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Senator Joseph Lieberman: American extraordinaire

Sen. Joe Lieberman, I-Conn., speaks at the United States Coast Guard Academy in New London, Connecticut, April 27, 2012.
Sen. Joe Lieberman, I-Conn., speaks at the United States Coast Guard Academy in New London, Connecticut, April 27, 2012. | Public Domain/US Coast Guard Academy

I was saddened to hear the news of the somewhat sudden death of Joseph Lieberman, a four-term senator from Connecticut (1989-2013) and the Democrat nominee for vice president in 2000, making history as the first Jewish candidate to grace a national party ticket.

During that very tightly contested 2000 presidential campaign, then-Senator Lieberman emphasized his Jewish faith, declaring that you could not understand him as a candidate or as a man without understanding the truly significant role his faith played in all areas of his life. He described himself as an “observant” Jew (rather than strict, orthodox). He observed Jewish dietary kosher practices and strictly observed the Jewish sabbath.

Mr. Lieberman once walked across Washington to the Capitol building on the sabbath to stop a Republican filibuster without violating strictures against disallowed sabbath modes of transportation.

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Lieberman had a hard-won, well-deserved reputation as a good, decent man who loved his God, his wife, and his country.

Despite the fact that the Yale Law School student Bill Clinton was a tremendous help in Lieberman’s first successful run for public office in 1970, Lieberman was the first major Democrat figure to condemn publicly President Clinton’s illicit sexual relationship with White House intern Monica Lewinsky. Lieberman condemned President Clinton’s behavior, acknowledging that while “I liked him,” “I really felt that what he did was truly awful.” Senator Lieberman later reported that President Clinton told him, “I just want you to know that there’s nothing you said in that speech that I disagree with.”

As The New York Times put it in the headline of his obituary on March 28, Senator Lieberman was a “Symbol of Rectitude ... ” Political scientists would call the Yale Law School-educated senator a “centrist Democrat.” While solidly within his party’s boundaries on reproductive rights, environmental issues, etc., he was considerably more hawkish on foreign policy.

Perhaps his best friend in the Senate was Republican Senator John McCain, and McCain reportedly almost named Lieberman as his vice presidential running mate in 2008, before selecting Gov. Sarah Palin of Alaska. 

Senator Lieberman’s thoroughgoing moral rectitude won admiration from all those with whom he came into contact.

Read 'A man of devout faith': 8 faith leaders, politicians react to the passing of Joe Lieberman

As the New Yorker said in a 2002 profile, “He may be a thoroughgoing moderate in his politics, but he is a true conservative in temperament and style. ... His world is an orderly place where people wait in line, take their turns and generally behave themselves.”

I developed a cordial, friendly relationship with the senator during my time doing public policy advocacy (1988-2013) in Washington, and while we certainly disagreed on important social issues, I admired his character and how he conducted himself.

It became apparent to me that he loved America and that he understood the uniqueness of our great country. He very graciously volunteered to write the forward to my book, “The Divided States of America. What Liberals AND Conservatives Get Wrong About Faith and Politics.” (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2007).

As I read his forward to my book, I was amazed by the similarity of our vision of America. Here was Senator Lieberman, son of 19th century Jewish immigrants, raised in Connecticut, whose father owned a liquor store, and me, whose family first settled in Virginia in the 1630s, raised in Texas as the son of a Baptist welder, and we had the same vision for our remarkable country.

In his forward, Senator Lieberman wrote the following:

“Dr. Land writes that our Founding Fathers did not set out to create a Christian nation, though almost all of them were Christian. But he also reminds us that they did found their new nation on faith in God and intended it to be a country in which religion was honored and freedom of religion was protected.

Dr. Land is right. The United States is a faith-based institution. You see it right at the beginning in the first American document, the Declaration of Independence, where our Founders said they were forming their new government to ‘secure’ the rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, which were (and are) the ‘endowment’ of our Creator.

I see American history as a journey to secure these rights. It is a journey in which faith-based groups have fittingly played very progressive parts. The abolitionist movement in the nineteenth century and the great fights for social welfare and civil rights in the twentieth century were each led by religious leaders and their faithful.

“To try to separate America and its people from their faith in God and the values it engenders is an unnatural and unnecessary act.”

In 2005 I had the privilege of being a guest on Meet the Press with Senator Lieberman. During the course of the interview, Senator Lieberman said the following:

“This is a country founded by Christians, a majority of whose citizens are Christians. But…those rights to life, liberty and a pursuit of happiness, which we have as the endowment of our Creator, have been given to everybody. So this is a nation that—the majority of which is Christian. I will say to you as a Jewish American that I believe in the 5,765 years of Jewish history, there has never been a country, other than Israel during certain times in its history, which has given Jews more freedom…That’s the glory of this country and, frankly, the grace and gift of the Christians who founded the country. (Joseph Lieberman, Faith in America, on Meet the Press, March 20, 2005).”

This is the glorious heritage bequeathed to us by our forefathers, and it is up to us as Americans to protect it and pass it on undiminished to our children and to our grandchildren.

P.S. I would be remiss if I did not express my gratitude for Senator Lieberman’s book, The Gift of Rest, Rediscovering the Gift of the Sabbath (2012). As I told the senator at the time, it ministered to this overcommitted Protestant Work Ethic addict and caused me to stop and “smell the roses” more often. Thank you, Senator Lieberman, for everything.

Dr. Richard Land, BA (Princeton, magna cum laude); D.Phil. (Oxford); Th.M (New Orleans Seminary). Dr. Land served as President of Southern Evangelical Seminary from July 2013 until July 2021. Upon his retirement, he was honored as President Emeritus and he continues to serve as an Adjunct Professor of Theology & Ethics. Dr. Land previously served as President of the Southern Baptist Convention's Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission (1988-2013) where he was also honored as President Emeritus upon his retirement. Dr. Land has also served as an Executive Editor and columnist for The Christian Post since 2011.

Dr. Land explores many timely and critical topics in his daily radio feature, “Bringing Every Thought Captive,” and in his weekly column for CP.

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