Senator Joseph Lieberman, former vice-presidential candidate, told an audience at BYU Tuesday that we are now at the start of a presidential campaign in which discussions and debates about the proper place of faith in the public square are being widely discussed. These are very old discussions, and important, because we are a nation defined not so much by our borders as by our values with a key value the belief shared by most Americans that there is a God.
“The truth is,” said Sen. Lieberman, the founding of America “is a faith-based initiative and anybody who tries to separate faith from America’s public square is doing something unnatural and ultimately bad for our country.” The United States was formed “in order to secure those rights” which are the inalienable endowment of our Creator.
“Our founders were all men of a particular Christian disposition, mainly Protestant and so you have to give them extraordinary credit that when it came to religion, the remarkable documents they wrote and embraced guaranteed religious freedom for everyone, not just people who shared their faith, and prohibited the establishment of an official religion–though they might have been tempted to do that.”
He continued, “The First Amendment that prohibits the establishment of an official religion ensures for every American the right to worship–or not to worship–as he or she chooses. It delighted me one day that one of the rights of liberty that the Creator has endowed us with is the right not to believe in the Creator. It is not a right that many Americans exercise, but it is a measure of the breadth and vision of the founders that it is so.
“In Article 6 of the Constitution of the United States, the Founders did something else quite specific to guarantee this vision. They protected every American from religious discrimination in politics by prohibiting what they called ‘religious tests’ for public office. The truth is in many of the original colonies of the United States, there were laws saying that you had to be of a particular Christian denomination to run for public office, but the Founders wanted to rise above that. Quite remarkably, succeeding generations have been inspired by this founding vision and endeavored to make real its promise–the promise of what I call freedom of religion, not freedom from religion.
“Our unique constitutional history which I have just described created in turn a unique American public square in which there is no establishment of one religion, freedom of all religion, but there is the presence of religion in our public life.
“The greatest laws that are written, including our constitution, are the ones that are so broadly accepted by the people of a nation as ours that they become not just laws that they feel compelled to follow because they are in the law, but they become part of the fiber of the nation, they become part of our national system of ethics.
“Alexis de Tocqueville, the famous French student of America noted the remarkable religiosity of Americans in his definitive account of the United States written in the 19th century. He wrote that there is no country he had every seen where religion retains greater influence over the souls of men than in America and added there can be no greater proof of its utility and its conformity to human nature than that it’s influence is powerfully felt over the most enlightened and free nation on earth.”
“I saw a public opinion poll that over 90% of Americans say that they believe in God. I am always encouraged to see how far ahead of politicians God is running in those polls.
“The majority of Americans say that they regularly attend a house of worship. De Tocqueville also observed that though Americans were divided into many religious sects, as he called them, they all look upon their religion ‘in the same light.’ He recognized that though Americans follow many different belief systems, there are universal values that unite us all.”
Sen. Lieberman said, “President Lincoln called this America’s political religion and the poet Walt Whitman praised ‘a sublime and serious religious democracy in America.’ In history this sublime and serious combination of religion and democracy has overall been a force for great good. Some of the most important movements of conscience in history emerged from the convictions of religious people and used the language and liturgy of faith to build popular support.” Sen. Lieberman said this included the abolitionist movement, the suffragist movement and more recently the civil rights movement.
Sen. Lieberman noted that “It was that same spirit that I was personally able to witness when I was a college student in the 60s and participated in the Civil Rights movement led by a religious figure Dr. Martin Luther King who invoked America’s political religion as Lincoln called it in advancing that noble cause. I was inspired to join that movement because of the values it represented which were deeply rooted in my own faith and religious history–the values of equality, of service, of tolerance and of respect for law.
“It was also while I was at college that another important barrier in America was broken. In the fall of my freshman year a Roman Catholic, John F. Kennedy, was elected to the presidency of the United States for the first time in American history. I will tell you as a young Jewish American, not thinking of a political career at age 18, when he won I had some sense that doors had opened for me, that somehow a horizon had expanded for me and for others who were from faiths that were not the majority.”
“I didn’t know how or where that might happen, but I felt inspired and empowered by Kennedy’s election. At that point I certainly wasn’t dreaming yet of being a senator and I never could have imagined what happened to me in 2000. In 2000, then vice-president Gore gave me the privilege of being the first Jewish-American nominated for office when he asked me to be his vice-presidential running mate. In that year I personally experienced so much of what I have described up until now–the American people’s generosity of spirit, of fairness, and acceptance of religious diversity.
“The Reverend Jesse Jackson said on the day that I was nominated, ‘In America, when a barrier is broken for one group, the doors of opportunity open wider for every other American.’ I felt that shared sense of progress throughout the campaign. I also felt freer than Kennedy did to talk about religion and the central role of faith in my life.
Sen. Lieberman said ultimately his ticket with Al Gore was judged definitely not on the basis of his religion but on the quality of their experience and their ideas.
“In this election cycle, faith and politics have again become a source of some controversy…A candidate doesn’t give up their freedom of religion or freedom of expression when they decide to run for office. They have the right, if they choose, to talk about the role that faith plays in their life, understanding that other voters have the right to decide based on those expressions whether that affects their view of those candidates.
I will tell you personally that I always welcome the opportunity to hear about a candidate’s faith and what it means to them because I think it helps me understand them as people better.”
Now, said Sen. Lieberman, with two presidential candidates, being LDS, Gov. Romney and Gov. Huntsman, “Americans are going to be challenged again to be true to our founding principles of equality of opportunity and the clear prohibition in the Constitution Article 6 of a religious test being applied for public office, In 1960 when Kennedy was running for office, there was still significant anti-Catholic prejudice in America. On the eve of the vote he spoke about this and his words remain quite relevant today, but I think this time more relevant to Governor Romney and Gov. Huntsman, at least based on what I think are the prejudiced things that have been said about their faith and its relevance to this campaign.
“President Kennedy said in the 1960 campaign, ‘If this election is decided on the basis that 40 million Americans who happen to be Catholic lost their chance of being president on the day they were baptized, then it is the whole nation that will be the loser in the eyes of Catholics and non-Catholics around the world, in the eyes of history and in the eyes of our own people.’ And of course, the same will be true if the people judge Gov. Romney or Gov. Huntsman based on their Mormon faith and not on their personal qualities and their ideals and ideas for office.
“Just as Americans rose above their prejudices or their discomfort at the differences with Kennedy’s Roman Catholic faith in 1960, and 16 years later when Jimmy Carter’s Christian evangelical faith was different, and again in 2000 when my Jewish faith was different, so too must Gov. Romney be judged not on the basis of his faith, which may be different to many, but on his personal qualities, his leadership, his experience and his ideas for America’s future.
“My personal experience in 2000 gives me great confidence that the voters will again reject any sectarian, religious test and show their strong character, their instinctive fairness and their steadfast belief in the ideals of the declaration and the constitution, and when they do, another barrier may well be broken for another group in America and the doors of opportunity will thereby open wider for every American.
“Let me conclude by saying just one more way in which faith in the public square is profoundly important not just to the current campaign, but to this current difficult time in American life, when millions of Americans cant find work, when millions of other Americans who have work are worried whether they will still have their jobs next year, when a shocking number of Americans have lost the characteristic American optimism in America’s future, when all too many Americans, an overwhelming majority, unfortunately for reasons that are understandable have lost confidence in our government and many both here and home and among our enemies in the world believe that America has begun an irreversible decline.
“In my opinion, this pessimism is absolutely unjustified, unjustified by fact or history. I believe this 21st century will be another great century for America but to make it so we have to regain confidence in ourselves. One of the big reasons for my optimism are those numbers I cited earlier–more than 90% of the American people believe in God and more than half of American say they regularly attend houses of worship…
“It is important because faith generally leads to hope and members of the LDS Church that I’ve known show every day in their lives, the combination of faith which leads to hope, and good values and hard work produces amazingly great results.
“Faith in God, love of country, a sense of unity and confidence in the power of every individual–these are the things that have carried the American people through crises greater than the ones we face today, and will, I am sure, propel us forward to a better place if only we will return to those values and recognize them as a source of national strength.
“I hope the presence of faith in the public square will let us do that. The greatest source of America’s strength and hope for the future is not in the current divisive and rigid politics of Washington. It is in the broadly shared faith and values of the American people and the reasons for unity and inspiration to serve as so many of us find in the varied houses of worship we attend in this country.
“We need America’s faith and values to be brought to Washington. We come to Congress, and to the White House, to the administration generally as people of faith, and yet it seems to me that when we get there we don’t act as though those principles guide our lives.
“I will say to you here in this great center for a long, long time now Brigham Young University has produced graduates who have understood all this and spread progress and growth throughout our country and indeed the world. And as the old poster of Uncle Sam used to say, ‘Your country needs you now’ and what you believe in more than ever. I’m confident that when you go forth from these gates, moved by your faith and enabled by the education you receive here, your work and your service will help make America not only better but “the more perfect union” we have always aspired to be.”