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Lieberman's tangled views on religion

SENATOR Joseph Lieberman plays one of the most tangled games of "Twister" in US politics.

He is a knee-jerk lefty on most domestic issues but a decided hawk on foreign affairs. The ardently conservative National Review endorsed his first run for the US Senate, but the ardently liberal Americans for Democratic Action regularly gives him high marks (2002 ADA rating: 85 percent). In 1998 he famously condemned President Clinton's extramarital behavior as "immoral," but on the campaign trail in 2003, he routinely invokes -- and claims to embody -- Clinton's political legacy.

Lieberman casts himself as an independent Democrat of firm convictions who refuses to pander to his party's noisy left wing. Yet he has abandoned most of the positions that used to epitomize his political independence, including support for school choice, opposition to racial preferences, and endorsement of private Social Security accounts.

But nothing distinguishes Lieberman from other prominent Democrats more than religion. As Al Gore's running mate in 2000, he became known for his frequent references to God and forceful calls for more religion in public life. "As a people we need to reaffirm our faith and renew the dedication of our nation and ourselves to God and God's purpose," he said in a speech at the Fellowship Chapel in Detroit. He reminded his audience: "George Washington warned us never to `indulge the supposition that morality can be maintained without religion.' "

That speech was praised by many conservatives, but it was sharply criticized by liberals who took it as an attack on church-state separation. The quotation from Washington particularly rankled. "To even suggest that one cannot be a moral person without being a religious person is an affront to many highly ethical citizens," wrote Abraham Foxman of the Anti-Defamation League.

But Lieberman didn't back down. In a speech at Notre Dame two weeks before the election, he again emphasized the importance of faith to civil society. "The line between church and state is an important one," Lieberman said, but "we have gone far beyond what the Framers ever imagined in separating the two. . . . We have practically banished religious values and religious institutions from the public square." He suggested again that public religion is necessary to combat moral decay. "People of faith are working to repair some of the worst effects of our damaged moral and cultural life, and because of their good works and that of others, we have made real progress in reducing teen pregnancy, youth violence, and abuse."

Lieberman may backtrack and flip-flop on other issues, but religion, it would seem, is one subject on which he refuses to waffle.

Or is it?

During a visit to The Boston Globe last week, he was asked again about that 2000 speech. Did he really mean to assert that religion is necessary for morality?

He could have answered "yes," and observed that just as medicine tends to make society more healthy, religion tends to make society more ethical. He could have explained that Judeo-Christian teachings are a well-spring of the civic virtues a sound democracy requires. He could have pointed out that even Thomas Jefferson, skeptical deist though he was, considered religion "the alpha and omega of the moral law" and used government funds to underwrite the religious services held in the Capitol and other federal buildings.

But he didn't. Instead of defending the stance he had articulated with such apparent conviction in 2000, Lieberman scuttled away from it.

That quote of Washington's had been "taken out of context," he told his questioner. The "remarkable" thing about the American system "is that while the Declaration says that we get these rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness as an endowment from our Creator, one of those rights is to not believe in the Creator."

As for the notion that religion is a mainstay of morality, Lieberman was having none of it. "All of us" know people who are religious but sleazy, he said, and other people, "totally religiously not observant," who lead "extremely moral and decent" lives. "I think that context was left out of that quote from Washington, which is the way I believe he meant it."

Actually, it's pretty much the opposite of what Washington meant. It's also pretty much the opposite of what Lieberman meant when he quoted him. Why the about-face? Because this time he was talking not to worshippers in church but to journalists at a newspaper? Because in 2003 he is trying to woo liberal voters in Democratic primaries, while in 2000 he was appealing to moderates and conservatives in the general election?

Both are plausible. But so is this: Voters are unlikely to repose much faith in a candidate whose views on everything -- even faith -- can always be changed in the interest of winning at "Twister."

Jeff Jacoby's e-mail address is

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