Conservatives can only look with bewildered amusement at the contortionsliberals are going through over Democratic vice-presidential candidate JoeLieberman's public religiosity. For conservatives, public religiosity is noproblem. It is a tenet of conservative faith, as it were, that religionought to have--and until relatively recently did have--an honored placein the public square. It is liberals who for almost a half-century have waged a relentless war onreligion in public and political life. Four decades after the abolition ofprayer in the public schools, the current crusade is the abolition of football games. (One of the more puzzling questions of our time:Shouldn't it be the religious, rather than secularists, who are offended byinvocations of the Almighty for the two-point conversion?) Zealously guarding the boundaries of the secular state, wealthy liberalsfight mightily in city after city to prevent poor black kids from gettingvouchers to attend clearly superior parochial schools. Bravely manning theramparts of the "wall" of separation, they castigate evangelicals andCatholics for "imposing" their religious views by seeking to outlawabortion. But their most full-throated criticisms are aimed at political actors--thePat Robertsons and Jerry Falwells, the Christian Coalition and indeed thetens of millions of evangelical lay folk--who invoke God in advancing andframing their political purposes.

Of course, the hypocrisy of all this is breathtaking. Liberals hadabsolutely no objections when churches and churchmen provided powerfulsupport for the civil rights movement of the '50s and '60s and the anti-warmovement of the '60s and '70s. And in the '80s, when the Catholic bishopsissued a letter on the morality of nuclear weapons, liberals eagerly--andwithout First Amendment objection--welcomed the bishops' support of theirown assault on Reagan administration nuclear policy.

At the 1984 Democratic Convention, they were moved to tearful applause whenthe Rev. Jesse Jackson declared "God is not finished with me yet." Sixteenyears later, they gave Joe Lieberman a monthlong free ride when he beganinvoking his religious views and celebrating religious faith in a mannerthat would have earned savage attack had it come from a Republicancandidate.

It was only when Lieberman invoked George Washington's famous line from hisFarewell Address locating the root of morality in religion that embarrassedFirst Amendment fundamentalists felt compelled to start complaining. Hencethe current flurry of objections from the amen corner of separationists,beginning with the Anti-Defamation League of the B'nai B'rith.

But the attack on Lieberman has been both halfhearted and limited. There isvery little incoming artillery from Lieberman's allies in the DemocraticParty. They would be apoplectic if, say, Republican vice-presidentialcandidate Dick Cheney were saying these things, but they are quite silentlydelighted to hear them from Joe Lieberman.

Not because they agree with him--I would guess many Democrats find hisOrthodox Judaism at best a curiosity--but because they realize what anextraordinary and serendipitous boon all his God talk has turned into. Imagine. For the first time in memory, it is the Democrats who are beingaccused of hyper-religiosity and excessive moralism. This, in a year whenthe whole subtext of the Republican campaign is that Democrats haveforfeited their right to the White House because of the rank corruption anddishonor this administration has brought to the office of the presidency. The more Lieberman becomes the focus of occasional criticism for waxingreligious and moral, the more blurred becomes the theme that underlies theentire Republican campaign--namely, the cleansing effect of throwing theDemocratic crowd out of office.

This is not to say Lieberman is using religion cynically. On the contrary.He has not changed his views on religion and faith and their place in thepublic square one iota. He has always believed what he is saying now. Exceptthat when he was just a senator, the ADL and others were not paying himparticular attention.

Lieberman's position on religion is not just highly principled, it is onethat conservatives and non-fanatical secularists have long found quiteadmirable. In a pluralistic country such as ours, it requires both ignoranceand prejudice to denigrate someone's views--whether on abortion or nucleararms--because they openly derive from faith or scripture.

The real cynics are Lieberman's fellow Democrats who scream from therooftops when Republicans invoke religion the way their candidate does now,but who have adopted a gleeful silence as their man wipes out the singlegreatest threat to their recapture of the presidency.