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.
"(Candidates) have a right to talk about the role that faith plays in their life," Lieberman said. "(They also have to) understand that other voters have a right to decide whether that affects their views of those candidates. I always welcome the opportunity to hear about a candidate's faith. It helps me understand them as people better."
And as an observant Jew, Lieberman welcomes the opportunity to help people understand him and his beliefs better. As a new senator, he often had to explain why he wouldn't attend dinners or parties on Saturday, the Jewish Sabbath. In doing so, he found that the more he shared about his beliefs, the more respectful and understanding people became.
"We were of different faiths, but we were joined in classical American style by a shared belief in God," he said.
As a way to share more of his insights, Lieberman wrote a book about the Sabbath, and the blessings he finds from a day of rest.
"We live in a culture of hard work where people are desperately in need of rest — not just rest to recharge our batteries so we can work harder but to recharge our souls so we can live better," he wrote in "The Gift of Rest: Rediscovering the Beauty of the Sabbath." "For me, the answer to that need has been the Sabbath. It has anchored my life, revived my body, and restored my soul."
Lieberman is open with his beliefs and has been so his entire life, including during his run for the vice presidency nearly 11 years ago.
During that campaign, he said he felt supported by voters, who, while they appreciated his religious background and convictions, voted for him because they believed he was the right man for the job.
"Governor Romney must be judged not on the basis of his faith…but on his personal qualities, leadership experience and his ideas for America's future," Lieberman said. "My personal experience from 2000 gives me great confidence that the voter will again reject a (religious) test and show their strong character, their instinctive fairness and steadfast belief in the ideals of the Declaration and the Constitution. And when they do, another barrier may well be broken for another group in America, and the doors of opportunity will thereby open wider for every American."
Excerpts from his book: "The Gift of Rest: Rediscovering the Beauty of the Sabbath."
Both the Sabbath and work are commandments and gifts from God-each reinforcing the other. The Sabbath and the six days of labor together give us the greatest gifts of all: the gifts of meaning, purpose, and destiny. Rest without work would be meaningless. Work without rest would be purposeless. But together, work and rest offer us the hope of a better life today and the destiny of the ultimate redemption tomorrow.
Six days a week, I'm never without this little piece of plastic, chips, and wires that miraculously connects me to the rest of the world... If there were no Sabbath law to keep me from sending and receiving email all day as I normally do, do you think I would be able to resist the temptation on the Sabbath? Not a chance. Laws have this way of setting us free…God's law constantly challenges us to make separations, to make choices, to see the difference between right and wrong, good and evil, Sabbath rest and the week of work.
The Sabbath forces us to pull our eyes away from the digital flow and rejoin the natural world, where communication is accomplished mainly through human voices speaking and human ears listening. The genius of the Sabbath lies in the way it restricts us from certain activities and thereby, frees us to experience others including conversations—big ones with God and less grand ones with our family and friends. The early rabbis were so convinced of the importance of talking, listening, and responding that for centuries they compelled teachers and students to carry on their learning orally….On the Sabbath, we recapture the culture of speech.
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