In 1993, George W. Bush, a born-again Christian, told a reporter that “heaven is open only to those who accept Jesus Christ.” The logically inescapable corollary is that Bush’s heaven is not open to agnostics, atheists, Jews, Hindus, Muslims, and so on. Someone dug up that quote and, a few months ago, a media hoo-ha appeared to be in the making. Bush adroitly backed off. His new line is that he, George W. Bush, is not in charge of deciding who gets into heaven.
Now we have a vice-presidential candidate whose most visible characteristic is his faith as an Orthodox Jew. As a member of a minority religion who might govern a predominately Christian country, the question of how he regards other people’s faith—or lack of faith—seems especially relevant. And especially tricky. You would have expected Joe Lieberman to follow Bush—and John F. Kennedy before him—by emphasizing the private nature of personal religious belief, and playing down any connection between his beliefs and the job of governance.
But Lieberman has done the opposite. Instead of downplaying religion, his strategy has been to downplay the differences among religions, while promoting religion itself. For example, he recently told an African-American Christian congregation that “as a people, we need to reaffirm our faith and renew the dedication of our nation and ourselves to God and God’s purpose.”
Compare this to Bush’s remark. On the one hand, it is nice and ecumenical. Lieberman didn’t suggest that anyone who eats pork or drives on Saturday won’t get into heaven. On the other hand, it specifically connects his religious beliefs to his vision of governance: The very purpose of the nation is to serve God.
In the same speech, Lieberman declared that without the Jewish and Christian traditions, the phrase “all men are created equal” in the Declaration of Independence “could never have been written.” In another recent sound bite, Lieberman warned against “indulg[ing] the supposition ‘that morality can be maintained without religion.’ ” That last phrase comes from George Washington. But no matter what its provenance, the logically inescapable corollary is that anyone who rejects religion is immoral. We are getting a bit closer here to you-can’t-get-into-heaven-if-you-don’t-accept-Christ.
If you were to corner Lieberman—as I hope someone does—and ask him point-blank whether he thinks nonbelievers are immoral (and could never have come up with the notion of universal human equality), he would probably dance away from his beliefs like Bush. But he deserves less sympathy than Bush does.
Bush was trapped in a totally contrived “gotcha” situation. Of course a born-again Christian believes that non-Christians aren’t going to a Christian heaven. In essence, the very point of following Christian precepts is that, at the end of the day, you go to heaven. As a logical matter, no committed atheist, agnostic, Hindu, Jew, or Muslim should take offense at being excluded from heaven according to religious doctrines he doesn’t himself accept. But that’s not what would tighten the sphincters of non-Christians. As a practical matter, many members of minority faiths are worried about their statistical marginality—which is an intelligent reading of history.
If Bush conceded that non-Christians aren’t going to heaven, it would be widely interpreted as a signal that he was an intolerant zealot rather than the centrist he wants to be. The fact that it would be so interpreted is not Bush’s fault. It has to do with centuries of very frightening religious intolerance that occurred before his birth. For reasons beyond his control, Bush can’t say what he really thinks. Which is about as good a justification for fudging as you’re going to find.
But Lieberman doesn’t have this excuse. He himself introduced the issue into the campaign—not some reporter brandishing an ancient quotation. Both his words and the context of a national election directly connect religion and the government, which Bush’s do not. Finally, Lieberman’s own religious doctrine, unlike Bush’s, does not require him to believe that those who reject faith are sinners. Nothing in Jewish theology suggests that it is impossible for a nonreligious person to lead a moral life.
Lieberman’s comments are offensive to nonreligious people who feel their non-belief is a perfectly acceptable moral choice. Politically, this is no big deal. Principled nonbelievers aren’t a huge voting bloc. Non-belief is less a passion than an absence of passion and seems unlikely to be a voting issue for many Americans. Lieberman has a long record as a quasi-liberal that makes it hard to worry that he would actually do anything as vice president or president that overtly discriminated against nonbelievers. More important politically (as the Gore-Lieberman strategists undoubtedly have calculated) is the possible appeal of God talk to religious people who generally don’t vote for Democrats and who often complain that faith is not given sufficient place in public life.
But Joe Lieberman has always made a big deal about saying the right thing rather than the popular thing. So surely it’s fair to take him seriously for expressing an opinion about morality and religion that seems so clearly confused. At least to this agnostic.
First off, what exactly does Lieberman mean by saying that morality cannot exist without religion? Does he mean that no irreligious person displays moral behavior? Or that nonbelievers are immoral no matter how they behave?
Lieberman obviously thinks that religion offers a consistent set of rules and principles of how to treat other people. Let’s set aside the fact that religions differ around the margins about these ethical rules and assume, with Lieberman, that there is such a thing as a religious way to act. As generally agreed, these rules include treating everyone with respect, applying the golden rule, being merciful to the unfortunate and kind to those who are different, and so on. Is Lieberman suggesting that no person who lacks faith follows these religious ethical rules? Surely he doesn’t believe that. My own dear mother is an agnostic, and she’s about as ethical as they come. Does Sen. Lieberman have a problem with my mother?
Maybe Lieberman’s exact words are a politician’s hyperbolic way of saying that, as a statistical matter, religious people are more likely to act in an ethical way than nonreligious people. Is this true? While hard data is sadly lacking, it seems pretty uncontroversial to note that the world has seen plenty of religious sinners and upright nonbelievers. And how would Lieberman explain the fact, if he concedes it, that at least some nonbelievers manage to be ethical? Are there some people who are naturally ethical and others who need the help of religion to be ethical?
On the other hand, perhaps Lieberman is saying that if you act as God wishes but not because of a belief in God, then it somehow doesn’t count. That seems awfully fussy. By requiring faith as a prerequisite for morality, Lieberman is dismissing a lot of philosophical thinking that grounds itself in reason, not faith, and still manages to arrive at the same conclusions that Lieberman would probably endorse. In any event, if people do live by the rules of decency and honor, the question of whether they do so with or without believing in God is surely not a concern of the government, of the vice president in his official capacity, or a concern that belongs in a national election campaign.