What’s God Got to Do with the American Experiment?
Los Angeles, California
E.J. Dionne, The Brookings Institution
Melissa Rogers, Baptist Joint Committee on Public Affairs
Cal Thomas, syndicated columnist
Jim Wallis, Sojourner’s Magazine
Steve Waldman, Beliefnet
E.J. DIONNE, JR.
Thank you all for coming. For me, this is a great reunion. An old and very dear friend of mine who teaches at USC, Ron Garet is here. We have so much expertise in the room that I think the panel should get down, and a number of you in this audience should get up here. I also want to thank my friend Jim Warren from the Chicago Tribune, the only person other than people on this panel who has attended both of these at both conventions.
I’m just going to give a brief introduction to who are we and why we are here, to paraphrase General Stockdale from that debate. I want to thank Steve Waldman of Beliefnet, which is co-sponsoring this debate, this discussion really, with the Brookings Institution. We’re talking here about our book, What’s God Got To Do With The American Experiment. Melissa and Cal and Jim all have essays in that book, and Steve assures me Beliefnet is a very, very interesting web site that has a lot of fascinating stuff on religion and public life. And Steve just told me that it was, in fact, his venture capitalist that arranged the Democratic ticket this year to increase interest in the subjects of religion and politics. So, he’ll explain, his job will be to explain how he pulled that off.
You could imagine the question posed in the title of this book as provoking two legions to mass against each other. You know, in one view, one side would declare that it’s America’s pluralistic and secular Constitution that has promoted freedom, diversity and oddly the very strength of America’s religious communities. That being independent of the state and having our Constitution has been religion and freedom’s finest friend.
In the other account, you would hear people say that freedom itself is rooted in a theistic, some would say Judeo-Christian commitment to the inviolable dignity of the human being. Our own Declaration of Independence says that this belief arises from the law of nature and nature’s God, and that a belief in God places a healthy restraint on the human tendency to deify political systems or political leaders.
Now, this argument is as old as our republic. This book won’t settle it, and we certainly won’t settle it today. But I think Alan Wolfe had it right as to why we keep arguing about this as a nation. Alan has an essay in the book. And he declares that 200 years after the brilliant writings of Madison and Jefferson on the topic, Americans cannot make up their minds whether religion is primarily private, public, or some uneasy combination of the two. And I think it’s precisely because of these ambiguities that arguments about God and religious faith are always involved in our democratic discussion.
I also think it’s worth pointing out that we Americans, almost all of us, can be quite inconsistent in our views of how and when religion should influence politics. Many who welcome the prophetic role of the churches in movements to abolish slavery, promote civil rights, and secure social justice are skeptical of applying religion’s prophetic voice to matters such as abortion, sexuality and family life. And many who welcome this second set of commitments can be just as wary of crusades rooted in a social gospel.
I think we’re at a very exciting moment in our public life where I see us in a kind of third stage in our national discussion. We began in a period where we had religious freedom, but in a country that had a predominantly Protestant ethos. In the 1960s barriers began to fall, and that predominantly Protestant ethos was challenged. John Kennedy was elected president. The civil rights movement challenged prejudice. Restrictive covenants against Jews began to fall. We became a much more tolerant and open country.
But as a result of the court decisions, many religious people began to feel that religion was being squeezed out of public life to a much greater degree than was healthy either for religious freedom or for our republic.
So, I see us in a third stage, where we are trying to preserve the gains of that second stage, while protecting the free expression of religion.
The other thing you’re seeing, obviously, in this campaign is a big discussion of Charitable Choice. Both Gore and Bush have endorsed versions of it. I’m hoping we can have a discussion today. I’m very sorry that Bill Galston from the Gore Campaign was unable to join us. Bill is one of the most articulate defenders in the Democratic Party of the Charitable Choice idea, and I was hoping he and Melissa might have a useful exchange. Melissa has a great essay in the book criticizing Charitable Choice under the wonderful title, a short title, “The Wrong Way To Do Right.” So I’m hoping we can have some back and forth on this notion.
And obviously we are having a big discussion about what kind of public expression of religion we want in our public life. Before I close and introduce the panel, I want to share Greg Easterbrook’s wonderful line from his book, Beside Still Waters, about the ambiguities we have in our attitude toward politicians who talk about religion.
Greg wrote, “if a politician or a celebrity stands up to mumble about being blessed by the Lord, and speaks in a manner unmistakably vacuous, and intended for public consumption, nobody minds. If the same person says with conviction, ‘I really believe my faith requires me to do this or that,’ that expression will be condemned as inappropriate.” So I think this uneasiness in our discussion is well captured by that.
The other line from the book that I’d like to share, because I think it can provoke so much discussion on both sides of where the author is, Pat Glynn in the book writes: “Religion does its real work in politics not by arousing moral indignation, but by awakening the individual conscience. The distinction is a subtle, but important one. A moral indignation drives us to condemn others, conscience prompts us to question ourselves.”
And so, in that spirit, no one on the panel will defend their own position. They will only question their own position.
Let me introduce the speakers in the order that they’ll be speaking. Melissa Rogers is the general counsel of the Baptist Joint Committee on Public Affairs. She was previously the associate general counsel of the Baptist Joint Committee. She worked for a DC law firm. She went to Baylor and received her law degree from the University of Pennsylvania Law School. And she’s the author of a long list of things that I won’t mention, but she’s free to quote any of them she wants.
Jim Wallis, many of you know, is an author, a preacher, and an activist. He’s editor-in-chief of Sojourner’s Magazine, which many of you know. He is also the convener of Call To Renewal, a new national federation of churches and faith-based organizations working to overcome poverty. He has also organized the day here at the Shadow Convention on Poverty.
Cal Thomas is a well-known syndicated columnist, a conservative writer. He is the author of a much discussed and acclaimed book, Blinded by Might: Can the Religious Right Save America? And he has a great essay in this book that kind of reflects on his work, and on reactions to it. Let’s see, we have three returnees from the Republican Convention, and he gave a very powerful and provocative talk there, and I’m very grateful that Cal is with us.
And finally, our co-sponsors of the event, Beliefnet. Steve Waldman, he’s the chairman and editor-in-chief of Beliefnet. He was the national editor of U.S. News and World Report. He was a senior advisor to the Corporation for National Service, and he is the author of a much acclaimed book, and I’m one of the acclaimers, I wrote a review of the book. Whenever you review a friend’s–we weren’t really friends at the time, but I became his friend after I wrote the review–it really is a great book. It’s a book about the passage of the National Service law, and it really is one of the best books we have now about how a bill becomes a law. And it’s a very exciting book. So, we’re glad that Steve is with us.
And so, without further ado, Melissa, people can feel free to speak sitting down, or speak standing up, however people are more comfortable. This is a pluralistic panel.
Thank you, E.J., and good morning. I’m glad to be here with all of you. I want to take just a few minutes to address the issue of the ways in which religious groups and the government can cooperate to provide social services. This is obviously a hot topic in the election, and we believe that there are many forms of potential fruitful cooperation between the government and religious organizations.
Let me just name a few. For example, houses of worship should consider spinning off a separate organization that would be organized under Section 501(c)(3) of the tax code, to get technical with you. These organizations that are separate from the mother church body could receive tax funds for their secular social work. Now, because the government can’t advance religion, these secular services that are tax funded should be separate and clearly independent from any religious activities that take place at that organization. And because the organizations are tax funded, they should be prepared to have to play by the rules and regulations that come along with receipt of tax funds. Many organizations are currently operating in this capacity, and many more are considering spinning off a separate organization that can receive tax funds for these purposes.
Another way in which religious organizations and the government can cooperate on social services is they can cooperate by communicating. Religious organizations and the government, I think, in the past have mistakenly not communicated about what they’re doing to serve people in need. Now, the excitement about faith-based organizations stems, I think largely, from the fact that churches are uniquely situated in their communities oftentimes. They understand their communities. They are wonderful incubators and motivators for all kinds of helpful social service projects. So folks are drawn to these organizations, and that makes sense.
The way that I think the government should interact with these houses of worship and other groups that are thoroughly religious in what they do is, for example, to share information about programs, to communicate about needs and services, to make referrals when appropriate. Churches may even choose to play a role in volunteer, government-organized, after-school programs and the like, and that can make very good sense. So this communication is a very important role.
Another way that government and religious organizations can cooperate in this realm is that the government can encourage enhanced tax incentives for charitable giving. For example, there’s the charitable giving tax Relief Act that’s currently pending that would allow non-itemizers to get credit for some of the charitable giving that they give each year. And this, in turn, would allow taxpayers to direct their money to the religious group, or the other charitable group of their choice, with no regulatory strings attached. And I think this is quite appropriate in this booming economy to look for ways in which we can make sure that this charitable giving is directed and given credit by the government.
Someone also has written in the book that E.J. edited noting that there could even be the formation of what they have called a United Way for religious outreach, that will allow a place to bring together this money that is given in a charitable sense and directed out to all of these religious groups that are doing such fine work. And, indeed, the United Way could look towards corporations and foundations to ensure that they are doing their part to aid these institutions that are working so well. They have not, corporations and foundations in the past, done enough to give to religious organizations, and the government can help in encouraging that type of giving as well.
I must say, however, as a church state lawyer and a Baptist, there is one form of cooperation between religious organizations and the government that makes me nervous, and that is largely represented by the specific legislative scheme called Charitable Choice. Now, Charitable Choice is often thought of as a general term that basically describes any kind of interaction between the government and religious organizations. That’s not the case. Charitable choice, instead, is a specific legislative scheme that first became law in the 1996 Welfare Reform Act, and it is geared specifically toward allowing churches and other groups that integrate religion into all their work to receive tax money directly. Now, Charitable Choice is, again, a hot topic because, as E.J. mentioned, both presidential candidates have endorsed it in recent speeches. But I think it’s time that we temper our enthusiasm for this with a dose of realism and reflection. And, in that vein, let me just raise three quick questions that Charitable Choice raises for me, and I think are worth considering.
The first question is, if churches and other thoroughly religious organizations are the most effective, which is what people often say, then they, it would make sense, would receive the most tax money. Given that fact, how can the government avoid either one of two undesirable outcomes. First, how can the government avoid advancing religion which, of course, is unconstitutional. If the group is a church or another group that integrates religion in all that it does, how can the government send a tax subsidized grant or contract there and not end up advancing religion? Now advancing religion perhaps in the abstract doesn’t sound so bad, but it concretely impacts Americans in that it forces taxpayers to subsidize religion, and this is something that our founders got very excited about. In fact, Charitable Choice accomplishes precisely what the founders rejected when they resisted tax-funded churches.
Also, the government, when it advances religion, has a problem. It can’t advance all religions in this country. There are too many of them. It has to pick and choose when it sends out government grants and contracts. And our government doesn’t do a very good job when it comes to picking and choosing about religions. It’s a very big mine field for the government.
On the other side of the coin, the other undesirable outcome that I’m concerned about is this: if the government faithfully tries to ensure that it is separating out sacred from secular in a church or another faith-drenched institution, how is it going to avoid becoming excessively entangled with religion?
As my chapter in the book indicates, one of the main reasons I’m concerned about Charitable Choice is because shekels come with shackles, and I’m afraid there will be regulation. That will invade the church and change what the church is and the way it works and result in really weakening religious autonomy.
A second troubling question for me, and these are just a few. I’ll get to the others later, hopefully, but let me just give you one quick note of background. Under current law, a religious organization may discriminate in hiring on the basis of religion. So, for example, a Baptist church can use its tithes and offerings to hire a Baptist minister rather than a rabbi, and that makes perfect sense. But Charitable Choice, however, takes this concept from its fairly noncontroversial context in the privately funded context and plugs it into a very controversial context, and that is tax-funding. So, under Charitable Choice, a taxpayer could be turned away from a tax-funded position because he or she isn’t the right religion, or does not hold the right religious beliefs as defined by a particular tax-funded religious provider.
So, my legal question is, is tax-funded religious discrimination constitutional? The courts are going to have to wrestle with this. But more fundamentally my question is, is tax-funded discrimination fair and right?
Finally, Charitable Choice for me creates a lingering sense of unease when I hear that essentially getting religion produces positive social outcomes, less crime, less dependency on the government, for example. But what gives religion its power is that it is a force of the soul, answering to a higher authority. It is much more than defining government dependency down. It is much more than a cog in a bureaucratic wheel. It is answering to God’s agenda, and not to the government’s. So, I worry, as we begin to talk about harnessing religion’s power for the government, that in the end it is religion itself that will be harnessed. And this is no idle fear, I think, because when churches receive tax money, I think they’ll be a lot less apt, for example, to criticize the one who is paying their bills, the government in this case.
So, it is clear that we must care for the least of these, and I think that government can join us in doing so in many instances, and cooperative arrangements. So I urge the candidates to cooperate creatively to serve those in need with religion. But I also urge them to be very careful to preserve religious liberty for all of us.
E.J. DIONNE, JR.
Thank you very much. As I said, Melissa and Bill are two of the most articulate people I know who agree broadly on an awful lot of things, and have differences on this.
We’ve got a couple of people in the audience, Steve Monsma is one, and Father Joe Hacala, who is an advisor to Secretary Cuomo at HUD, whom I suspect share some views with Melissa, and disagree with her in some areas. I want to encourage you folks to join the conversation. And I’m also glad we’re in the spirit of the convention because of that word scheme, I like that.
Thank you very much.
Good morning, everyone, and thank you, E.J., for convening us, and for raising these issues as you do so well in the national media better than anybody else in my view. So, thank you for convening this.
We’ve had so many venues–we’ve been talking about this in Philadelphia and LA–it’s obviously a hot question. So, let me just make a couple of comments that may hopefully spark some more conversation. I did tell a story in Philadelphia that is a favorite of mine that does, I think, fit here again. My wife is an Anglican priest, and when preachers marry other preachers, it’s a great deal because they get a lot of new stories, and preachers always need new stories. So this is her story.
A colleague was nervous about his first Sunday school class. He was going to be a priest. And he wanted the kids to like him, and so he was being very hip, and casual, and cool, and they were sitting there, and he said, okay, kids, what’s gray and furry and gathers nuts and climbs up and down trees? The kids looked puzzled, and a little boy raises his hand and he calls on him. And the kid is struggling with his answer. He says, I know the answer is supposed to be Jesus, but it sure sounds like a squirrel to me. There are no easy religious answers to hard questions.
And I like to begin sometimes with that when we talk about this question, what the role of the FBOs, we’ve become an acronym now, we are no longer churches, we are FBOs, faith-based organizations. It’s a dangerous thing when you become an acronym, but we are. What is the role, what is the approach going to be a very important question, what will shape it? I don’t know what the outcome is, but I’ve heard rumors the Democrats are downplaying the role of FBOs in the platform conversations. If that proves to be true, I would like to suggest it’s a very big mistake. It’s a very big mistake to ignore the emerging role of faith-based organizations. And I would suggest that on the liberal left-side, there is still this fear of religion and spirituality.
And I teach a course part-time up at Harvard called Faith, Politics and Society at the Kennedy School. And I was up there one night and had a conversation with a number of very smart, sort of Harvard-liberal, left, progressive Democrats, all of whose names you would know, so I won’t mention who they were. But I gave a talk on religion and public life, and the first question was this from a very smart person whom you all would know. He said: Jim, what about the Inquisition?
And I said: Well, I was against it at the time. And I’m still opposed to it. Now, if you don’t want me to raise Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge every time you talk about national health insurance, why don’t we move on to a serious conversation.
As incredible as that question is, I still find a lot of that in very sophisticated circles, and I hope the Democratic Party doesn’t listen to that kind of nervous, fearful voice about religion.
What will the role be? Well, there are choices out there. I want to suggest that Marvin Olasky, whose voice is being heard in the Republican Party on these questions, has a very different voice from Stephen Goldsmith, who was on this panel in Philadelphia, the former Mayor of Indianapolis. Now, will Olasky or Goldsmith finally have the decisive voice in a Bush administration, if there is one? That is a very important question. They have very different approaches. Olasky’s view is, you devolve social policy from the federal to the state and the local, then remove it altogether from the public sphere and have it be done by churches and charities. Now he says he doesn’t quite believe that because, of course, he wants to be a player, but he does believe that, in my view. His books talk about that, that is his view. Steve Goldsmith is talking about a partnership, and he’s done that, I think, in a brilliant way in Indianapolis, where everyone, I would say, does their share, everyone does what they do best. There is a positive role of governance here in partnership with faith-based. I think how that turns out is going to be a very fascinating question.
On the Democratic side, will the ACLU and those people who want to downplay this issue win, or will Andrew Cuomo, and what Joe Hacala is doing, forming partnership with faith-based organizations in a very significant new way in the Democratic Party, will that hold sway? I think that’s a critical issue.
Secondly, this whole question about Lieberman. I read a column this week about Lieberman and I think it is a significant thing, not just because he’s Jewish, but because he’s so devout about his faith, and the fact that I think he is a cultural conservative, but yet he has a 100 percent voting record with the Children’s Defense Fund. That’s interesting. You have a Democrat who is willing to challenge Bill Clinton on his personal morality as a public issue, even says that public officials should be held to a higher standard, imagine that as a point of view–or that it’s not quite true that it doesn’t matter what your personal life and morality is. As long as your policies are good, that’s all we care about. That’s been the Democratic view. He challenged that, which I’m very supportive of. And then he challenges Hollywood and all the sleaze in Hollywood and yet he has a voting record with CDF that is 100 percent.
Now, I think it’s interesting that the faith based question could open up new political conversation in this country. We have a straight jacketed series of options. We have liberal on everything–personal issues, family issues, cultural issues, social policy, economics, and race. Then we have conservative on everything–same set of issues. Then we have a new option, which is Libertarian, which is fiscally conservative but liberal on all the social questions. Yet, there is an unarticulated option that I think Lieberman imperfectly, albeit, represents, which is cultural conservative on personal, family, moral issues, and yet a progressive social voting record, at least as far as CDF is concerned. That is an interesting political option, and one that I think conflicts with both political orthodoxies.
I live in a neighborhood where there are 80 percent single parent families. You cannot overcome poverty unless you deal with family breakdown, unless you deal with the re-weaving of the web that holds families together and helps kids not to fall through the cracks. Now, conservatives are right in saying that marriage is an anti-poverty measure. All the data shows that. The liberals are right in saying there are structural policy issues. The Bible talks about kings and rulers, and princes, and landlords and judges behind held responsible. Those families in my neighborhood, good family values or not, have to have a living family income. They have to be able to have policies that allow them to buy their own home. There are structural issues and there are cultural issues. The faith based question could help us to break through these old debates in some new kinds of ways.
Finally, I think this is why I like Cal Thomas’ book so much, I recommend it to all of you–Blinded By Might–which is not a book that tells us to withdraw from politics, even though people say that’s what he’s saying. He’s asking how to influence politics, how religion best impacts the issues we care about. Is it by taking over political power, or by changing the context, the climate of the political debate. And the metaphor I always use is simply this, that in an election year especially we have these politicians with what I call the wet fingered politicians syndrome. They get it by doing this all the time, licking their finger and putting it up in the air, seeing which way the wind is blowing.
And we think that by replacing one wet fingered politician with another that you can change the country, but you can’t–never have, never will. You can’t change a country by replacing one wet fingered politician with another one with a wet finger, you change a country by changing the wind. Change the wind and the politicians will quickly conform. Our job is a morally independent political movement, spiritual movement, trying to change the wind.
Now, in the middle of–I’ve been saying all week, and I’ll close with this–the most unanswered, the most critical, central, moral question in American politics is what is this prosperity for. One in five kids is still poor in the face of unprecedented prosperity. That means our moral underpinnings are in total disarray, one of three children of color. Now, until that issue becomes a hot topic of conversation, not at shadow conventions, but at real conventions, then the church will have had its impact on this political culture. That’s going to be the question, not photo-ops at the White House, not who is now on the inside of the White House, whoever wins, but whether we see concrete reductions in child poverty, for example. That’s what religious people ought to be, in fact, insisting on.
Thank you very much.
E.J. DIONNE, JR.
Jim reminds me of a wonderful line from CS Lewis, where he was talking about the relationship between Christianity and politics, and he said most of us are not really approaching the subject in order to find out what Christianity says, we are approaching it in the hope of finding support from Christianity for the views of our own party. And it’s a lot to reflect on. In some ways it feeds right into what Cal wanted to talk about.
Thanks, E.J. This has nothing to do with this morning’s topic, but since it was on my mind and I already wrote about it, anybody find it rather curious that the Democrats picked Harold Hill character to follow Clinton’s speech last night, the slick Willy of River City, Iowa, who can deal with his troubled friend with the wave of my hand, this very hand? That’s great.
E.J. DIONNE, JR.
He turned out to be a good guy.
After his conversion, yes. But, we didn’t get to that last night, he was trying to sell trombones to the people of River City to keep their kids out of the pool hall, with a capital T, and that rhymes with P, and that stands for pool. As you can tell, I’m a frustrated entertainer.
Well, I’d like to share a little column I wrote that appeared in most of my papers, with the exception of the LA Times, for a continued censorship exists over there, on Sunday that is relevant to what I want to address briefly today. I called it “My God Can Beat Up Your God.”
The Gore campaign is keeping an early promise, one an aid made that the Democrats were not going to allow Republicans to steal “the God vote” in the upcoming presidential election. Thirteen times last Tuesday in Nashville God’s name was invoked by Vice President Gore once, and his running mate, Senator Lieberman twelve times. Some of the same commentators who were aghast when Governor Bush in response to a question during the primaries said the greatest philosophical influence in his life was Jesus Christ were strangely silent, or unconcerned, by Lieberman’s invocation of Jehovah.
The reason has nothing to do with God and everything to do with politics. Liberals, including those at the major networks, approve of the policies of Gore-Lieberman, and for all they care the two can worship trees, which I’ve noticed some liberals do, especially in California. If it takes a favorable mention of God to advance the Democratic agenda, that’s fine with them. But, when a Republican speaks well of the king who said his kingdom is not of this world, that’s another story, because liberal Democrats oppose most of the Republican agenda.
The Washington Post, a newspaper I read every day, along with my Bible so I know what each side is doing, rarely overreacts when religious liberals baptize political discourse, and politicians, but has suddenly become concerned that God is getting too much attention in this election season. In a Wednesday editorial last week, the paper warned against “a bidding war on religion, in which the question becomes which side is more devout”. Well, all politicians, of course, whatever label or brand, like to claim or think that God is more favorably disposed to their policies to those of their opponent. Lincoln may have had the best idea about this when he said he wasn’t so much concerned if God was on his as whether he was on God’s side.
Democrats have only recently plunged into the religious quagmire. In both the ’92 and ’96 elections Bill Clinton and Al Gore sometimes misquoted the Bible, but few journalists called them on it, preferring to critique Dan Quayle’s spelling skills and Pat Buchanan’s mean-spirited culture war. President Clinton once told a group of black pastors in Maryland it was “the will of God” that his crime bill be passed by Congress. He did not say whether God was amenable to any amendments. Reverend Jesse Jackson has often invoked religiosity to make political points. In trying to get more government money for the homeless Jackson has claimed that the Virgin Mary and Joseph were without a place to live, which isn’t true. During the Monica Lewinsky scandal Jackson engaged in spiritual damage control, when he delightfully mixed metaphors saying of President Clinton’s extramarital wanderings that adultery is “only one string on the guitar, there are nine other commandments”.
Republicans, of course, are guilty of the same use and abuse of God. Commenting on the Democrat’s 1992 platform President Bush said, “they left out three simple letters, G-O-D”. And President Bush once cited his “favorite Bible verse” to a group of religious broadcasters saying it is John 16:3, he meant John 3:16, but it was clear to some who heard him that he seemed to be attempting to gain favor from Evangelical Christians by tossing them a religious bone. One of Bush’s more famous trespasses on religion came when he reminisced in an interview about being shot down in World War II. “I thought about mother and dad and the strength I got from them, and God, and faith,” and then he quickly added, lest any ACLU lawyer be offended, “and of course the separation of church and state.” Imagine at 20 years old parachuting into the water you’re thinking about these things.
Now, if a candidate speaks of God and Jesus changing or directing their lives that certainly is one thing, and perfectly appropriate. But, if they seek to enlist the creator as a campaign surrogate, that’s something that should be avoided. When one falls into such temptation one brings God down into human level, and aligns him with temporal things which are passing away. Better to allow God to instruct us directly, not through politicians who might properly be suspected of having an agenda. Didn’t God warn us that “my ways are not your ways”? Even less may his ways resemble those of earthly princes and kings.
Now, E.J. asked me to comment a little bit on the selection of Senator Lieberman, who I’m happy to say that I know and I’ve been on Nightline with . He is a decent family man, has a lot of the trappings that have already been mentioned here that are very appealing to cultural conservatives in both parties. But, I do think the voting record is important.
What do I think of this? Well, I think that Vice President Gore needed a moral covering, and that is a primary reason why he picked Senator Lieberman, so that the Republicans wouldn’t have the God conversation to themselves. Now, if Senator Lieberman is able to keep to his agenda, and his philosophy and his beliefs–even independent of some of Vice President Gore’s–then I would say that he certainly adds something significant to the ticket that certain cultural conservatives might wish to consider as they consider the entire package of what the Gore-Lieberman ticket is offering.
However, I suspect the same thing is going to happen as happens when anybody who is perceived as being religious becomes a layer at this level of presidential politics–that he will quickly conform, or transform, or reform his positions, not only on cultural issues, but also on political ones like school choice, on privatization, at least partial privatization of Social Security, to be more in line with Vice President Gore–which is what you do. That is just what you do when you are the number two.
Then of course we have the Hollywood problem. We had Tipper Gore and Susan Baker with that marvelous Parent’s Music Resource Center, but when now Vice President Gore, then Senator Gore, wanted to run for President in 1988 he quickly abandoned that, because he needed the Hollywood money. Now, Senator Lieberman is out here, it may be today, with Bill Bennett, who has said that he would personally nominate him–wouldn’t that be an interesting sight–if he were allowed to do so at this convention. But, the question becomes, will Senator Lieberman, with the great concern of the Hollywood community that has all this money and dumped a bunch of it on Bill Clinton’s library and Hillary’s campaign, (I don’t know if they have any left or not, before the President and Ms. Clinton left town, or I guess they’ve left town), whether this will continue to be a front burner issue for him? I tend to doubt it.
I think it’s a very smart move by Vice President Gore to align himself, again, not just because he’s Jewish, but he has demonstrated a seriousness about his faith in the way he practices it. But, the point is we’re not electing a rabbi any more than we’re electing an Evangelical. We’re electing them because of their policies. So I would just–as some of you may know, I was for five years in my little sabbatical, a vice president for communications of Moral Majority–I’ve seen a lot of the corrupting influence of politics from the inside, the corners that were cut in fund raising, the refusal to speak truth to power, the refusal to hold accountable President Reagan, for example, because we wanted the access, and access becomes supreme to a politician. If you don’t have the access you can’t send out the fund raising letters saying, “we’re having an influence,” and therefore people won’t send you the money, because why should they send money to people who are not having the influence?
So you don’t criticize the leader, because you want to maintain the access and be perceived by your supporters as being a player. So the real enemy, I’ve tried to tell Norman Lear this, of this too close association between church and state, the real damage is not to the state, as the liberal fund raising letters send out, send us $25 or else Falwell and Helms are going to police your bedroom, and the other side is saying, no, send us $25 or Ted Kennedy will drive your daughter to school over a bridge, it’s unbelievable. It’s ridiculous, but you compromise your basic religious principles with a too close association with the kingdoms of this world, and you become just another special interest group in the hands of the Republican Party, or the Democrat Party, and you forfeit your primary witness. And that has always and remains the great danger.
E.J. DIONNE, JR.
Before I call on Steve I want to tell you that Cal was just as provocative at the Republican Convention, that’s why we’re glad he’s here. And I can’t resist saying that that Washington Post editorial actually disproves the thesis, because the so-called liberal press didn’t avoid criticizing Lieberman, and only criticize Bush. I actually found that editorial, which I had nothing to do with, very interesting for almost precisely the opposite point. But, we can talk about that if anybody wants to.
Steve Waldman, who is here–one of the many helpful things Steve can do for us today is to reflect on what has been going on on his web site in the last week or so on this subject, because there are some very interesting things going on on Beliefnet this week.
The reason I claim that we or our venture capitalists had something to do with the selection of Lieberman is that it’s had a very positive effect on the traffic to our site. We had in the five hours after the announcement, or actually the five hours after we put up our package at 7:00 p.m. that day, a ten-fold increase in traffic. And I think about 90,000 unique visitors during the 5 hour period came to the site. There was obviously a lot of interest in the Lieberman selection.
And one of the things that E.J. asked me to talk about is what happened on our message board. We are very proud of the content we have on our site, of the columnists and writers that we have there, but at our heart we’re a community site, where the message boards and dialogues and things like that are really what bring people back to the site. So people were flooding our message boards to talk about the Lieberman selection. And we were very proud that there was a lot of attention given in the aftermath of that to the really sort of high level of anti-semitic comments that were coming on a lot of message boards throughout the Internet. And we were very proud of the fact that we had relatively little of that, and that our anti-Semites were very articulate. So that’s our new motto, the most articulate anti-Semites on the web.
But, nonetheless, first just a cautionary note about what you can’t conclude from message boards. Message boards are a little bit like thinking you have a sense of the pulse of America by listening to the people who call into talk radio shows. It tends to be people who are more exercised about something on different sides of it, so it’s not an accurate overall measure of things. But, what you can get is the flesh and bones and the nuance on what people are really thinking.
So we started to see that mostly the reaction was very positive, among liberals and conservatives. I think our audience at this point probably tilts more conservative than liberal. And the reaction that you tended to get were basically Democrats were very excited about it, and conservatives were also very complimentary of the selection, and then usually would pivot off to, “but Gore is still at the top of the ticket,” or “but Lieberman will be corrupted,” or any number of things. But, the basic choice was pretty positive.
To the extent that there was negative–and I do want to talk about it, because I don’t want to give the impression that this was the dominant strain on our boards or anywhere else, but I also do think that the polls understate what the anxiety is about Lieberman–I think we’re going to have to from now on look at polls in a different way than before the Lieberman selection, because I think there’s a little bit of that effect that you saw with black candidates where the black candidate was 10 points ahead right up until the election, and then suddenly would lose, or it would be a very close race. I could be wrong about that, but I think it’s just a wildcard that we don’t know.
Here’s an interesting comment from one user. “The reason I support Lieberman and I’m excited about it is that Lieberman seems to be a righteousness seeker.” That seems to be a common attitude among more conservative people, that whether he’s Jewish or not, they like the idea that he’s religious. The next line in that was, “fake Christians and Jews in Hollywood give this country a bad name around the world. And he’s not one of those.
“It’s a shame that so many people feel that the far right would be against the Jews. As a right winger, due to my knowledge of the Bible, and a belief in a Jewish carpenter, I know that I am required to pray for the peace of Jerusalem, and that the time of the gentiles will come to an end, possibly soon.”
This I read as a representative of a small, but significant strain of more fundamentalist thinking that actually has a very strong allegiance to Judaism for Biblical reasons. And I don’t know what the overall numbers are, but that is a strain out there and the reaction.
A number of people, mostly Jews, were worried–the most anxiety that we received on the site and in my family were from Jews. Most of the people who thought this was going to be a bad thing, or that something bad was going to come out of it, were Jews who were afraid of the spotlight being shined on Jews, and there was a bit of a generational split there. Most younger Jews did not feel the way a lot of older Jews that I talked to did. One representation of that is “the scapegoat excuse is inevitable for a loss in November. People will say the American people just aren’t ready for a Jew in the White House. It was a bold move–this is actually a cynical interpretation of Gore. It was a bold move on our part, the Democrat’s part, but it cost us the election.” So in other words, a prediction that the Democrats if they lose will scapegoat Lieberman, or will scapegoat Jews.
Okay. Now, this is probably one of the more antisemitic ones, but I’ll read it for a reason. “I will not vote for a Jewish vice president, because as a whole Jews have not been accountable for the actions and works of their own peoples. From all stats it appears that a handful of Jewish leaders are responsible for more death than any other group. I present to you Karl Marx, Trotsky, Jacob Schiff, just to name a tiny few. I am very concerned about the U.S. becoming communist or some version thereof. Until Jews can ask for forgiveness and prove that they look out for the best interest of all people, not just their chosen trophies, I would not feel comfortable voting for a Jewish VP.” And the reason I read this is this is signed Cal.
I was just kidding, I knew that.
E.J. DIONNE, JR.
If I could interrupt for just a second, there was a senator who used to get a lot of crank mail, a lot of angry letters from constituents, and he would always write back, Dear Mr. So-and-so, someone is writing me foolish letters and signing your name to them. I thought you’d like to know. He lost the next election for his candor.
This is an interesting perspective that is not often represented in the debate. At first I thought it was a terrific choice, but I mistakenly assumed that Lieberman was a liberal Jew and classy, the way I thought Jews are. The stereotypes often cut in many unpredictable ways, for not talking the God talk in their public life. In other words, this person liked that about Jews, that they didn’t talk God talk in their public life. But, upon doing all the reading I can, and having listened to the press conference when he was introduced, I now realize he is a good candidate for the religious right. I believe he truly does want to bring religion into the public square, where of course the effect is to thumb noses at citizens who happen to be non-theists, and know an insult when it happens. This person says he is not going to vote for Ralph Nader.
And then a very common one that we also got was simply, “I’m dismayed that some of us wish to make fools of ourselves over the Democratic vice presidential candidate’s Judaism. Let’s keep religion out of politics, folks, it has no business in it.” Which is interesting on a web site devoted to religion and spirituality that you would have people–these are people who are obviously very interested in religion, and nonetheless quite nervous and maybe for some of the reasons that Melissa talked about.
So again, these are not representative of the country as a whole, or even necessarily the totality of the board. But, I wanted to just give you sort of a flavor of some of what’s out there. I think that to the extent there is an anti-semitic–it’s almost too strong a word–but a discomfort, with his Judaism that it’s going to take two forms, or you will hear about it in two forms. One has to do with Israel, and whether or not he would be too reflexively pro-Israel, and we did pick up a few instances of that on the boards, and we’re starting to hear that. The other, and this is a fascinating one that I’m just starting to hear, it wasn’t in the first couple of days, but now we’re starting to hear, is he’s not a real orthodox Jew because he’s willing to make amendments on the Sabbath and things like that. There is now going to be a critique of Lieberman as not really an orthodox Jew, which is a very fascinating one to respond to.
Let me just–I wanted to close by talking about a couple of dangers of this God talk in this campaign, and then finally what I think the kind of key for Lieberman and Gore’s success in going forward is. The one obvious thing is that if you hold yourself up as Mr. Morality, as Lieberman has, and Gore has, you’re setting yourself up for charges of hypocrisy. And no one can live a life like that. I have no knowledge of anything, but I’m sure there are things in Joe Lieberman’s life that don’t live up to the absolute pillar of rectitude that he is now being portrayed as, and the more he casts himself as Mr. Morality the more either Republicans or the press will feel that it’s fair game to talk about what happened in his first marriage, or something like that.
Second, I think you’re starting to get a sense of whether or not the more you talk about God the less people believe you. This is a tricky thing, because it’s clearly not true for everyone. Sometimes for a lot of people you can’t talk about it enough. Because it’s central to the way you lead your life, you want to see that it’s central to the way your candidate leads his life, and in his thoughts, and in his position papers, and his speeches as much as possible. But, for other people there is a real sense, as you know, among people who are very devout, who nonetheless view religion as a personal thing, and come to distrust. It’s almost like printing money, you know, the more you print of it the less valuable it becomes. And there’s a certain sense that maybe the more it is talked about the more it will cheapen God talk.
And finally I guess I would say that I think the key to Lieberman’s impact, and whether he will have a positive impact on the ticket and the campaign is not that he’s Jewish, but that he’s prudish. And this relates partially to what Cal was saying, because I think that the key issue for the Democrats in terms of reclaiming the morality issue is the pollution of pop culture. It’s sex and violence on TV and movies, and on the Internet, and Lieberman is in a very strong position to lead the attack on that, and Gore is in a pretty good position, too. Tipper had been strong on that before. As you mentioned, Gore dropped it. And it’s going to be a fascinating situation, because you have–this is one of those rare delicious situations where I would say what is in the best interest politically of the party, and I think probably for the country, too, is diametrically at odds with the interests of a primary contributor.
It’s really, yes, the Democrats are in the pocket of the trial lawyers, but they kind of go that way anyway. Yes, they’re in the pockets of the labor unions, but that’s their inclination anyway. Here’s one where what the Democrats really ought to do, politically, is just bash the hell out of Hollywood. And at the same time, here we are in Hollywood with them soaking up zillions of dollars in campaign contributions. And I think one of the things I’m going to look at on Wednesday–nd I think it’s going to be one of the most fascinating things about Lieberman’s speech–is how hard does he hit Hollywood. If he hits them hard, I think that’s a very good sign for the Democrats, because I think it’s a winning issue for them.