Senator Lieberman Gave First Major Speech on Religion and Politics Since Campaign at Forum Launch
“The challenge ahead of us now, if we hope to respond to the public’s yearning for a better balance between faith and freedom, is as much political as it is legal. Those of us who are seeking a suitable space for faith must engage those who feel threatened in a broad and open conversation about what it is we are seeking and why. That is what makes the launch of The Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life so important and promising. This is a conversation begging for facilitation, for an honest broker, and the Pew Forum is perfectly positioned to fill that role,” said Senator Joseph Lieberman (D-CT) today at the Pew Forum’s official launch.
In light of the presidential campaign’s focus on religion and politics, the recent attention to Attorney General Ashcroft’s religious convictions, and President Bush’s establishment of the White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives, the role of religion in public life is no longer an underlying discussion. It is the discussion. This was evidenced by the standing-room only crowd of more than 300 religious leaders, journalists, and policymakers—including John DiIulio, White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives—at the National Press Club in Washington, DC.
The newly formed Pew Forum engages policy and religious leaders of all backgrounds and opinions in a thorough, sustained discussion of how religion impacts public affairs and how public affairs impacts religion. Co-chair E.J. Dionne characterized it as a “living op-ed page.”
“There is no one religious response to the public issues of our day,” said Melissa Rogers, the Pew Forum’s Executive Director. “Instead there is a constellation of responses flowing from different political, religious and theological perspectives as well as differences in views about how and when religion should participate in public life.”
Senator Lieberman noted this predicament when describing his experiences during the campaign. “When Al Gore broke a barrier by asking me to be his running mate, the fact of my faith seemed happily to be cause for celebration. But once I opened my mouth and actually professed my faith, to give glory and thanks to God for the extraordinary opportunity I had been given, some of the hosannas quickly turned to how-dare-he’s,” the Senator said.
The Senator’s remarks were followed by a lively discussion featuring panelists Rep. Chet Edwards (D-TX), Rep. Mark Souder (R-IN), Azizah al-Hibri of the University of Richmond, David Brooks of the Weekly Standard, and Rabbi David Saperstein of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism. The event was moderated by the Pew Forum’s co-chairs E.J. Dionne, Jr., and Jean Bethke Elshtain.
Consistent with the Pew Forum’s goals of bringing differing viewpoints to the table, Congressman Edwards challenged Senator Lieberman’s views. “The question is not so much whether we should keep religion out of government, but whether we should keep government out of our faith and our religion,” he said.
Consistent with Lieberman’s point, however, Azizah al-Hibri noted, “After decades of being coy and hesitant, people of faith have finally given themselves permission to speak in public.”
Many of the panelists addressed the recent formation of the White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives. “I also believe the President has been wise to characterize potential faith-based partners as a supplement to what government does to solve social problems, and not as a substitute,” Senator Lieberman said. “Where the President has fallen short, thus far, is on the working details of his plan.”
Rabbi Saperstein emphasized some of the dangers of government funding for houses of worship. Quoting Thomas Jefferson, he said “To take someone’s money and deliver it to groups whose views you find anathema is sinful.”
Senator Lieberman concluded his remarks by saying, “If we continue talking and working with one another, we can all have faith that we will sort through these theoretical thickets and find a true and lasting common ground. And that will be a moment when we can truly say, “Amen!”
The Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life will serve as a both a town hall and a clearinghouse of information, providing independent research, new polling information, balanced analysis, and referrals to experts in the field. In addition, the Pew Forum will serve as a place to draw together many perspectives for fruitful exchange of ideas. The Pew Forum is nonpartisan and will not take policy positions. It is supported by The Pew Charitable Trusts through a grant to Georgetown University.
Read a complete transcript of Lieberman’s speech. For a transcript of the event or more information about the Pew Forum, please contact Robert Mills at 202.419.4564.