c. 2000 Religion News Service

When guests arrived at the National Prayer Breakfast in Washington, D.C., early this year they searched their programs for the name of the speaker, always a closely guarded secret. Typically a well-known evangelical, the keynoter often delivers the equivalent of a sermon to the thousands in the audience.

Many guests seemed surprised to see Joseph Lieberman listed.

Some speculation at my table considered the choice of Lieberman, the first Jewish speaker, a "politically correct" move toward inclusiveness. And then he spoke.

After he finished, the audience sat in stunned silence for a moment before breaking into thunderous applause and a standing ovation. The self-identified evangelical couple at my table each had tears in their eyes. "Wow," said the husband. The wife couldn't talk for several minutes.

When she finally could speak, she summed up what many in the audience were probably thinking: "That was the most evangelical sermon I've heard here."

It was clear from that talk and others that Lieberman could not be called politically correct. His views are moralistic, rooted in a theology that takes Scripture seriously. During his speech he quoted Bible verses easily, seemingly from memory.

He speaks of God often, with reverence and respectful familiarity. He seems to embrace the equivalent of an evangelical's "personal relationship" although his is with God, not Jesus.

But neither is this Orthodox Jew threatened by other believers. He spoke that morning of his first encounter with the weekly prayer group in the Senate and his fear he would feel out of place with praying Christians.

Instead he discovered a group with which he says he has regular "fellowship," a meeting time when politics are put aside and God is the central focus. He said he had discovered what unites them is far greater than any differences.

Lieberman is a believer in a pluralistic society in which faiths coexist. He urges adherents of all faiths to be strong and open about what they believe and respectful of other traditions.

Lieberman supports school vouchers, a move that has won him praise from both conservative Christians and conservative Muslims because both groups want government support for alternative, faith-based schools.

Likewise, Lieberman's views on entertainment are similar to those of the religious right and practicing Muslims.

On other points, such as abortion, the groups part company with Lieberman. But even in those moments, they do so acknowledging that Lieberman's positions are not politically expedient but his own careful view of what Scripture does or doesn't say.

Both Al Gore and George W. Bush have given testimony to their faith, identifying themselves with evangelicals to some extent.

Lieberman is on the other end of the spectrum. He is openly,

obviously Jewish. But because of his deep faith, he comes across as the most God-fearing man in the mix. No one thinks he invokes the name of God for political gain. Clearly, his beliefs may make him the target of some.

But Lieberman doesn't care. For the first time in a long time there is a politician who seems to recognize that politics is a very small part of the big picture. In Lieberman, all true believers have a role model of a man with the moral strength to stand up first for what he believes and then to worry about the political fallout.

Whether Gore and Lieberman win or not, the next few months will offer this country a look at a moral leader. For conservative Christians, Lieberman serves as a reminder that "the fear of God is the beginning of wisdom."

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