Mount Sinai remains on the political map

One thing is certain amid the chaos and nail biting of the White House race -- the religious left now knows that Mount Sinai has not been erased from the political map.

"The tablets that Moses brought down from the top of Mount Sinai were not the Ten Suggestions. ... (They) were the Ten Commandments. But more and more people feel free to pick and choose from them," said Sen. Joe Lieberman at Notre Dame University, in a key speech during the home stretch.

"Without the connection to a higher law, we have made it more and more difficult for people to answer the question why it is wrong to lie, cheat or steal; to settle conflicts with violence, to be unfaithful to one's spouse, or to exploit children; to despoil the environment, to defraud a customer or to demean any employee."

But wait. This week's soap opera also demonstrated that America remains divided right down the middle on issues rooted in morality and religion. There is a chasm that separates the heartland and the elite coasts, small towns and big cities, the Boy Scouts and the Girl Scouts, those who commune in sanctuary pews and those who flock to cappuccino joints.

The divide in this election went "deeper than politics. It reached into the nation's psyche," noted David Broder of the Washington Post, one of the patriarchs of political journalism. George W. Bush and Dick Cheney defeated Al Gore and Lieberman by 30 percentage points among voters who were worried about the nation's moral health.

But let's face it. Some of the Ten Commandments fare better in focus-group surveys than others, decades after Woodstock and the sexual revolution. Americans yearn for a sense of right and wrong, but flinch when it comes time to post moral codes in the public square.

At Notre Dame, Lieberman did everything he could to chart a centrist moral path for those on the political left, as he looked into the future. Tolerance is one thing, he said. "Moral ambivalence" is another.

Lieberman's speech ranged from 18th Century's Great Awakening to the Civil Rights movement, from the prophet Hosea to America's Founding Fathers, from the wisdom of the Koran to the follies of Hollywood. He quoted Catholic conservative Michael Novak, as well as liberal evangelical Jim Wallis. He tried to cover the whole map.

So what does America need to do to exercise the "moral muscles" that Lieberman said are so important? How can we fill the "values vacuum" that has so many citizens nervous about any and all truth claims?

America, he said, must once again commit itself to a "civic religion" that is "deistic, principled, purposeful, moral, public and not least of all inclusive." At the heart of this vague creed is a core of shared values, such as "faith, family and freedom; equal opportunity, respect for the basic dignity of human life; and tolerance for individual differences."

But government cannot "nourish our souls" or "control all of our behavior," stressed Lieberman. Religious institutions and families must do that. But what the government can affirm that the "inviolability of our rights and the mission of our republic" have been "inextricably linked to our belief in God and a higher law."

The problem is that the higher laws handed down by Judaism, Christianity and Islam include doctrines about what behaviors are right and what behaviors are wrong. Meanwhile, it's inevitable that the government will come down on one side or the other when dealing with moral issues that affect education, tax laws, social policies and free speech. Tax dollars will be used to endorse some moral laws and undercut others.

It will be impossible to avoid these debates, on the left and the right.

"Despite our material abundance, there is a persistent sense of unease about our moral future," said Lieberman. "As people peer into the national looking glass, they do not like the reflection of our values they see -- the continued breakdown of families, the coarsening of our public life, the pollution of our culture. ...

"To most of us, this America, particularly the fearful America of Columbine and Jonesboro and Paducah, is not the America we knew, nor is it the America we want to be."