Religion in black and white

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Let us jump quickly to a day in late August, at the Fellowship Chapel in Detroit. Lieberman stands in the pulpit, dwarfed by an immense wooden cross. Addressing the largely African American congregation, he delivers a speech laden with biblical motifs and religious invocations. "There must be a place for faith in America’s public life," he argues, and he calls on the congregation to "reaffirm our faith and renew the dedication of our nation and our selves to God and God’s purpose." Then, in what will become one of his most inflammatory statements on the campaign trail, Lieberman quotes from George Washington’s 1796 farewell address , warning his listeners "never to indulge the supposition that morality can be maintained without religion."

By the following morning, the routine campaign appearance had become a media "event." The Anti-Defamation League, an international Jewish organization opposing anti-Semitism and bigotry, published an open letter criticizing Lieberman: "We are writing to express concern about your statements yesterday to the congregation of Detroit’s Fellowship Chapel. To even suggest that one cannot be a moral person without being a religious person is an affront to many highly ethical citizens." Soon other interest groups were issuing their own press releases. Americans United for Separation of Church and State called Lieberman’s speech "terribly inappropriate." Ellen Johnson, president of American Atheists, said that by reducing morality to religion the senator contributed to the marginalization of millions of atheists.

What many news analysts found most intriguing about the Detroit speech, however, was not Lieberman’s language of exclusion, but his supposed unfaithfulness to core Democratic and liberal principles. "His themes--and even his phrases--were remarkably similar to those commonly voiced by conservative Republicans," wrote Richard Pérez-Pena in The New York Times. In Time magazine, Nancy Gibbs asked, "He calls for ‘a constitutional place for faith in our public life,’ and yet he is against prayer in school and defends church-state separation. So what, specifically, does he mean? He complains that ‘Hollywood doesn’t understand piety’ and deplores its coarse product, and yet vows not to resort to sanctions to change that culture. And though many Orthodox Jews argue that abortion is immoral, Lieberman is pro-choice ..."

For Gibbs and a host of other critics, Lieberman just didn’t make sense--at least according to the political paradigms everyone knew to be true. Obviously, one could be concerned about public values or be anti-censorship--but not both. One could value life or champion choice--but not at the same time.

This kind of black-and-white thinking characterized almost all the coverage of Lieberman. Even when journalists were conscious of the complexity of his views, they still didn’t know how to get beyond the outdated categories of conservative/religious, liberal/secular. "In the last presidential election, if you used the phrase ‘religion in politics’ it was assumed you were talking about the role of the religious right in presidential politics," a commentator observed on National Public Radio’s Talk of the Nation. "This time around ... the phrase has taken on new meaning." A new spiritual chord had been struck, and those in the audience strained to hear.

Caricaturing Lieberman

Religion in black and white

‘Taking back God’

The story behind the story

A new spiritual skyline

Story Index