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The Religious Affiliation of
Joseph Lieberman
U.S. Senator from Connecticut
one-time Vice-Presidential candidate

Joseph Lieberman is a U.S. Senator from Connecticut. He is an observant Orthodox Jew. He became more well known when he ran for the U.S. Vice-President on the Democratic ticket with Al Gore.

From: Rabbi Steve Conn, "VP candidate's religion shouldn't matter to Americans" ("Focus on Faith" column), published in The Signal, 21 August 2000 (http://www.the-signal.com/religion/focus/0800/081200a.html; viewed 25 June 2005 version of page via archive.org on 29 November 2005):

This week, Democratic candidate Al Gore named his choice for Vice President: Senator Joseph Leiberman. To mark the occasion, I have prepared a short quiz on our recent vice presidents. Simply match the Vice President with his religious affiliation. Answers appear at the end of this column.

Al Gore, Episcopalian, George Bush, Society of Friends (Quaker), Gerald Ford, Baptist, Richard M. Nixon, Episcopalian, Lyndon Johnson Disciples of Christ.

Go ahead, check your answers. How did you do? Had I taken this quiz before I did my research, I would have scored a whopping two out of five. And that's really my point. How many of us, even religious leaders like me, pay attention to the religious affiliation of our vice presidents? I suspect that, up until now, the religion of a Vice President has been about as great a factor to most of us as his shoe size or favorite color.

To underscore my point still further, let's take another look at the list of vice presidents above. You might have noticed that all but one of these men went on to become president. Why, you might ask, did I not include Dan Quayle, Walter Mondale or Spiro Agnew? Simply because, even after one and one half hours of furious cable modem powered web-searching, I could not find a comprehensive list of the religious affiliation of vice presidents.

Presidents, yes -- but not vice presidents. Apparently, this knowledge is too trivial even for the trivia-crazed content providers who cram the World Wide Web.

Clearly, no one out there cares about the religious affiliation of our vice presidents. Why, then, should we now care about the religious affiliation of Sen. Joseph Lieberman?

By rights, I should end my column here, and let my rhetorical question simply speak for itself. I am sure the Signal editors have archived enough wire service stories on religion to fill the rest of my allotted space. But I do think Senator Lieberman's strong commitment to Judaism raises some important questions for people not familiar with Jewish practice; questions that ought to be answered in the name of promoting better understanding. As Sen. John Breaux of Louisiana showed us this week, acceptance based on ignorance can get us into trouble. Asked if Lieberman's religion would affect his candidacy, Breaux, a close collaborator of Lieberman's replied, "I don't think it matters where a man goes to church on Sunday."

Of course, Sen. Lieberman, as an observant Jew, goes to synagogue -- and he worships on Friday night and Saturday, the Jewish Sabbath. In fact, Lieberman rigorously observes the Jewish Sabbath in all its aspects, including the prohibition against work. Lieberman's commitment to the Sabbath does raise the following question: Will Lieberman's commitment to observing the Jewish Sabbath diminish his ability to serve as a part of the governmental team?

Lieberman's 12 years of service in the Senate suggest otherwise. Observant Jews take very seriously the command to rest on the Sabbath. Ordinarily, observant Jews do not work at their jobs from Friday night at sundown until Saturday evening after dark. But there are exceptions. When the work involves preserving life, or protecting and defending the vital interests of the community, it may be performed on the Sabbath. Jewish doctors, soldiers and police officers are often called upon to perform their duties on the Sabbath.

And so are Jewish Senators. While in the Senate, Sen. Lieberman always took part in important Senate sessions and votes on the Sabbath. In accord with Jewish law and tradition, he recognized that his position required him to do whatever was necessary to protect the lives and welfare of his constituents. As vice president, he would do the same.

The other question some have raised is whether Senator Lieberman's Judaism would unduly tilt U.S. policy in favor of Israel. In answering this question, we should first note that our current policy on the Middle East is being coordinated by Undersecretary of State Dennis Ross, a Jew, Secretary of State Madeline Albright and Secretary of Defense William Cohen, who are of Jewish ancestry. Nevertheless, the Clinton Administration has put great pressure on Israel to make concessions in the name of peace in the Middle East. There is no reason to think a Gore administration would act any differently. For his part, Sen. Lieberman has never been particularly outspoken on Israel. Lieberman has focused his energies for the most part on domestic issues. At a time when there is near unanimity on the direction of U.S. policy in the Middle East, Lieberman is hardly likely to turn into an advocate for the hard-line forces in Israel.

In truth, there is only one way in which Lieberman's Judaism will affect his candidacy -- and it is precisely because of this affect that Gore chose him as a running mate. Lieberman's religious convictions have lead him to become a champion of integrity in government and morality in society. These qualities set Lieberman apart from President Clinton, whose administration was filled with moral ambiguity and obfuscation. Of course, Judaism is not the only religion that teaches morality and integrity. We can find similar teachings in Christianity, Islam and other faiths. What is important about Lieberman, then, is not his Jewishness per se, but the fact that he takes his religion seriously. His commitment to both public service and to observing the 613 commandments of Judaism, which include both ritual observances and ethical precepts, has made him a role model and an inspiration for all religious people. Lieberman has demonstrated throughout his career that his religion has made him a better, more ethical and more conscientious leader.

It is precisely these qualities that convinced Al Gore that Lieberman was the best choice for the vice-presidential nomination.

While Lieberman's religion should not matter to us as Americans, it does matter to the Jewish community. Jews can be found across the American political spectrum: from liberal to conservative. Senator Lieberman's Jewishness will not (and should not) mean that the Gore ticket will capture 100 percent of the Jewish vote. Like other Americans, we Jews tend to vote our consciences. Personally, I have voted against Jewish candidates any number of times because I didn't like their views. But no matter where we find ourselves on the political spectrum, we feel a special pride when one of our group breaks down barriers. Lieberman's nomination is just another sign that anti-Semitism, which has dogged the Jewish people throughout American history, has finally faded. We Jews have become full partners in the American Dream, in practice as well as in theory. We can only hope that African-Americans, Latinos, women and other groups will soon be able to say the same.

Perhaps the day will come when putting together a quiz on the vice president's racial or ethnic background will become just as difficult as putting together today's quiz on the religions of the Vice Presidents.

Al Gore - Baptist
George Bush - Episcopalian
Gerald Ford - Episcopalian
Richard M. Nixon - Society of Friends (Quaker)
Lyndon Johnson - Disciples of Christ.

Steve Conn is the Rabbi at Congregation Beth Shalom in Santa Clarita.

From: Richard N. Ostling (Associated Press), "Old custom: U.S. presidents tangle with their religious denominations", published 9 February 2003, in The Post & Courier (Charleston, South Carolina) (http://charleston.net/stories/020903/rel_09prez.shtml; 6 July 2003 version of page viewed via archive.org on 29 November 2005):
..."It's relatively easy for presidents to get on the outs with their denominations," says Wake Forest University Divinity School Dean Bill J. Leonard. It's hard to find a 20th-century president who didn't butt heads with some in his faith...

U.S. politicians have never been bound by pleas from their own or other religious groups, and it is becoming easier to ignore them.

Protestants enshrine individualism, and many Catholic office-holders reject the Vatican's insistence that they follow the church's anti-abortion teaching. Nor is presidential hopeful Joseph Lieberman bound by Orthodox Judaism's beliefs on abortion.

Ultimately, Southern Methodist University ethicist Robin Lovin says, politicians' moral judgments are influenced far less by today's church pronouncements than by their religious upbringing. The sermons, discussions and Sunday school classes in their home congregations many years ago may be their guide.

From: "Religious Affiliations of Celebrities" page in "Celebrity Religion" section of "Religion Facts" website (http://www.religionfacts.com/celebrities/religions_of_celebrities.htm; viewed 26 April 2007):

Below is an index of the religious affiliations or belief systems of celebrities (both living and dead; in film, television, music, literature, academics and politics), listed in alphabetical order by last name...

Celebrity: Joseph Lieberman

Religion/Belief: Orthodox Judaism

Quotes, More Information, Sources:
LATimes.com, Aug. 28, 2000 [link to: http://archives.cnn.com/2000/ALLPOLITICS/stories/08/28/latimes.lieberman/index.html]
New York Magazine, Nov. 18, 2002 [link to: http://nymag.com/nymetro/news/politics/n_7996/index1.html]

- Sen. Lieberman's official home page
- Hadassah Magazine: Portrait of Joseph Lieberman: Moral Compass
- Sen. Lieberman and Church of Jesus Christ president Gordon B. Hinckley's Standing for Something

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Webpage created 29 November 2005. Last modified 26 April 2007.
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