WASHINGTON - After several weeks of watching from the sidelines, liberal advocacy groups and civil libertarians laid into Democratic vice presidential nominee Joseph I. Lieberman yesterday for what they saw as his overt and inappropriate use of religion on the campaign trail.
Conservatives have charged that the groups harbor a double standard, quickly criticizing Christian conservatives when they make religious references while holding their tongues as Lieberman, the first Jewish candidate on a major national ticket, evoked God at many campaign stops.
But after the Anti-Defamation League publicly asked Lieberman on Monday to temper his religiosity, the American Civil Liberties Union, People for the American Way, and Americans United for the Separation of Church and State all lodged their disaffection.
Ralph Neas, president of People for the American Way, said Lieberman, a Connecticut senator, "crossed the line" this weekend when he declared that "there must be a place for faith in America's public life."
Barry Lynn, executive director of Americans United for the Separation of Church and State, condemned Lieberman's "dramatic escalation" in religious rhetoric.
"It's time for some equal opportunity criticism," Lynn said. "This has gone way over the edge in both parties. It's time to stop telling us what you think about Deuteronomy and the parting of the Red Sea and tell us about your positions on economic policy and prescription drugs."
Democratic campaign officials did little to tamp the dissent, in part because such criticism could help Vice President Al Gore and his running mate burnish their images as centrists willing to buck the more liberal wing of their party. Gore and campaign aides did stress publicly and privately to the Anti-Defamation League that Lieberman has always been a defender of religious tolerance.
"He also believes, as I do, in separation of church and state," Gore said. "I believe in what he's saying. He's a man of great faith, and I knew that when I selected him."
Ever since Lieberman was tapped for the ticket, he has evoked God and cited Scripture to explain who he is and what beliefs inform his political positions. At the Aug. 8 rally to announce his selection, he referred to God more than a dozen times.
But this weekend, Lieberman's evocation of religious themes began taking on a tone that was more political than biographical.
On Sunday, he told the congregation at a Detroit church that he hoped his candidacy would reinstate "a place of faith in America's public life."
On Monday, he told an interfaith breakfast in Chicago: "This is the most religious country in the world, and sometimes we try to stifle that fact or hide it. But the profound and ultimately most important reality is that we are not only citizens of this blessed country, we are citizens of the same awesome God."
Lieberman said that the Democratic plan to add a prescription drug benefit to Medicare was in keeping with the commandment to "Honor thy father and mother." He even tied Gore's proposal to preserve much of the federal budget surplus to Joseph's efforts in the Bible to save Egypt's surplus grain for a prophesied famine.
It was his Sunday call for a religious place in public life that prompted the Anti-Defamation League - a unit of the Jewish service organization B'nai B'rith devoted to fighting bigotry - to formally lodge a protest late the next afternoon. In an open letter to Lieberman, ADL National Chairman Howard P. Berkowitz and ADL National Director Abraham H. Foxman wrote: "We feel very strongly, and we hope you would agree, that appealing along religious lines, or belief in God, is contrary to the American ideal."
Religious themes and issues have arisen throughout the presidential campaign. Last December, Foxman and Berkowitz wrote to eight candidates seeking the Republican and Democratic nominations, imploring that "public profession of religious beliefs should not become an elemental part of our political campaigns."
But elemental they have been. During the primaries, Texas Gov. George W. Bush asserted not only that Jesus was his savior but also the philosopher who had influenced him the most. When he joined nine other governors in signing a "Jesus Day" proclamation for his state, it caused a momentary but muffled protest.
Gore has called himself a "born-again" Christian, and evoked the popular phrase, "What Would Jesus Do?" And both major party nominees have advocated the channeling of taxpayer funds to religious-based organizations.
Yesterday, Republican vice presidential nominee Dick Cheney spoke before the Fellowship of Christian Athletes in Kansas City, Mo., advocating teaching tolerance "as Christ taught."
"There's become this kind of orthodoxy with all the campaigns, a comfort with these professions of public piety," ACLU Executive Director Ira Glasser said. "It's almost as if there's now a religious test for office."
To religious conservatives, the tone of Campaign 2000 has been a welcome change.
Gary L. Bauer, a social conservative and former Republican presidential candidate, condemned the Anti-Defamation League letter to Lieberman as "outrageous" and "anti-Semitic."
"They're telling the most prominent Orthodox Jew in America he ought to hide his faith under a bushel basket," he said.
Richard Lessner, vice president of American Renewal, a socially conservative lobbying group, said: "Our country is a profoundly religious country, in that we asserted at our founding that our liberties are derived from God. If what [Lieberman] is getting at is that understanding of America, I welcome it."
At the same time, Lessner complained that while Lieberman may speak highly of God's place in public life, he has not advocated that position in Congress. Legislation in the House advocating the public display of the Ten Commandments has not found a Senate champion in Lieberman, nor has the movement to allow voluntary prayer in public schools, he said.
Foxman and Lieberman both conceded the point. Foxman said Lieberman aides contacted him to point to a 20-year public record that has been mindful of the separation of church and state and respectful of other faiths and traditions.
But neither that phone call nor that record could temper Foxman's criticism.
"Now he's a candidate for vice president, and he's saying, 'Vote for me, because I am a man of God,'" Foxman said.
Lieberman spokesman Kiki McLean said Lieberman believes the Anti-Defamation League "does a lot of good work."
"But in this particular instance," she added, "he respectfully disagrees."
Foxman conceded that in a country as religious as the United States, his criticism could help the Democratic ticket.
"Certainly it doesn't hurt," he said.