Two-way test

Hold the candidates responsible for both word and deed

Issue: "Lieberman vs. Gore," Aug. 19, 2000

So now, with the selection of Sen. Joseph Lieberman of Connecticut to be the vice-presidential candidate for the Democratic Party, what an unusual configuration we have for voters interested in how a person's faith affects his politics.

Republicans have in the top slot a man sometimes openly personal in expressing his allegiance to Jesus, sometimes a bit more guarded and distant, but officially and openly committed to making it easier for faith-based agencies to do their thing in the public square. In the GOP's second position is a man widely known for his vigorously conservative positions, but with virtually no public profile to explain how his faith commitments have helped him arrive at those policy decisions.

The Democrats, on the other hand, have a presidential candidate who, in good historic Southern Baptist tradition, affirms traditional biblical convictions about his private faith, but (like his predecessor Jimmy Carter) denies that he'd ever think of letting those private convictions affect public-policy decisions. Sen. Lieberman, on the other hand, is refreshingly open in discussing his Orthodox Jewish outlook: "My faith is part of me," he told reporters at his home last week. "It's been at the center of who I've been all my life."

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Mr. Lieberman is the first theologically Jewish candidate to be tapped for the presidential or vice-presidential nominations of a major party. Barry Goldwater, who won the Republican nomination for president in 1964, was of Jewish descent, though raised Episcopalian. But the late Mr. Goldwater is another good example of a man whose frequently conservative convictions had little to do with any faith commitments. Indeed, he was frequently profane and gruff about all such issues.

How important are convictions? Let me suggest a two-part test to be applied not just to all candidates for public office but to all the rest of us as well as we seek to live out in public the faith we profess in private. I'd call it a simple test-except that nothing like this is ever simple.

First, what a candidate says is important. It is profoundly important when a person says baldly that there's no connection between his faith and his actions. It is profoundly important when someone resorts to religious-sounding words and phrases that in fact have little meaning ("listening to a higher power," "honoring the faith of our fathers," etc.). It is profoundly important to discover that a person uses pious words in public while adopting an altogether different vocabulary (and pattern of behavior) out of the public eye.

Serious Christians, however, will go beyond the superficial use of words to explore still deeper meanings and nuances. For it is possible to use many of the right words in a non-hypocritical manner, and still to miss the deep riches of a biblical worldview. I was impressed, for example, in George W. Bush's acceptance speech when he made what appeared to be meaningful reference to themes like grace ("because I have seen it") and forgiveness ("because I have needed it"). Even more impressive was the practical application of a biblical perspective to hard issues-when he said that "times of plenty, like times of crisis, are tests of American character." And when he spoke, with rich allusion to Ronald Reagan's most famous moment, of a wall being built within our nation: "On one side are wealth and technology, education, and ambition. On the other side of the wall are poverty and prison, addiction, and despair. And, my fellow Americans, we must tear down that wall. Big government is not the answer. But the alternative to bureaucracy is not indifference."

Such rooted words are important-and they deserve careful hearing, no matter what candidate they come from.

But second, what a candidate does is also critical. "Talk is cheap," I heard an old man say when I was a boy. "It takes money to buy land."

Whether hypocritically glib or genuinely eloquent, all the talk in the world means nothing if not accompanied by political skill, determination, and follow-through. I have taken heat this political season, as has WORLD magazine in general, for not giving more backing to candidates like Alan Keyes and Howard Phillips. So let me say bluntly: I honor both those men highly as prophets of truth. But their political records suggest far less effectiveness as implementers of the truth they eloquently express.

God made us to be people of both word and deed. A candidate's words explain the deeds he sets out to do, and his deeds then validate what he has said. Both the Democrats in their convention and the Republicans who will rejoin them on the campaign trail should be held responsible on both fronts.

Joel Belz
Joel Belz

Joel, WORLD's founder, writes a regular column for the magazine and contributes commentaries for The World and Everything in It. He is also the author of Consider These Things.

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