Jews debate: Is Lieberman over the top on religion

And did he do it for mere politics?

Those questions reverberated around the Jewish community this week in the wake of the Anti-Defamation League's letter to Lieberman that chided him for dragging religion onto the campaign trail.

All the religious talk has the ADL and some Jewish leaders worried — and not just for the usual church-state reasons.

"This flaunting of faith that we're seeing really cheapens religion," said Abraham Foxman, national director of the ADL, stressing that he was talking about all the major candidates, not just Lieberman. "It's a way of saying, 'Vote for me because I'm a religious man.' I'm troubled by this hawking of religion on the political stump."

But Foxman's comments touched off a barrage of criticism from other Jewish leaders.

"I was quite surprised at [the ADL] criticism," said Mandell Ganchrow, president of the Orthodox Union. "It fails to differentiate between the separation of church and state, which we strongly support, and a belief in God. What [Lieberman] said reflects feelings that most Americans share."

Meanwhile, Lieberman's increasingly visible religiosity — magnified several fold by a national press corps fascinated by his Orthodox Judaism — is almost certain to help the Gore-Lieberman ticket, said Marshall Wittman, director of congressional relations for the conservative Heritage Foundation.

"It's a calculated strategy for distancing the Democratic Party from the scandals of the Clinton administration, and it's a strategy that will help the ticket," he said.

The new controversy was ignited by Lieberman's speech Sunday to 500 congregants at Detroit's Fellowship Chapel.

"Let us break through some of the inhibitions that have existed to talk together across the flimsy lines of separation of faith, to talk together, to study together, to pray together and ultimately to sing together His holy name," he told the group.

Echoing a favorite theme of Christian right activists, he said: "The Constitution guarantees freedom of religion, not freedom from religion." And he included a surprising biblical allusion.

"You might say the Red Sea finally parted, and more Americans than ever before walked through behind President Bill Clinton and Vice President Al Gore," he said, referring to the Democratic victory in 1992.

But he offered no details about how he plans to increase religious involvement in public affairs, and did not endorse any of the controversial polices being debated in Washington intended to expand the role of religious groups in addressing public problems.

Phil Baum, executive director of the American Jewish Congress, said, "Lieberman's constant emphasis on his religion seems to suggest that he's offering it up as a qualification for the presidency. That infringes on the important American tradition of avoiding religious tests for elective office."

Baum worries that the surge in religious rhetoric on the campaign trail will boost activists with much more sectarian agendas, including backers of sectarian school prayer, which Lieberman has opposed.

Rabbi Yechiel Eckstein, president of the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews, said Lieberman's talk about religion could give a kind of Jewish stamp of approval to those who want to go further in mixing religion and politics. But he said the good in Lieberman's statements far outweigh that risk.

"Joe's views on this matter of the need to effect faith in the public arena are more akin to the predominant view of mainstream America than they are to the organized Jewish community," said Eckstein, whose Center for Jewish and Christian Values includes Lieberman as a co-chair.

"It's a clever move on the part of the Democrats," said political scientist Benjamin Ginsberg of Johns Hopkins University.. "It erases the God gap."

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