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CNN Today

Is Joseph Lieberman Talking Too Much About Religion?

Aired August 29, 2000 - 2:01 p.m. ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.

LOU WATERS, CNN ANCHOR: A prominent Jewish leader criticizes Joe Lieberman for emphasizing religion in the race for the White House. The criticism comes from Abraham Foxman, who's national director of the Anti-Defamation League.

Quoted today in "The New York Times," Mr. Foxman says: "There's nothing wrong with a person professing their faith and going to church or synagogue." But in Foxman's words, Lieberman is "almost hawking" it.

Since his selection as Al Gore's running mate, Lieberman has made a point of stressing his Orthodox Jewish beliefs. On the campaign trail, he often invokes Scripture and speaks of public and private morality. In remarks at a church on Sunday, Lieberman said he hoped his nomination would lead to a greater role for religion here in America.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SEN. JOESEPH LIEBERMAN (D-CT), VICE PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: I hope it will enable people, all people who are moved, to feel more free to talk about their faith and about their religion. And I hope that it will reinforce a belief that I feel as strongly as anything else that there must be a place for faith in America's public life.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

WATERS: Partly in response to those comments, the ADL's Foxman wrote to Lieberman Monday and asked that he change his rhetoric to exclude what he called "overt expressions" of religious belief. Up to now, we have heard no response from Senator Lieberman.

Abraham Foxman joins us from New York, the national director of the Anti-Defamation League. Let me go back to the letter you sent to all candidates in December of '99 in which you said, "Appealing to voters along religious lines is contrary to the American ideal."

Since then, we've had George Bush declaring Jesus Day, Al Gore declaring he's a born-again Christian. Everything that you seem to be objecting to is happening in this presidential campaign.

ABRAHAM FOXMAN, NATIONAL DIRECTOR, ANTI-DEFAMATION LEAGUE: It seems to be endemic in this campaign. There's a time and a place for everything. The place for religion is in church, in synagogue, in the home, and in one's heart. Certainly, we think it's contrary to the American tradition to put on a campaign trail, to say "Vote for me because I'm a believer." Vote for me because I believe in Jesus Christ or I believe in God or I believe in faith.

WATERS: So what do you make of it being made apart of the campaign? First, we had the Christian right, or the so-called "Christian right" now being quite quiet in this campaign to these expressions of faith by -- by all of the candidates.

FOXMAN: Well, I think we have to get their attention and to have them understand that this country was founded to protect religious freedom. And the beauty of our democracy in that it has provided for religious tolerance and religious pluralism is the very fact that we removed religion from politics, we removed it from government, and that's why it flourishes. And now, there's this sudden need of whatever is motivating it to put it on the campaign trail, to make part of the campaign issue. We believe it's counterproductive to the social fabric of our country and the tradition that our founding fathers established.

WATERS: But isn't it all about family values and morals, which we've seen in every recent political campaign? And now with President Clinton's scandal -- and just before the convention we saw him in a conclave of ministers talking about public penance and redemption -- and Al Gore trying to distance himself in that regard from President Clinton, isn't it all about family values and morals only under a different guise?

FOXMAN: Well, it may well be motivated and the strategy may be that since this is a religious country -- and all the polls indicate such -- and since out there is a crisis of values, that this is the answer. But it isn't the answer, because this is one man's answer.

There is no universal value. There is no universal standard of morality. We've come about it through years of blending and all kinds of faiths, traditions, institutions, democratic values from the experience of history. To say that it's God's, to say it belongs to a faith, to say that our morality is based by religious faith certainly excludes millions of Americans who either do not believe, are agnostic or atheist. And since this is a country that we've been told is founded Christian -- Judeo-Christian values, what about the Buddhists, what about the Muslims, what about the other believers?

WATERS: You said you had to get the politicians' attention. You sent this letter I referred to last December. You just advised Senator Lieberman that he had "crossed the line," your words, in his recent statements about faith in politics. Are you hearing anything back from any of these politicians?

FOXMAN: Well, we've had conversations. I've spoken to members of the campaign staff of Senator Lieberman. We know Senator Lieberman. We know that he values separation of state and church. He's voted that way for 20 years. We are concerned about the rhetoric.

I think they heard us. I think they are sensitive. What they will do and how will they will do it is up to them. But I think our message came across to Bush, to Vice President Gore, and there's no question in my mind that they hear the message. How they will respond is there prerogative.

WATERS: All right, Abraham Foxman, thanks so much for coming in today.

FOXMAN: Thank you.

WATERS: Mr. Foxman is national director of the Anti-Defamation League.

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