By PRISCILLA GREEAR, Staff Writer | Published May 10, 2007
Sen. Joe Lieberman has been greatly strengthened as a politician by his Jewish faith to follow his conscience and convictions about what is best for the country even when it has meant opposing his own Democratic Party on the issue of the war in Iraq.
Now in his fourth term, the senator from Connecticut—who argued for the ouster of Saddam Hussein even before President Bush was elected and has consistently supported completing the military mission in Iraq to stabilize the country and region— recalled his attitude last fall when he lost the Democratic nomination because of his stance on completing the mission in Iraq.
“I always felt it really wouldn’t happen. The stance I was taking on the war I knew wasn’t popular, but I thought because of my domestic record it would be OK. But I knew I wanted to go on,” he said during a visit to the Katherine and Jacob Greenfield Hebrew Academy of Atlanta, where his son Matt is head of the school.
The senator, who led the fight to establish the Department of Homeland Security and co-sponsored legislation to establish the 9/11 commission, found peace when he lost the Democratic nomination because he was doing what he believed was right for the country. He said he was comforted in reading the Psalms and trusted in God’s help in that hour of disappointment and travail. Buoyed by his faith, he ran and won as an independent in the election.
“We get knocked down, but if you have a trusting relationship you carry on with hope things will work out,” the senator said. “And the worst thing that could happen is I lose in November, but you know life goes on.”
Archbishop Wilton D. Gregory and Lieberman spoke together the morning of April 29 at the Jewish academy about the role of faith in public life, sharing how faith shapes their outlook on public service and touching upon the notion that faith should inform but not dictate the politician’s position.
The event was sponsored by the Jewish Federation of Greater Atlanta and Greenfield Academy. It raised over $130,000 for a teacher excellence fund for the Jewish school founded in 1953 that represents over 20 synagogues in the Atlanta area. Patrons of the event included Saint Joseph’s Mercy Foundation. The moderator was Dr. Kenneth Stein, director of the Emory University Institute for the Study of Modern Israel.
Matt Lieberman opened the event and affirmed that “what unites us as a people of faith is so much more important than what divides, so we are very, very honored to be presenting a dialogue that speaks directly to unity among faiths.”
The Connecticut senator first entered politics in 1970 when he was elected to the state Senate and is a former chairman of the Democratic Leadership Council and vice presidential candidate. He is chairman of the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee.
Archbishop Gregory became the sixth archbishop of Atlanta in 2005. In 2001 he was elected president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops following three years as vice president. In June 2006 he was honored with the Cardinal Bernardin Award given by the Catholic Common Ground Initiative, established by Cardinal Joseph Bernardin in 1996 to overcome polarization in parishes and strengthen the church to carry out its mission in the new millennium.
The men spoke philosophically about the role of faith in their lives and in a pluralistic democracy and steered away from specific political positions. They answered selected questions that had been submitted beforehand by attendees.
The archbishop spoke of how his own faith was shaped in childhood by the African-American spirituality he received from his parents and growing up in a non-denominational Christian environment, and by attending a Catholic school which led him to become Catholic as a boy.
“Those two personal experiences have made me the man I am, my African-American spiritual heritage, of which I am very proud, and my Roman Catholicism, which has defined my life.”
He stressed the importance of parents encouraging their children to talk to them about issues they are facing, and of passing down the faith, as most eventually come back to those values. He reminded them that while children might think “if dad believes it, it couldn’t be right,” they often shift their position to “in time the old man becomes wise.”
When asked how to define faith, Archbishop Gregory said it’s a relationship of trust with God that is mediated on both a personal individual level and also in community and involves a humble submission to God. “It’s got to be both individual but also communal.”
He noted how in the blessing of a free society, with a downside of excessive individualism, the challenge is not to neglect the communal faith, while in a society without religious and individual freedom the challenge is not to neglect personal faith. He said that authentic faith can never be used to tear down humanity but rather should be used to perfect it, and stressed Pope Benedict’s teaching that faith and reason strengthen each other.
“God has been used to justify every war and act of violence that we have probably encountered in the human condition, but faith does not destroy humanity,” he stated. “Faith and reason are not opposed to each other, and they function best in dialogue.”
Lieberman agreed that faith should not be used to justify violence but must protect, preserve and advance life.
“If faith is used and abused to end life as it is used by certain types of Islamic extremists to justify killing themselves and others, that is just not acceptable.”
He commended Pope Benedict for his controversial remarks in Germany last year where he criticized Muslim violence in the name of religion. The pope’s comments sparked extensive criticism by many in the Islamic world.
“We all know in the end the war will be won in the struggle between hearts and minds, and this will be won by dialogue between faith communities,” Lieberman said. “ I think he showed great courage, and I hope he is not deterred by their unfair reactions.”
The senator said that he was raised in a loving Jewish family that followed the Jewish calendar. Faith was one of the most important gifts he was given. After a time of disinterest in religion in college, he returned to it as he began to raise a family.
He believes that the absence of moral standards, sexual permissiveness, disrespect and violence of the culture make it harder for many youth to grow up today. A University of Virginia director of counseling testified to Congress following the Virginia Tech massacre about the increase in mental illness among students, and the father of four and grandfather of four believes that “one of the answers to that is faith. … America is now in a time of spiritual awakening, maybe the third or fourth, and I do think it’s a reaction to the absence of standards.”
He believes that all people are created by God for a purpose to improve the world in their unique way and faith gives them that confidence in their abilities and belief in themselves.
Faith “is to give the individual, particularly a child, a feeling of self-worth. I am a child of God, and I have a tremendous potential to change the world or at least live a good life. We are also greatly serving our country because we are creating people who will be better citizens.”
He added that real confidence must not be inflated by ego but rather tempered by humility.
“Faith reminds you there is a master of the universe, and he’s not a member of Congress.”
Lieberman held the first hearing on the threat posed to children by video game violence that led to the development of a comprehensive rating system and was the lead co-sponsor of legislation that required TV manufacturers to install a device allowing parents to block out violent and explicit programming. He helped lead a campaign in the TV industry to adopt a content-based rating system.
“Technology is a tough battle, but in the end it comes down to individual choice and that choice is affected by family, and the family can give children faith and accountability and responsibility,” Lieberman said.
The senator noted that people of faith have a right under the freedom of speech provision of the Bill of Rights to be involved in politics and to mobilize over issues.
For him, “when I come to a big vote in the Senate, I don’t call my rabbi. But there are times when I will call my rabbi for some context.”
When the moderator began a question stating that he would have been the first Jewish vice president, he stated wryly, “some people think I actually was the first Jewish vice president,” evoking laughter from attendees of all stripes. Vote-counting issues aside, he said the fact that he and Al Gore won the popular vote showed that the nation will vote for the candidate they prefer, regardless of religious affiliation.
The writers of the Declaration of Independence, mostly Protestants, were visionary in creating a deist-faithful document that upheld the belief that people are endowed by their Creator with inalienable rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness and equality of all people, he continued. And he emphasized that the Constitution does not establish an official religion but does not limit in any way the free exercise of religion.
“This is one of the great gifts we have to give to the rest of the world. America is a unique country. Every day we should thank God we live here. It was founded by Reformist Protestants who were quite religious but were remarkably tolerant,” he said.
Yet Archbishop Gregory pointed out that it has been a long process that continues to evolve for the nation to fully comprehend the nobility of the Constitution, noting that for a long time Catholics and Jews were discriminated against, particularly in the South. To a question on where faith is relevant in the political realm and vice versa, the archbishop asserted that “the voice of religion, of faith, has a profound contribution to make to society. It’s not the final voice, but it must be heard and raised” on everything from the dignity of the person to worker rights.
But as a clergyman “I shouldn’t be in Congress voting,” the archbishop added.
He affirmed that all Catholics should be guided by faith in their political positions. “For Catholic men and women who are laymen must take their faith into the public arena. And when they are elected their actions and behaviors must be informed by their faith but not limited by it.”
Deacon William Garrett is president of the Saint Joseph Mercy Foundation and came to the forum with his 17-year-old daughter Emily. He thinks it’s always positive for Jews and Christians to come together in fellowship to build greater appreciation of their common heritage and believes that many Catholics don’t fully appreciate the spiritual richness of the Old Testament. He is taking his family this summer to the Holy Land.
“We have to figure out how do we work together and live together in this world. The three faiths of Abraham are not doing a great job either amongst themselves in their own clan or among the three of us,” he reflected. “There is so much breadth and depth in the Hebrew Scriptures that we don’t appreciate. Having more dialogue with our Jewish brethren will allow us to explore more fully the richness of the Hebrew Scripture.”
His faith and previous travel to the Middle East have given him a keen interest in the politics of that region, and he submitted a question for the senator—that didn’t get chosen—on the moral justification for the Iraq war. The senator has forcefully opposed the Democrats’ efforts to start withdrawing troops this year out of the belief that among other things it will help Al Qaeda meet its goal of causing a full-scale civil war in Iraq and destroying the democratic government. But Garrett backs the Vatican’s opposition to the war. In his faith perspective, “I’ve always believed it wasn’t a just war,” he said.
“I don’t believe staying in there is the answer, but a precipitous withdrawal is only going to exacerbate the situation,” Garrett said. “We have to find a way to leave the region and afford some measure of stability because if we don’t have peace in the Middle East we all will suffer. It was a tragic mistake not to engage Syria and Iran in multinational discussions.”
As a student at Marist School, Emily has taken a class on the Middle East and participated in the Model Arab League where she also developed an interest in the region. She now plans to major in international relations at Northwestern University. The youth believes the moral guidelines the church provides on political issues such as the war can be helpful. But at the same time “some people will go with the flow and do what the Catholic Church says and can mistake what the church is saying in terms of favoring a political party.”
Judaic studies director at Greenfield Leon Covitz said he admires Lieberman’s distinguished career of public service and his “honesty, his integrity, his ability to stand up for what he believes in.” And Covitz said he trusts Lieberman’s judgment on Iraq with his extensive experience in Congress.
“He realizes the importance of continuing until the Iraqis are able to govern themselves,” said the native of Scotland, who is preparing to take Greenfield students to Israel.
Matt Lieberman said he was raised in a faith-filled home with the perspective of reaching beyond the family toward the common good.
“I grew up in a home with parents who had very public service-minded careers. I grew up with the idea we are all here for a reason, and we all have something to contribute to the greater good,” he said. For him, that meant education.
“I place a great value on education, of having a position of impact on kids getting ready for the future and charting the future, and my Jewish faith is very important to me so a job like this combines the two.”
He took the position in Atlanta a few years ago and is glad to serve the Jewish community of about 120,000 in metro Atlanta. He believes it’s vital for religions to come together to serve the larger community. As he grew up in heavily Catholic Connecticut, he chose Archbishop Gregory to speak with his dad on faith not only because of his leadership of the USCCB but also because Catholicism “is something like my second religion.”