My Jewish faith is central to my life, including my career in politics. My faith has provided me with a foundation, an order, and a purpose and has so much to do with the way I navigate through each day, both personally and professionally, in ways both large and small.
I observe the Sabbath, or Shabbat, as it is called in Hebrew. This means that, from sunset on Friday until sunset on Saturday, I turn off my Blackberry; I do not drive or ride in a car; if there is a vote in the Senate, I will walk there from my home a few miles away. I believe the Sabbath is a gift from God that “keeps” and nurtures those of us who observe it. That has certainly been true for me.
In the current presidential campaign, discussions and debates about the relationship between politics and religion have played a prominent role. These are questions that are very old—going all the way back to the Founders of our country, who wrote the Declaration of Independence and later the Constitution.
The vision of our Founders is relevant because it reminds us that, from the beginning, America has been a nation that has been defined not by our borders, but by our values. One of those founding values was a belief in a higher power—a belief in God. The United States was formed, as the Declaration of Independence says, to secure the people’s “inalienable rights” of “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” that were endowed by our Creator. In that way, the United States of America was and is a faith-based initiative.
Our Founders were overwhelmingly men of the same Christian faith, yet the founding documents they bequeathed us guarantee religious freedom, including the right of every American to hold elective office regardless of his or her religion. Article VI of our great Constitution explicitly bans religious tests for elective officials, and the First Amendment prohibits the establishment of an official religion, ensuring for every American the right to worship—or not to worship—as he or she so chooses. The full promise of this founding vision, I believe, is one of freedom of religion, not freedom from religion.
From 1776 to today, America has been a uniquely religious country. Alexis de Tocqueville, the famous French student of 19th-century America, noted that there is no country in which religion “retains greater influence over the souls of men than in America” and added that “there can be no greater proof of its utility and its conformity to human nature than that its influence is powerfully felt over the most enlightened and free nation on earth.” This observation is still true today: more than 90 percent of Americans say they believe in God, and the majority of Americans regularly attend a house of worship.
Tocqueville recognized that, though characterized by different and diverse belief systems, Americans are united by universal values. Indeed, religious freedom in America has given birth to a set of shared religious values that constitute what Abraham Lincoln called America’s “political religion” and Walt Whitman praised as “a sublime and serious Religious Democracy.”
This combination of religion and democracy has been a force for good in American history. Some of the great movements of conscience in America emerged from the convictions of religious people and used the language and liturgy of faith to build support. It was this spirit that animated the abolitionist movement in the mid-19th century and the suffragist activists of the 20th century. And it was this spirit that I was personally privileged to witness when I was in college at Yale in the early 1960s.
I was inspired to join the civil rights movement because of the values it represented, which were deeply rooted in my faith: the values of equality, inclusiveness, tolerance, and service to others. The purpose of the movement was best expressed by the words of the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in his soaring “I Have a Dream” speech. This call for freedom, for justice, and for a return to America’s founding values was the culmination of the historic March on Washington, a movement I took part in, in which thousands of us, of all religions, races, and nationalities, joined together peacefully and powerfully to petition our government to right the wrong of racial bigotry.
To me, the March on Washington was America at its best. It was America as my family and faith had encouraged me to believe it could be. During the early 1960s, I felt a boundless sense of hope and possibility about the future that lay ahead for our nation.
It was during this same time that another important barrier was broken. In the fall of my freshman year, a Roman Catholic—John F. Kennedy—was elected to the presidency for the first time in American history. At the time I sensed the possibility that, because of President Kennedy’s election, doors were opening for me too and for others who were part of minority faiths, races, and ethnicities.
In 2000 when Al Gore gave me the privilege of being the first Jewish American nominated for national office, I personally experienced the American people’s generosity of spirit, fairness, and acceptance of religious diversity. On the day I was nominated, an African American minister said to me, “In America, when a barrier is broken for one group, the doors of opportunity open wider for every American.”
I also felt free—indeed I was encouraged—to talk about my religion and the central role observance plays in my life. A veteran Secret Service agent who had worked several national campaigns told me he had never heard so many people say, “God bless you,” to a candidate. I believe these Americans were moved by the fundamental American principle of equal opportunity and respect for diversity of religious belief that has been at the heart of our American story from the beginning.
In the current presidential election cycle, faith and politics have once again become a source of some interest, controversy, and perhaps apprehension. My experience in 2000 gives me great confidence that the American people will again reject any sectarian religious tests for office and show their strong character, instinctive fairness, and steadfast belief in our Declaration of Independence and in our Constitution. That truly is the American way.
This article is adapted from a university forum address given by Joseph Lieberman, a U.S. senator from Connecticut, on Oct. 26, 2011.
Campaigning for Civility, by Mark DeMoss
The Case for Partisanship, by Karen Weggeland Hale (’80)
The Work of Civility, by Judge Thomas B. Griffith (BA ’78)