In selecting Joe Lieberman as his running mate, Al Gore gave notice that for the first time in 20 years, Democrats will contest Republicans for the God vote.

In Lieberman, the Democrats have an authentic advocate of what might broadly be described as the Judeo-Christian moral tradition. Tactically speaking, this is a smart move. It effectively inoculates the Gore ticket against charges that dogged the party since the days of another devout and defeated presidential candidate, George McGovern: namely, that the party had embraced an atheistic worldview.

But, in exhibiting their rectitude, the Democrats are tacitly accepting a brand of morality that ties the hands of governments. This morality, which has been ascendant since the Reagan administration, values avoiding evil over attempting the good; it concerns itself primarily with acts and only secondarily with relationships. And, because it views social problems primarily as an accretion of individual sin, it offers little justification for collective action.

This privatistic view of morality plays directly into Republican hands by giving moral cover to the party's ongoing efforts to expand the prerogatives of business interests by reducing the power of the government. But changing the prevailing moral climate is a delicate task, especially for Democrats whose policies on crime and welfare have, for three decades, allowed Republicans to paint them as enemies of individual responsibility.

The cause is not lost, however, if the Democrats are willing to follow the path trod by Catholic moral theologians like Bernard Haring, whose innovative approach to Christian ethics helped revive that once moribund discipline and awaken Catholics to their social and political responsibilities.

Before the Second Vatican Council, which met in several sessions during the 1960s, moral teaching focused primarily on the rightness or wrongness of specific acts. Its chief aim was to steer those who sought counsel away from sin, and to put sinners back on the right side of God by prescribing the proper penance.

Toward that end, the church developed manuals that categorized sins by severity and suggested appropriate counsel and penances. A befuddled priest could leaf through their pages to determine whether lying was worse than stealing in much the way that a novice card player could consult Hoyle to find out whether a straight beat a flush.

The problems with these manuals were many. For one thing, they enforced the curious notion that the morality of an act could be determined before it occurred by men with no knowledge of the situation. They fostered an image of God as a hair-splitter and a bean counter. And they encouraged a minimalistic philosophy of salvation that placed less importance on the active--Love they neighbor!--than on the passive--Don't sin!

But in the years leading up to the Council, Haring and others began to articulate a more complex kind of morality, one that downplayed the spiritual scorekeeping encouraged by the manuals and emphasized the overall moral quality of one's life. Salvation, in this view, was less a matter of avoiding sin than of loving as Jesus loved and serving as Jesus served.

The new theology, as reflected in the documents of the Council, required Christians to do something, to act on behalf of others, especially the oppressed and the outcast. Applied to politics, it provided the theological grounds for an activist government.

The new theology has been vigorously criticized by Catholic traditionalists, who charge that it is too lenient, that it pays insufficient attention to sin. But, in fact, Haring's theology is actually more demanding than the older variety because it enlarges the moral arena; it increases the extent to which each of us is held responsible for the other.

An activist philosophy of government does the same thing. Yet in political and ecclesial debates, conservatives are generally portrayed as rigorous in their thinking and disciplined in their behavior, while liberals are painted as lax in both regards.

Al Gore and Joe Lieberman have chosen to confront their image problem by attempting to persuade the public that by the standards of pre-conciliar morality, their ticket is at least as clean as the Republicans'. This emphasis on personal piety may win them an election, but unless they make the moral argument for a more activist government, they will have as difficult a time selling their initiatives--the prescription-drug plan, aggressive measures to support the public schools--as the Clintons had fixing the health care system.

If, as social critics keep telling us, Americans have become weary of their society's self-indulgence, if they are looking to introduce a little moral rigor into their lives, then now is the time for Democrats to say that good people do more than cultivate private gardens of virtue, and good government does more than stay out of the market's way.

The Catholic theologian Monika Helwig makes a distinction between living a "good" life and living a redemptive one. The latter, she says, is the higher moral calling, and if the Democrats want to out-virtue the Republicans, this is the ground on which they should plant their flag.

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