Joseph Lieberman’s selection as the first Orthodox Jew to run for vice president may have the unexpected effect of making it respectable again to maintain that the United States is a Christian country. Picking Lieberman as his running mate was the single most interesting thing Al Gore has done in his campaign for the White House. Pundits assumed that Gore was trying to repudiate the sordid behavior of President Clinton which had led to his impeachment: Lieberman, as the first Democratic senator to criticize the President for his immorality, could inoculate the ticket against the charge that Clinton’s indecency has damaged the country.

The claim that Lieberman is a person of principle is questionable; immediately after declaring on the Senate floor that the President’s conduct was “intolerable” and “inexcusable,” Lieberman failed to demand Clinton’s resignation, and he ultimately did not vote to remove him from office. Worse, within days of becoming the vice presidential nominee, Lieberman reversed himself on the privatization of Social Security, school vouchers, and his opposition to affirmative action. Those positions initially made Lieberman appealing to conservatives and moderates, but since they were anathema to the Democratic Party’s Gore constituency of bureaucrats, publicschool teachers, and minorities, he abandoned them in the most public and unseemly way.

Even so, there is one principle that Lieberman continues to proclaim: his belief that his political success and, indeed, his entire career has been the result of divine intervention. As he remarked on the day he was selected, “Praise God, from whom all blessings flow.”

Lieberman has emphasized the American tradition of celebrating religion’s contribution to politics. Before a largely black audience at the Detroit Fellowship Chapel, he declared that “The Constitution guarantees freedom of religion, not freedom from religion” and 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.”

But something strange happened. Howard Berkowitz and Abraham Foxman of the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) lashed out at Lieberman for his remarks at the Detroit Fellowship Chapel. “We feel very strongly,” the two wrote to the senator, “and we hope you would agree, that appealing along religious lines, or belief in God, is contrary to the American ideal.” They went on to argue that the “First Amendment requires that government neither support one religion over another nor the religious over the non-religious.” Berkowitz’s and Foxman’s sentiments reflect dominant Supreme Court jurisprudence since the mid-1960’s, but they are completely wrong in their interpretation of constitutional history. There is no doubt that the Framers believed (as George Washington, John Adams, Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, and John Jay made quite clear) that there could be no social order without law, no law without morality, and no morality without religion: even under the First Amendment, governments are well within their rights when they promote religion. Lieberman, to his credit, has been quoting Washington to that effect, but Berkowitz and Foxman understand the implications of the senator’s statements, and they are horrified.

So are many of the nation’s editorialists, who are also alarmed by groups seeking to organize “spontaneous” prayer at high-school football games, despite the Supreme Court’s recent banning of the practice when sponsored by school authorities. The New York Times argues that spontaneous prayer might make some feel “excluded”; therefore, it ought to be discouraged. But Lieberman’s celebration of religion has legitimated spontaneous religious expression, and, like prayers at football games, it may be regarded as speech protected under the First Amendment’s “free exercise” clause. If Lieberman’s views about dedicating ourselves to God’s purpose resonate with voters, it will be difficult for Democrats to criticize George W. Bush for declaring Jesus Christ to be the philosopher who had the most influence on him or to attack the governor for proclaiming a “Jesus Day” in Texas. (Bush earlier signed proclamations declaring “Honor Israel Day,” a holocaust remembrance week, and a day to honor the Austin Chabad House.)

Lieberman has reopened a national debate on the role of religion in public life. While no single religion has a monopoly on the public square, the Framers believed that Christianity (though no particular sect) unified our nation under God. As recently as a few decades ago, justices of the U.S. Supreme Court could declare America a “Christian nation.” But in 1993, when Kirk Fordice, then governor of Mississippi, characterized the United States as a Christian country he was condemned by the media and such groups as the ADL. The reaction to Lieberman’s remarks, however, has been largely positive; even the ADL cannot attack him too severely, lest his value to the Democratic ticket disappear. Lieberman’s views may once again become political orthodoxy, and religion may regain a new legitimacy in the public square. If that happens, even advocates of America as a “Christian nation” would have a legitimate claim to be heard. Since 90 percent of Americans still profess Christian creeds, the outcome may not displease Kirk Fordice.