The First Amendment does not ban American citizens or their elected representatives from being motivated by their religious beliefs or from articulating those beliefs while running for office.
Moreover, religious beliefs have always played a central role in the moral development of American society--particularly in the struggle against slavery and segregation.
To recognize the ways that religions have provided a moral beacon for American life is not to deny that religious texts have sometimes been appropriated to justify every form of oppression, from slavery to sexism to homophobia. But the texts didn't create the oppression--the society's sexism, racism, and homophobia usually predated the religious justifications it created or inserted into religious traditions.
Religious language has often been the only tool at the disposal of those challenging systems of oppression.
The Rev. Martin Luther King and the civil rights movement, the anti-apartheid movement in South Africa, and even the growing environmental movements around the globe have often found their greatest inspiration in religious insights.
As media manipulation of public opinion grows increasingly sophisticated, it is the language of the Bible that stands as the most powerful counterforce to America's idolatrous celebration of wealth and power.
So let's differentiate between reactionary spirituality and what I call "emancipatory spirituality."
Reactionary spirituality uses God's name to support special entitlements for one group, nationality, or religious community, privileging that group above the rest of humanity.
Emancipatory spirituality invokes those texts and traditions that remind us that (a) every human being is equally an embodiment of God, (b) God requires that we do justice and love mercy and walk humbly, and (c) no societal arrangement that demeans "the other" or turns its back on the poor and the powerless can be tolerated.
To Democrats and Republicans who believe that America's economic system has been validated by the immense influx of wealth to its upper 20% of income earners, an emancipatory spirituality will point to the growing gap between the wealthy and the poor, to hundreds of thousands of people who die each year of diseases related to malnutrition, and to the perverse distortions in human values that the open market fosters and sustains.
In a world where everyone appears to be pursuing his or her own interests without regard to the consequences for others, it is often the prophetic voices of religious tradition that provide the sole counterbalance questioning the bottom line of materialism and selfishness--and demanding a new bottom line for American society.
The challenge of emancipatory spirituality is this: "Ask not how much money and power you've accumulated, but how much love and caring, how much ecological and moral sensitivity, you have accumulated--how much you've been able to respond to the universe with awe and wonder."
Still, there remains a very good reason for many of us to feel that God's name is being taken in vain when politicians invoke it.
Lieberman has been a major figure, along with Al Gore and Bill Clinton, in pulling the Democratic Party away from its traditional role as champion of working people and the poor. He has helped reshape the party as a party of the comfortable. Lieberman has received more PAC money from insurance companies than any other senator, has championed increased defense spending, and has sought to limit liability of major corporations (and not only for frivolous lawsuits but also for those in which the ordinary citizen has no other recourse to counter corporate power).
So when Lieberman starts invoking God and religion on the campaign trail, it's reasonable for others to suspect that he's engaged in the crude use of God's name for the sake of personal ambition, a strategy that has been a frequent tactic of Republicans and the religious right.
Yet it would not be blasphemous to invoke God's name to demand that society reorder its priorities to end poverty and oppression, to dismantle its weapons and beat swords into ploughshares, or to change our notions of productivity and efficiency so they are no longer measured by how much money and power are accumulated.
Religion, or at least the strand I call emancipatory spirituality, is unequivocally on the side of a particular political agenda. The Bible makes no bones about its preferential option for the poor, the oppressed, and the "stranger." And when it tells us, "You should love the stranger," it is presenting us with a particular political agenda that is, in my view, incompatible with the actual practice of either major political party in America today.
"But," you might object again, "what will prevent others from using religious language to justify far less attractive political agendas?" And the answer is, absolutely nothing. It happens all the time--just as the language of democracy, rights, and love have equally been misused to support the opposite of what they are actually about.
In the final analysis, though, there is no avoiding this reality: What God "wants" does not take the form of orders from heaven to be imposed upon everyone but is rather a process in which our own intuitions and ways of hearing God's voice can be deepened and refined through the evolutionary work of a spiritual and ethical discourse nurtured in the public sphere.
So public discourse can help us hear God's voice more clearly, and God's voice in the public square can return politics to its central, sacred mission of healing and repairing a badly broken world. Instead of critiquing Lieberman's introduction of religion into the public sphere, we need to extend and deepen that discourse.