Conservatives can only look with bewildered amusement at the contortions liberals are going through over Democratic vice-presidential candidate Joe Lieberman's public religiosity. For conservatives, public religiosity is no problem. It is a tenet of conservative faith, as it were, that religion ought to have--and until relatively recently did have--an honored place in the public square. It is liberals who for almost a half-century have waged a relentless war on religion in public and political life. Four decades after the abolition of prayer in the public schools, the current crusade is the abolition of prayer...at football games. (One of the more puzzling questions of our time: Shouldn't it be the religious, rather than secularists, who are offended by invocations of the Almighty for the two-point conversion?) Zealously guarding the boundaries of the secular state, wealthy liberals fight mightily in city after city to prevent poor black kids from getting vouchers to attend clearly superior parochial schools. Bravely manning the ramparts of the "wall" of separation, they castigate evangelicals and Catholics for "imposing" their religious views by seeking to outlaw abortion. But their most full-throated criticisms are aimed at political actors--the Pat Robertsons and Jerry Falwells, the Christian Coalition and indeed the tens of millions of evangelical lay folk--who invoke God in advancing and framing their political purposes.

Of course, the hypocrisy of all this is breathtaking. Liberals had absolutely no objections when churches and churchmen provided powerful support for the civil rights movement of the '50s and '60s and the anti-war movement of the '60s and '70s. And in the '80s, when the Catholic bishops issued a letter on the morality of nuclear weapons, liberals eagerly--and without First Amendment objection--welcomed the bishops' support of their own assault on Reagan administration nuclear policy.

At the 1984 Democratic Convention, they were moved to tearful applause when the Rev. Jesse Jackson declared "God is not finished with me yet." Sixteen years later, they gave Joe Lieberman a monthlong free ride when he began invoking his religious views and celebrating religious faith in a manner that would have earned savage attack had it come from a Republican candidate.

It was only when Lieberman invoked George Washington's famous line from his Farewell Address locating the root of morality in religion that embarrassed First Amendment fundamentalists felt compelled to start complaining. Hence the 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 is very little incoming artillery from Lieberman's allies in the Democratic Party. They would be apoplectic if, say, Republican vice-presidential candidate Dick Cheney were saying these things, but they are quite silently delighted to hear them from Joe Lieberman.

Not because they agree with him--I would guess many Democrats find his Orthodox Judaism at best a curiosity--but because they realize what an extraordinary and serendipitous boon all his God talk has turned into. Imagine. For the first time in memory, it is the Democrats who are being accused of hyper-religiosity and excessive moralism. This, in a year when the whole subtext of the Republican campaign is that Democrats have forfeited their right to the White House because of the rank corruption and dishonor this administration has brought to the office of the presidency. The more Lieberman becomes the focus of occasional criticism for waxing religious and moral, the more blurred becomes the theme that underlies the entire Republican campaign--namely, the cleansing effect of throwing the Democratic 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 the public square one iota. He has always believed what he is saying now. Except that when he was just a senator, the ADL and others were not paying him particular attention.

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

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

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