In 2000, Democratic Party presidential candidate Al Gore picked Connecticut senator Joseph Lieberman to be his running mate, making Lieberman the first Jewish American to be a major party candidate for vice president. Although Gore and Lieberman were not ultimately elected, Lieberman’s presence in the presidential race renewed perennial debates as to the proper place of religion in American life and politics.
Lieberman, a religiously observant member of the Orthodox branch of Judaism, raised the issue of religion in America in several well-publicized campaign speeches and pronouncements. In a noted speech at the University of Notre Dame, a Roman Catholic institution, he called for increasing religion’s role in the public realm. Lieberman argued that America was founded on a moral consensus that was rooted in religious values. The people who led the American Revolution and wrote the Constitution “were men of profound faith and recognized as such the necessity of religion in a free society,” he claimed. America’s founders believed that
in a democratic state with limited power, religion, while not the only source, was certainly a most powerful source of values and good behavior. The core of these original values— faith, family, and freedom, equal opportunity, respect for the basic dignity of human life, and tolerance for individual differences —clearly had their roots in the Judeo-Christian ethic of the Founders. . . . Over the years they evolved into an American civic religion—deistic, principled, purposeful, moral, public, and not least of all, inclusive—a civic religion that . . . made real the ideal of E pluribus unum, from many, one.
But America’s core values, Lieberman believes, have been muffled in contemporary times because of a growing “ambivalence” towards religious faith and its private and public roles. “We have not abandoned our individual belief in those first principles,” he noted in his Notre Dame address. “But we have grown increasingly unwilling to embrace and act on them publicly and collectively.” Because of this, “we have practically banished religious values and religious institutions from the public square and constructed a ‘discomfort zone’ for even discussing our faith in public settings.” As a result, Lieberman asserted, America is experiencing broken families, schoolyard violence, a depraved popular culture, and other disturbing social trends. “We must rebuild our moral consensus,” he concluded. “We must take our religious beliefs and values—our sense of justice, of right or wrong—into America’s cultural and communal life.”
Not everyone agreed with Lieberman’s call for a stronger public role for religion. The Anti-Defamation League (ADL), a Jewish civil rights organization, wrote an open letter to Lieberman that stated: “Appealing along religious lines, or belief in God, is contrary to the American ideal. . . . Public profession of religious beliefs should not be an elemental part of . . . any political campaign.” For the ADL and other critics, American democracy and healthy religious life are dependent on religion staying out of the public sphere. They note that when America became independent from England, the former colonies not only broke away from its government, but also from the official Church of England. Rather than create a national church of its own, America’s founders instead explicitly forbade any “religious test” for public office and included religious freedom as the first civil liberty listed in the Bill of Rights. Cultural critic Ellen Willis expresses the view shared by many who believe that religion should remain a private rather than a public matter:
I believe that a democratic polity requires a secular state: one that does not fund or otherwise sponsor religious institutions and activities. . . . Furthermore, a genuinely democratic society requires a secular ethos: one that does not equate morality with religion, stigmatize atheists, defer to religious interests and aims over others or make religious beliefs an informal qualification for public office.
A central concern raised by those who oppose a stronger public role for religion is that such a development would result in the official endorsement of a majority religion to the detriment of minority faiths. Journalist Katha Pollitt argues that “bringing religion into the public sphere in practice simply means that the biggest and best organized religion gets to use the public realm—public facilities, public money—to advance its own agenda.” Indeed, for much of America’s history, Christianity in some form has been the dominant religion in America.
However, in recent decades both immigration and changing belief patterns have greatly increased religious diversity in America, with Islam, Buddhism, and other religions and belief systems gaining many adherents. Washington Post columnist E.J. Dionne argues that Lieberman’s willingness to speak out on his religious faith, despite his status as a member of a minority religion ( Jews make up about 2 percent of the adult American population), represents a national triumph of religious diversity and toleration: “We’ve passed from a time when Protestantism provided the dominant language of public faith in our country. Now, people of other faiths can invoke their religion in a political campaign and be accepted, even praised.”
The place of religion in America’s public realm, including government programs and public schools, is one of many contentious issues examined in Religion in America: Opposing Viewpoints. Contributors provide a diversity of views on both the private religious attitudes of Americans and on the social role of religious belief in the following chapters: Is America a Religious Nation? Can Religion Solve America’s Social Problems? What Should Be Done to Accommodate Religious Freedom in America? What Role Should Religion Play in America’s Public Schools? This sampling of contemporary debates illustrates how religion is both a divisive and unifying force in American society.