson--even though, of course, they know he's going to hell for refusing to accept Christ as his personal savior.
But that's the official American civic religion at the opening of the twenty-first century: What religion you have may be your own business--rather literally so, in the case of Scientology--but it's society's business that you have one. Modernity may have eroded some of the distinctions between previously antagonistic belief systems--Quick! Explain the difference between Presbyterianism and Methodism!--as is suggested by the increasing replacement of the word "religion," with its connotations of dogma and in-groupness, by the warm, fuzzy propaganda term "faith." Facing the common enemy, secularism, devout Christians and Jews dwell lovingly on their similarities as part of a "Judeo-Christian" ethos, when historically the ethos of each faith was precisely that it wasn't the other--as Jews were recently reminded by the Pope's shameful beatification of Pius IX, a reactionary anti-Semite who not only forced Rome's Jews into a ghetto but virtually kidnapped a Jewish child secretly baptized by a servant and refused to return him to his family despite years of international protest.
In fact, Lieberman is wrong about the Constitution--it does protect us from religion. In their useful book The Godless Constitution, Isaac Kramnick and R. Laurence Moore remind us that the Founding Fathers carefully considered and rejected the idea of inserting religious language into the Constitution: "The nation's founders, both in writing the Constitution and in defending it in the ratification debates, sought to separate the operations of government from any claim that human beings can know and follow divine direction in reaching policy decisions." The Constitution specifically prohibits religious tests for political office; evidently Washington, Madison and Jefferson did not think civic virtue required belief in God. Still less did they sympathize with Bible-based politics. …