Religion and Politics a Historical Mixture

Article excerpt

Protests that God-talk in the 2000 political contest is a departure from American custom have prompted historians to ask: What would George Washington and Thomas Jefferson do?

One third of Washington's first inaugural invoked God, or the "providential agency in the founding of the nation."

And Jefferson, accused of being a Francophile atheist in the bitter 1800 election, closed his first annual message by saying exaltation of God brought "conciliation and forgiveness" to the nation.

Democratic presidential nominee Al Gore has followed that tradition, citing on the campaign stump a popular slogan known by Christian teens, "WWJD" - What Would Jesus Do?

Texas Gov. George W. Bush cited Jesus as his favorite political philosopher, and signed off on "Jesus Day" in Texas - drawing strong media criticism.

But a new twist arose Monday when the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) warned one of its own, Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman - an Orthodox Jew and Mr. Gore's running mate - that he is overplaying God-talk.

"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," the ADL said. "Language such as this risks alienating the American people."

Historians said yesterday it is hard to say the "American ideal" excluded God or religion when the first act of the Continental Congress was to pray and when the civil rights movement cited God as its authority.

"My initial response [to the ADL] is, that is simply unhistorical," said Daniel L. Driesbach, a Rhodes scholar and historian at American University.

He noted that Washington added the words "So help me God" to the oath of office.

"These same traditions have been uniformly followed by every president up to the current office holder," said Mr. Driesbach.

"There's nothing new, or particularly different, in how these candidates use the deity in political discourse," he said.

Like the ADL, which protects Jews from discrimination and anti-Semitism, historians agree that religious conflict has embroiled politics and that minorities often have suffered at the hands of majorities.

But to "muzzle God runs deeply against the American experience," said Samuel G. Freedman, a Columbia University professor and author of "Jews vs. Jews," which looks at modern divisions in American Jewry.

"What you are getting here is the perplexity of secular Jews at Orthodoxy," Mr. Freedman said.

For Jews, he said, a rise of religious fervor may have been a threat in Europe, but never has been in the United States. He also rejected the claim that Mr. Lieberman's overt religion would "trigger a reservoir of anti-Semitism."

In fact, the Lieberman religious rhetoric in question was made Sunday to black churchgoers.

"This is just voluntary expression, and if people don't like it, they can vote for someone else," Mr. …