WASHINGTON, Aug. 30 (AP)--Joseph Lieberman's upfront expressions of religious faith are making some constitutional activists and religious scholars nervous. "Parading piety," one calls his words. But Al Gore's running mate is also drawing interest from an unlikely source --religious conservatives who have struggled through enduring ridicule to inject God into politics and now welcome the Democrat to the fight. More now than just a way of introducing himself to the nation, Lieberman's invocations of God are threaded through his campaign, and he's making no apologies. "I'm going to keep on doing what I'm doing because it's the American way," he said Tuesday. "He's pushing it too far," said Martin E. Marty, emeritus professor at the University of Chicago and a scholar who was initially upbeat when Lieberman began talking about his Jewish values in the campaign. Now Marty sees Lieberman "parading piety." Even so, he says Lieberman is lending legitimacy to the right's decades-long campaign to place religious values at the core of politics--a point precisely echoed by a leader of that effort. "While some Republicans dislike the Lieberman selection intently--it endangers their victory--for those who want to advance the cultural issues, this selection is a home run," said Paul M. Weyrich, president of the conservative Free Congress Foundation. "It validates cultural questions as the centerpiece of the national political debate." Phyllis Schlafly, a figure from the early days of the Christian conservative
movement and still an influential activist, said she in some sense welcomes what Lieberman is doing even though he is at odds with her side on abortion, gay rights and more. "There's an element in this country that treats religious people like smokers,'' she said--"'You can go down the dark alley and hide in the doorway and have your cigarette, but for heaven's sake don't be around the rest of us.'" But she added, "It's clearly a double standard" for people to attack the right while not calling Lieberman to account. So far the toughest response has come from the Anti-Defamation League, whose chairman and director joined in a statement saying an emphasis on religion is "inappropriate and even unsettling" in this religiously diverse society. The league fights anti-Semitism. Gore said Lieberman "believes, as I do, in separation of church and state. I believe in what he's saying. He's a man of great faith and I knew that when I selected him." Religious conservatives were not extending a wholehearted welcome to Lieberman. Weyrich said he should have to explain how he squares his support for abortion rights with his religious values. And Schlafly attributed Lieberman's conduct to a political calculation by the Gore campaign that religion sells and helps insulate Gore from President Clinton's moral failings. Gore spokesman Mark Fabiani said Lieberman is speaking as his own man and laughed at any notion that his words arise from some campaign strategy.
"We're not that organized," Fabiani said. John C. Green, a political scientist at the University of Akron, says religion and politics have become increasingly intermixed. "For most Americans," he said, Lieberman's religious discourse "is in their comfort zone." But he added: "It's one of those things that should be stamped, 'Handle with Care.'" Lieberman pitched a Medicare prescription drug plan as something that serves the spirit of the Fifth Commandment, which demands that mothers and fathers be honored. Celebrating the Clinton-Gore administration's accomplishments, he said it was as if "the Red Sea finally parted and more Americans than ever before walked through behind President Clinton and Vice President Al Gore." Comments like those troubled Green. "It's potentially dangerous,'' he said. "It connects, by rhetoric and symbol, God's will with a particular policy prescription." Green's book, "The Diminishing Divide," written with three other authors attached to the Pew Research Center, points to polls indicating that public acceptance of religion in politics has grown since the 1960s. "Lieberman's argument that religious voices have a very important role to play in political debate is something that many Americans will find quite plausible," Green said. What's unusual is for a Democrat to be presenting that argument, he said. Green and Marty agree that Lieberman is being judged differently than religious conservatives but said a double standard is in some ways understandable: Christian conservatives outnumber Jews and seek more profound changes in government than Lieberman has advocated. Lieberman has used some of the language more identified with conservative evangelicals, including his contention that the Constitution does not demand "freedom from religion," but only freedom "of" religion. "This has gone way beyond what is appropriate for the political season," said Barry Lynn, head of Americans United for Separation of Church and State.

"Your ability to understand Scripture may be appropriate in Iran," he said, "but it sure is not appropriate here."

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