Lieberman lovefest

Americans embrace self-discipline because it's all about self

Issue: "Life after Clinton?," Aug. 26, 2000

Now that we know in significantly more detail how seriously Sen. Joe Lieberman takes his Orthodox Jewish faith, and how unapologetically he lives that out even in the face of a campaign for the nation's highest offices, it's worth looking again at some of the implications. What happens when a secularist society suddenly confronts a man whose faith is a huge part of who he is?

In modern America, at least three things happen:

A double standard appears. In the early media response to specific information about what it means for Mr. Lieberman to live his life as an "observant" Jew, there was fascination. Curiously lacking was the embarrassment that the same reporters and pundits had exhibited a few months earlier when George W. Bush said matter-of-factly that Jesus Christ was the person who had exerted the greatest influence on his life. The oddity of a Jesus-centered profession produced guffaws and eye-rolling among media people. The oddity of a Jewish man refusing to flip a light switch on his Sabbath day produced something approaching admiration.

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Michael Medved, himself an Orthodox Jew, analyzed that double standard brilliantly in the August 11 Wall Street Journal. "We heard an eery silence," noted Mr. Medved, "from the liberal watchdogs who normally snap and snarl if Republican candidates claim divine authority for their positions." Imagine the media scorn if Mr. Bush or his running mate worshipped at a church each week where men and women were required to sit in separate parts of the room. That's the standard at Mr. Lieberman's synagogue.

Self-discipline gets very good press. Yet, even after taking that double standard into account, another factor is at work. All of us have a certain fascination with those who exhibit unusual discipline in life. When we hear of an ice skater who wakes up at four every morning to practice, or a pianist who concentrates on nothing but scales for an hour every day, or a faster who goes without food for 40 days, we are intrigued.

Americans took notice in 1976 when they found out that Jimmy Carter made his own bed every morning. I doubt if a lot more folks started making their own beds because of his example; it was just a matter of fascination, in an era of personal slovenliness, that someone actually did such a thing.

So when we hear now that Mr. and Mrs. Lieberman will not be campaigning on their Sabbath, we shake our heads in disbelief (the word sabbath is not even in my computer's spell-checker). When we learn that, scheduled to catch a plane from Washington just 10 minutes after their Sabbath ends, but forbidden by their Jewish law to ride in a car during the Sabbath, they walk for 10 miles to get to the airport-secular Americans find their jaws dropping in incredulity. Are there really still people around who are that fastidious about their faith?

There's irony, of course, that someone who takes part of the Torah so seriously dismisses other parts of it at will. But for the moment, give the man his due. Where's the professing Protestant in public life with so disciplined a walk? Where's the confessing Catholic half so well known for diligence in practicing his faith's requirements? Baseball pitcher Sandy Koufax wouldn't play on his Jewish sacred days. Where's the public Christian in modern times to match such devotion?

The idea of grace gets resisted. But still another factor is also at work in all this. I call it the natural human resistance to God's means of solving our problems. It is the resistance we all have to grace.

Our resistance to grace starts by denying that any deep problem exists. We pretend we're basically OK. We call our sins "mistakes." Those errors have more to do with failing to achieve our own standards than falling short of God's perfection.

And, of course, if our problems are minimal, we need minimal help. In fact, we can probably help ourselves. Instead of repentance, we merely need counsel. The solutions are internal rather than external. A good dose of self-discipline will probably be all the medicine we need to recover from the horrible headaches brought on by Clinton-era excess.

The core of the Christian faith, though, is that our human problems (both personal and societal) are so big that only a God-sized solution will help. No amount of self-effort or self-discipline, no matter how noble, is enough to compensate for the radical nature of our failure. But we shouldn't kid ourselves. Our secularist society stubbornly resists such a message. We're still proud enough to think we can fix things on our own. To admit the need for outside help is humiliating and demeaning.

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