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Check Your Halo At The Door

Joe Lieberman is starting to make people uncomfortable with his religious rhetoric. And it's not just the usual suspects who are getting cranky. A prominent Jewish group, conservative Christians and some lefties are among Lieberman's new critics. So he must be doing something right (though Reality Check isn't sure what that is yet).

A variety of criticisms have come Lieberman's way since his remarks to a black church in Detroit this past Sunday. The most obvious point, however, hasn't been made: What does religion have to do with presiding over the Senate, the main constitutional duty of the vice president? That's the job he's seeking, not National Vice Chaplain. What's religion got to do with it?

Other criticisms of Lieberman come from several quite different angles and quarters, so let's consider the main complaints separately.

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Number One: Lieberman's statements undermine the First Amendment's separation of church and state.

This is the concern of Lieberman's most prominent, sober, and unlikely critic, the Anti-Defamation League of B'nai B'rith. The ADL is troubled by Lieberman's words in Detroit: "As a people we need to reaffirm our faith and renew the dedication of our nation and ourselves to God and God's purpose." They also are worried by his stated condemnation of the idea "that morality can be maintained without religion."

In a letter to Lieberman, the ADL argues that these remarks imply "one cannot be a moral person without being a religious person" which, they maintain, "is an affront to many highly ethical citizens." And they remind Lieberman that the First Amendment also demands that government not support "the religious over the non-religious."

The ADL is absolutely right.

Lieberman, unlike some conservative Christians, does not advocate using laws and government to bring more religiousness to society through school prayer or a ban on abortion. And no one thinks Lieberman wishes to foist Judaism on the populace. But this doesn't mean he shouldn't be taken to the constitutional woodshed when his public rhetoric is misguided and inappropriate, as his Detroit remarks were.

Number Two: When it comes to politics, there's a double standard for a conservative Christians and Democratic Jews.

This camp is convinced that Lieberman is getting away with things Republicans would get blasted for. The Washington Post quotes Richard Lessne of a conservative lobbying group called American Renewal as saying that if Bush had said what Lieberman said in Detroit, "You'd hear the militant separation of church and state crowd screaming bloody murder."

Well, I never knew there that was a "militant separation of church state crowd" before, but certainly there's bloody murder being shouted at Lieberman. And not just by the ADL. Op-ed pages and Web sites are full of it. So the double standard argument doesn't hold much water.

But the more important point is that Lieberman is not doing what usually makes the "separation crowd" go ballistic, namely advocating specific laws, policies or government actions that are based on religious views. There is a distinction. Lieberman's public religiosity should be analyzed differently for this reason, not because he is Jewish (hence a minority) or a Democrat.

Number Three: Lieberman is using religion as a campaign device.

Critics from vastly different perspectives make this point. "We think it cheapens religionÂ…. when you put religion on the campaign trail and you include it in your campaign rhetoric, you're hawking it," Abraham Foxman of the ADL told my CBS News colleague, Phil Jones.

The editor of the Web site Salon wrote that Lieberman is "cheapening religion by using it as a political tool." (Some of us think that it cheapens political tools, not religion, but that's another story.)

Of course the Gore campaign is using Lieberman's religion tactically. Lieberman was picked by Gore precisely because his on-the-sleeve religiosity and his early condemnation of Clinton's escapades gave him a public persona of Senator Moral. The fact that he's Jewish makes it a novelty act, and distinctly harder to criticize. Religious people and devoutly unreligious people alike can find this unappetizing.

Lieberman's religious beliefs may be sincere and his open discussion of them may be part of what he has always done in politics. It may even say something nice about the how tolerant the country is that a Jew can be so religious in such a public setting without stirring up any discernible bigotry.

But there's a long American tradition and instinct toward skepticism and resistance when politicians get too holy. It has served us well.