Ravell Call, Deseret News
PROVO — Should Governor Mitt Romney win the Republican nomination, it will be a test of the American people to see whether they are willing to "be fair" and abide by the Constitutional protections that prevent a test of religion to take public office, Sen. Joseph Lieberman said Tuesday at BYU.
"I would bet you, that whatever that percent of people who said (in public opinion polls) they'd be reluctant to vote for a Mormon candidate for president, I bet they have had little or no real contact with members of the LDS church," the Independent Democrat from Connecticut told the crowd of more than 5,000 at the Marriott Center. "When I hear expressions of bigotry, and you should do the same, don't hesitate to speak up in your own defense, you've got a lot to defend."
Such discussions of faith in the public square are not new, and were seen when John F. Kennedy was the first Roman Catholic elected president, and then later when evangelical Christian Jimmy Carter came to the White House. Even Lieberman broke new ground when he became the first Jewish American on a national party ticket in his 2000 run for vice president alongside Al Gore.
These conversations arise because the religious beliefs and practices of politicians like Kennedy, Lieberman and Romney are often different than what people expect.
"If Governor Romney is nominated, he's going to have to, he's done it a little bit, but he's going to have to educate people about the Mormon faith, and confront it directly and appeal to people's better nature, which is what Kennedy did in 1960," Lieberman said. "(Kennedy) appealed to people to be fair, which is what the country's supposed to be about."
And along with being fair, America has also been a "faith-based initiative" from the beginning, Lieberman said, pointing to the Declaration of Independence, which lists man's rights of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness as endowments from "their Creator."
"Anybody who tries to separate faith from America's public square is doing something unnatural and ultimately bad for our country," he said.
Faith in the public square doesn't mean a state-imposed religion but rather an acknowledgement of a "presence of religion in our public life," Lieberman said.
Such a presence can be seen through the "convictions of religious people who used the language of faith to build popular support," like the abolitionists of the 19th century, the suffragettes of the 20th century and Dr. Rev. Martin Luther King and the civil rights movement of the 50s and 60s.
Even Kennedy's election in 1960 left 18-year-old Lieberman feeling like "doors had opened for me, and somehow the horizon had expanded for me and for others who were from faiths that were not the majority. I didn't know how or where that might happen but I felt inspired and empowered."
Now, the door is open for a Mormon to possibly become the Republican nomination for president, which will hopefully lead to greater education for Americans about the LDS faith, Lieberman told the Deseret News after his address.
"But … assuming the polls are correct that a minority of people continue to have unease about the Mormon faith, this will also be a Mormon moment of testing," he said. "Hopefully more people … think about how wrong it is to apply a religious test to public office in American and give Gov. Romney a chance.
"It sounds like I'm endorsing him," Lieberman added. "But I'm just endorsing his right to be judged on his personal qualities and experience and ideals, and not to be discriminated against based on his religion, which is unacceptable in this country."
Evangelical Christians Gov. Rick Perry and Congresswoman Michele Bachmann have also drawn some fire for frequently referencing their faith.
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