Remember the days when liberal groups screamed with fear on a daily basis about the onrush of the Christian right and raised millions by playing on the fear that Pat Robertson would seize power and force God's way down the throats of all freedom-loving Americans?

Earlier this week in Peoria, Ill., Democratic vice presidential candidate Joseph Lieberman was at it again. He said religion should be part of public life and politicians have an obligation to make America's "moral future better by the tone we set." Just over a week earlier, on Aug. 27 at the Fellowship Chapel Church in Detroit, Lieberman declared, "The Constitution guarantees freedom of religion, not freedom from religion." Lieberman nominated the Judeo-Christian God as the basis of morality and the spiritual engine of our society. "As a people," he said, "we need to reaffirm our faith and renew the dedication of our nation and ourselves to God and God's purpose."

So much for the separation of church and state. On its face, Lieberman's interpretation of the First Amendment's prohibition of state support for religion is ludicrous. The First Amendment is scarcely obscure: "Congress shall make no law respecting the establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof." Lieberman apears to be entirely ignorant the history of American common law and of democratic principles expressed in the Constitution and expanded thereafter.

Such principles allowed Americans to think as they pleased so long as they didn't harm other people or break the law. Whether they believed in God, Gaia or the sacred anima of the brussel sprout was their business. What Lieberman is proposing is a retrogressive throwback to the notion of religious-based 'ethical unity' that was prevalent prior to the American Revolution.

The significance of the abandonment of 'ethical unity' is well explained by William E. Nelson in his study of the evolution of American jurisprudence, "The Americanization of the Common Law":

"Taken together, the various libertarian changes in law (in the late 18th and early 19th centuries) did far more than merely restructure institutions, safeguard the procedural rights of criminal defendants and grant equal rights to certain previously underprivileged classes. Those changes contributed in important ways to the breakdown of the ideal inherited from the pre-revolutionary period that communities should stand united in the pursuit of shared ethical ends. The breakdown of ethical unity began in the 1780s with the virtual cessation of criminal prosecutions for various sorts of immorality. ... What was beginning to occur after the Revolution was not significantly more immorality but an abandonment of the pre-revolutionary notion that there was any one set of ethical standards that all men ought to obey.'"

The liberal response to Liberman's astounding assertions has been wretchedly feeble. If such words had come out of the mouth of Pat Buchanan or Pat Robertson, groups such as People for the American Way would have rushed to sound the alarm. But since Lieberman is a Democrat and furthermore a Democrat running as Al Gore's man, a decorous silence has mostly prevailed.

It's an odd day when one has to cite the Anti-Defamation League for doing the (obviously) right thing, since it almost never does. But on Aug. 28, the ADL published an open letter denouncing Lieberman's use of the elections to promote religion. The signatories, ADL National Chairman Howard Berkowitz and National Director Abraham Foxman, wrote: "The First Amendment requires that government neither support one religion over another nor the religious over the nonreligious. ... The United States is made up of many different types of people from different backgrounds and different faiths, including individuals who do not believe in any god, and none of our citizens, including atheistic Americans, should be made to feel outside of the electoral or political process." B'nai B'rith, the parent group of the ADL, hastily dissociated itself from Berkowitz and Foxman.

Gore, himself Born Again some years ago along with Tipper, found no reason to chide Lieberman. Indeed, the Democratic presidential candidate has an unappetising streak of sermonizing religiosity in his own character. Gore strenuously supported Tipper's repellent campaign in the mid-'80s to censor music and to persuade the recording industry to blacklist certain groups. Once again, liberal groups have remained mute on Gore's record.

In Detroit this week, Lieberman said to workers, "If you see men and women as created in the image of God, then you will not treat them as extensions of machines, as pure things to take advantage of, and that is what the labor movement is about, justice to people, fairness to people."

Note the senator's vagueness. Why not a few words about labor and the WTO? Labor and the flight of jobs overseas? Politicians to talk about God and morality as a way to avoid confronting truly unmentionable topics in this election, like trade or who's getting richer and who isn't. To get details on these topics you have to listen to Ralph Nader, not only the first Arab American to run for the presidency but the first in many years to spare us sermons about morality and God.

Alexander Cockburn is the co-author, with Jeffrey St. Clair, of Al Gore: A User's Manual, published by Verso. To find out more about Alexander Cockburn, and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate web page at COPYRIGHT 2000 CREATORS SYNDICATE, INC.