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Senator Joseph Lieberman’s religious beliefs are one of this week’s major news stories, following a Sunday morning appearance at an African-American church in Detroit, a Monday morning interfaith breakfast in Chicago and a Monday letter from the Anti-Defamation League.

The New York Times carried a piece on Friday, September 1, that said Democratic vice-presidential candidate Lieberman “touched off a new round in the sharp but unsettled debate over the role that personal beliefs should play in American politics.”

USA Today‘s lead story on Wednesday, August 30, said Democratic presidential nominee Al Gore “had no intention of reining in” Lieberman’s expressions of faith.

USAToday.com quoted two Protestant liberals who criticized Lieberman. Historian Martin Marty said Lieberman was “parading piety.” Barry Lynn, head of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, said, “Mr. Lieberman now joins Mr. Bush as having moved from a simple affirmation of faith to pandering for votes.”

The day before, the New York Times, the Washington Post and Salon.com ran stories on the Democratic vice-presidential candidate’s faith-based comments. On Monday, the Los Angeles Times and Chicago Tribune carried similar stories.

The Washington Post article said, “His speeches are drenched with biblical references and bold prophecies.”

The article speculated Lieberman, an orthodox Jew, could “pull off what a conservative Christian couldn’t.” It asked, “If he gets away with it, is it a double standard?”

According to the article, Lieberman asked the religious leaders at the interfaith breakfast, “Isn’t Medicare coverage of prescription drugs really about the values of the Fifth Commandment–honor your father and mother?”

Tuesday’s New York Times article focused primarily on the letter from the Anti-Defamation League calling on Lieberman to stop “overt expressions” of religion on the campaign trail.

The letter said appeals to religion in a political campaign become at some point “inappropriate and even unsettling in a religiously diverse society such as ours.”

In his speech to a prominent Detroit congregation, Lieberman said, “there must be a place for faith in America’s public life,” according to the New York Times.

Salon.com, an edgy online publication, said Lieberman “simultaneously anointed himself holier than W. and made it clear to the crucial bloc of undecided born-agains that he wasn’t one of those Woody Allen-type Jews, all nasal wisecracks and moral relativism.”

“Like all attempts to drag religion into the public sphere, Lieberman’s call for a heightened American religiosity erodes the church-state distinction that is one of the foundations of American civil society, cheapening religion by using it as a political tool and raising the specter of theocracy,” said the Salon column.

Written by Salon’s executive editor, the piece argued that religion is a private concern. It accused Lieberman of empty political rhetoric because “he doesn’t advocate any explicit linkage between faith and action.”

On Monday, the Chicago Tribune noted that both Democratic and Republican presidential campaigns “have used religious faith and religious language to build an image of integrity.”

It read, “Lieberman appeared to be taking the strategy one step further, going directly to religious leaders for support.”

The Los Angeles Times said Lieberman’s speech at the Detroit church “was the most dramatic demonstration of how the Connecticut senator has placed his religion front and center in the campaign.”

Many of these papers also referred to George W. Bush’s Monday speech to a religious group, B’nai B’rith International, a Jewish organization meeting in Washington.

Via satellite from Austin, Texas, Bush told the group, “our nation is chosen by God.” He expressed support for Israel and praised faith-based social programs.

The media’s focus on Lieberman’s faith calls Baptists to practice discernment about the role of religion in politics.

Here are seven guidelines for evaluating the role of religion in politics:

First, any expression of faith in politics is an awkward topic for many in our pluralistic society. We would do well to recognize the discomfort it may cause our neighbors and respect their concerns.

Second, many Americans believe faith is a private matter. Churches bear much of the blame for the privatization of faith and resulting disfigurement of authentic faith. Faith is not a private matter, but a public one. We need to speak in favor of faith having a public dimension, as some politicians are doing.

Third, politicians have a rich record of misusing faith for political ends. Prudence is a cardinal virtue that demands we listen to and watch politicians with a healthy skepticism. We must be “wise as serpents” about religion in public.

Fourth, some believe the Bible is a literal blueprint for public policy. We must discern the difference between politicians who articulate religious values that shape public policy and those who insist their religious values become public policy.

Fifth, some politicians and voters feel more comfortable with the simple words of faith than the complex world of public policy. The platitudes of religion are no substitute for meaty debates about public policy. We should expect and desire politicians to debate the issues.

Sixth, the separation of church and state is on the lips of many politicians. Unfortunately, not all politicians share a standard dictionary for what this American doctrine means. The height and density of the wall often differs based on the issue. We should always favor a sturdy wall between these two spheres in our society.

Seventh, some people confuse the perception of personal moral goodness with the implementation of moral policy. Morally upright politicians have supported public policies that advance injustice. Conversely, immoral leaders have advanced policies that improve social well being and distribute justice.

Sitting on my desk is a thin-metal paperweight with a quote from Reinhold Niebuhr: “The sad duty of politics is to establish justice in a sinful world.”

The biblical call for justice is clear. The need for people of faith in the political process is urgent. The debate over the role of faith in politics is one vital way for determining which candidates best understand the sinful world and for discerning which candidates will best pursue justice.

Robert Parham is BCE’s executive director.

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