ADL misses the mark: Liebermans religious, moral tone is needed

The Anti-Defamation League warned candidate Joseph Lieberman that he might "alienate the American people" if he continued to make references to God and religion. That is a strange formulation on a couple of counts.

In the first place, it is a miscalculation of the American public. In case the ADL hasn't heard, Americans are in the middle of a religious renaissance, Christian as well as Jewish. The majority of Americans feel that the society is threatened with some kind of moral decay, and most of them see a deep connection between morality and religion.

That doesn't mean that they want the government to make policy on the basis of sectarian religious belief. But neither do they feel comfortable with leaders without religious underpinnings. Remember that while more than nine out of 10 Americans say they will not vote against a presidential candidate because he or she is Jewish, half of all Americans say they would vote against a candidate if he or she is an atheist.

The ADL statement has the sound of a Jewish defensive stance that belongs way back in the last century. Americans are not about to turn anti-Semitic because a Jewish candidate seems too religious. Indeed, many Americans find it strange that apparent criticism of religiosity comes from Jews, who "started the whole thing," as far as the Western world is concerned.

But of course, the ADL and those Jews who support its statement are not really attacking religiosity, but are suffering from a kind of cultural lag. From the beginning of the nation, one of the chief protections of Jewish status has been the doctrine of church-state separation. To be on the safe side, Jews have often blurred the distinction between separating the state from sectarian religion and separating the state from any vestige of religious tone whatsoever.

Historically, for example, Jewish agencies have vigorously fought the seasonal establishment in public parks of religious symbols, including menorahs. San Francisco's Jewish Community Relations Council was the first in the country to say that it was OK to place religious symbols in our public parks — traditional places of open expression — as long as that practice was open to all religious, or non-religious, symbols. When this San Francisco policy was first proposed to the annual convention of JCRCs and national agencies, it lost by a vote of roughly 100 to one.

By the same token, silent prayer in the schools — which could include silent expressions of atheism — has been historically opposed by Jewish agencies. The argument was never that such sessions were unconstitutional, but that they could "open the door" to offensive practices, such as the sectarian intervention of a wayward teacher.

There was often reason to be apprehensive about such "slippery slopes." But there is less reason today, and Lieberman is a demonstration of that. He strongly supports the separation of church and sectarian religion from the state in any instance, while holding that a general religious tone in public life is permissible.

The Jews, while maintaining vigilance against sectarian intrusion, should hold the torch for such a religious tone. When civil rights was on the nation's agenda, it was often such a religious tone, expressed by Martin Luther King Jr. and by many rabbis, that helped turn the tide. The only people who objected — saying "religion belongs in the churches" — were the bigots.

There is reason today to again raise the flag in support of the kinds of values that most people think of as religious values, and which are also consonant with those some people prefer to think of as "humanist" values. We really are in a period of unbridled materialism, decreasing civility, eroding concern with the lives and fortunes of others. A public appeal for higher standards and values is in order.

Jews should be the last people to deny that there is a connection between religion in its various forms and such values, at the same time that they stand guard for church-state separation.

It is true that Lieberman must always be careful to frequently state his opposition to church-state breaches. That may have been the purpose of the statement by the ADL's national director, Abraham Foxman, one of the wisest foxes on the American scene. But in this case, he over-spoke.