Why this election differs from all other elections

September 08, 2000|By George Mitrovich

SAN DIEGO, Calif. -- The Anti-Defamation League has asked Sen. Joseph Lieberman, the vice presidential nominee of the Democratic Party, to stop "hawking" his religious beliefs.

Abraham H. Foxman and Howard P. Berkowitz, key league officials, wrote to the senator asking him to refrain from expressions of his personal religious faith. They characterized such expressions as "contrary to the American ideal."

Their letter is raising hell in both secular and religious circles, which surely was not their intent, as both are extremely responsible gentlemen. But they should have anticipated that many would view their advice as misplaced.

Here's why:

Americans expect to be told what a candidate for president or vice president believes about Medicare, Social Security, free trade, the environment, defense, the minimum wage, abortion, school vouchers, etc.

We're conditioned to learn about his childhood, what his elementary school's classmates and teachers thought of him, whether they predicted high lifetime achievement, his college grades, his career, who his friends are, what he reads, what kind of car he drives, what sports he follows, his mental state and physical condition, his relationship with his parents and siblings and his family life. Voters know, under the penetrating searchlight of the national media, that virtually nothing about a candidate's life will be hidden from view.

This obsession with knowing the "whole person" has become a part of the national political mantra. People, intone the media, have a right to know; nothing should be hidden, and nothing is.

Well, not quite. We're told that everything should be open for discussion and debate; everything, that is, except the personal religious faith of George W. Bush and Dick Cheney, of Al Gore and Joe Lieberman.

We're warned, often in ominous tones, that the great wall of separation between church and state will come tumbling down if candidates discuss their religion. Serious people, thoughtful people, people who jealously guard their intellectual credentials, undergo no apparent conflict when they advise a candidate, "Tell us everything that's important to you, everything that matters, what gives ultimate meaning to your life, but leave religion out of it."

During the presidential caucus in Iowa, Governor Bush, responding to a question at a public forum on his personal faith, identified Jesus Christ as his "favorite philosopher." He then expanded his answer by declaring he is a born-again Christian.

When Governor Bush gave that answer, rather than being complimented on his willingness to state, without embarrassment, his Christian faith, he was pilloried in the national press. He was told such candor and honesty about one's personal faith has no place in the race for president; that the presidential debate should not be trivialized by personal religious talk.

Vice President Al Gore, who has affirmed his own born-again Christian faith, but in ways less expansive than his Republican opponent, has experienced some criticism, but with less intensity than that directed at Governor Bush.

Now comes Mr. Lieberman, an Orthodox Jew, who speaks of his religion with grace, sensitivity and intelligence. But rather than being acclaimed for this, for his courage in declaring his beliefs, he is told to keep quiet, to keep his faith out of the political arena. He is told to do this, not by secularists, but by Jewish leaders -- and he is told to do it the day after he addresses a Christian congregation in Detroit Aug. 27 and speaks movingly about his faith, what it means for him to adhere to Judaism.

What an extraordinary paradox!

We finally reach that place in our national experience where a Jewish American is chosen and welcomed as a candidate for the nation's second highest office, and suddenly there are those who tell him he should be silent about it, about the very beliefs that establish his identity as a person of the Jewish faith.

Not only is such advice misplaced, but it diminishes the dialogue of democracy. It conflicts with the idea that open and civil discourse on all subjects, from the stock market to the Sabbath, are among the great and enduring strengths of American life.

Mr. Lieberman should heed his conscience and politely reject the call for silence.

George Mitrovich is president of the 600-member City Club of San Diego County and was a board member and president of that city's Ecumenical Council.

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