Joe Lieberman's challenge

William F. Buckley
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Posted: Aug 30, 2000 12:00 AM
"What we have to have from Bush," the congressman said over the telephone, "is an espousal of a controversial policy recommendation -- and stick to it and hew down hard." That makes a lot of sense, to this non-congressman, and the lead is surely there -- sitting duck.

We have a great irony at center stage in America, the narrative of which is: Joseph Lieberman believes not only his faith, but believes that "there must be a place for faith in America's public life." And this wasn't just Sunday talk. Joe Lieberman is a U.S. senator and is running for vice president of the United States. Now add this: He is not -- a Christian! So what do you say about a Jewish figure who, if language means anything at all, is saying to an audience mostly non-Jewish (90 percent of Americans are Christian) that religion needs to take a more assertive position in public life?

Well, what you do if you are the Anti-Defamation League is slit your throat. Here is the granddaddy of tolerance organizations, specifically organized to expose and protest anti-Jewish thinking and scheming, and what does it run into? A public figure calling for an expanded role for religion in public life -- but the s.o.b. is a Jew! If he were Pat Robertson or one of those people, the tocsin might have sounded, alerting the community at large to the inchoate anti-Jewish intimations of this call for religious affirmation. What do we do now?

One has to assume that the ADL's Abraham Foxman picked up the telephone and said grittily, "Get me Ira Glasser." Mr. Glasser is the eloquent and ubiquitous boss of the American Civil Liberties Union, among whose ambitions is to reduce the practice of religion to private conversations between you and your minister.

What would the ACLU recommend at this turn of events? Mr. Glasser can be depended on to harness the entire weight of the ACLU to a rebuke of Sen. Lieberman, and indeed this is what happened. The ADL fired one on Monday: "We do not think that religion belongs in the political campaign and the political arena," Mr. Foxman said. "There's nothing wrong with somebody professing their faith and going to church or synagogue, but this is almost hawking it."

Well, that is certainly true. To have a candidate for vice president affirm the need for religion in public life is certainly to hawk religion, using almost identically the language used by George Washington and Abraham Lincoln and other -- non-Jews. That the same sentiments should be composed and uttered by a Jewish candidate is a triumphant expression of genuine religious freedom.

So where does Candidate Bush come in? The opportunity is grand to seize on the issue in order to bear down on judicial usurpation.

Gov. Bush could explain that (a) he entirely agrees with the Democratic candidate on the need for faith in public life. And go on to say, (b) that the systematic assaults on religion in public life, done under the whiplash of the judiciary, are a cause for national concern. As president -- Mr. Bush might now promise -- in behalf of his duties to safeguard the Constitution and its provision for the separation of powers, he would declare the national interest as calling for a modification of judicial extremism in its interpretation of the First Amendment religious clauses.

Candidate Bush could take the occasion to expand his concern over judicial interventions. The news is very hot that in extensive recent findings in three suburban centers, black students who were given vouchers and attended non-public schools profited hugely -- enduringly -- from the relative benefits of discipline, close ties to the family and increased expectations. Bush could, without fear that Candidate Lieberman would object to it, assert a national interest in the freedom of schools to sponsor non-denominational prayer.

What would Candidate Gore do in such circumstances? Without any objection from the ADL, he could remove himself into a park or forest and pray privately for guidance. But when he emerged, he would need either to endorse Gov. Bush's call for public reproach of the court -- as Abraham Lincoln reproached it after Dred Scott, and President Roosevelt and successors after Plessy vs. Ferguson, the separate-but-equal decision -- or say that Candidate Lieberman was talking hot air when he spoke about the need to reintroduce faith in America's public life.

That would be a fine meeting of minds. And Gov. Bush could promise that, from the White House, he would consult Sen. Lieberman on the means of implementing his devout recommendations.