Oh, God

Why Religion Doesn't Have a Prayer in New York Politics

We're a bunch of sinners. We ignore the cries of neighbors when they are being mugged on our streets. We scheme for money on Wall Street and lavish it on sex, drugs, and designer-label excess. We pierce ourselves in unusual places and sleep with partners of the same sex. Even our mayor stopped just short of hiring an airplane to advertise his adulterous ways. (His critics say he is guilty of worse: slashing public assistance to thousands who need it, ignoring police brutality, poisoning New Yorkers with insecticide spray.) Ours is a crowded and colorful city, where, evangelist Billy Graham in 1991 said, "There's little space for others, let alone God," and which he in 1957 compared to the biblical cities of sin, Sodom and Gomorrah.

Certainly for some New Yorkers, like 25-year-old West Village native Rachel Dawson, Democratic vice presidential candidate Joseph Lieberman's enthusiastic invocation of God during his first public remarks as Al Gore's chosen one on August 8 introduced an "unsettling" and "incongruous" notion. A self-described progressive liberal, Dawson says the repetition of "God" nearly a dozen times inside of 90 seconds is "not the kind of thing I expect to hear from our government leaders." Her father, Harry Dawson, who has taught in a Catholic school for 35 years and grew up in Indiana with a "fundamentalist" mother, is also "spooked" by the mixing of God and government. He says, "It's such a slippery slope—how do you strike the balance between your faith and your power?"

It's tough to imagine New Yorkers' being impressed when George W. Bush cited Jesus Christ as the best political philosopher of all time—surely at least a million of us wondered if he had simply been unable to think of any other names. And the Republicans' Christianity-laced doctrine of family values has never been popular here, even with leaders who despise welfare moms and homeless squeegee peddlers. (For all of Bill Clinton's free talk of the Bible, starting with his 1992 presidential campaign, his professed beliefs have never been confused with family values.) But Lieberman—an ethnic minority, a Northeasterner, a wisecracker New Yorkers can almost relate to—plucked God out of the cornfields and brought him to the polyglot streets of the city. What were all the Buddhists, Hindus, reform Jews, black Protestants, Asian Protestants, Irish Catholics, Latino Catholics, Muslims, secularists, atheists, and skeptics among us to think?

Lieberman avoided the question last week, putting the lid on any holy talk in his stock convention address. Whether the decision was meant to minimize attention to his Orthodox Jewishness, to accommodate progressive Democrats like the Dawsons, or merely to follow the subdued Mini-Me formula of running mates, consultants say he made the right move as far as New York City is concerned.

"God is a live hand grenade in New York politics," according to Norman Adler, a political adviser for both Democrats and Republicans. "If you invoke a blessing in the name of Jesus Christ, there's a lot of Jews and Muslims and Unitarians, not to mention lots and lots of secular people, who are very bothered by that." Adler advises his local clients "to be very, very careful about invoking God" and observes that "politicians in New York are very careful about trotting out their faith in public." The reluctance of the city's major elected officials—the mayor, comptroller, public advocate, and even City Council speaker, whose daily trips to mass are public knowledge—to discuss their faith (or lack thereof) for this article indicates that Adler is correct.

Former mayors Ed Koch and David Dinkins offer typical New York versions of piety: Neither attended religious services with any frequency during his tenure, but both relied on a general sort of spirituality to get through the tough times. Koch quickly assures that he didn't go so far as to "ask God, 'God, please give the city of New York a budgetary surplus.' " Rather, "my prayer was, 'Dear God, give me the strength to deal with,' " for example, the 11-day transit workers' strike in 1980. Dinkins says his faith was a resource as he attempted to manage racial tensions following the Crown Heights disturbance in the summer of 1991. But when asked how religion plays in New York politics, Dinkins offers as an exemplary strategy that of the Catholic John F. Kennedy, who, Dinkins says, emphasized his devotion to the Constitution and downplayed his religious loyalties.

In fact, political consultant Hank Sheinkopf, 50, says, "in my lifetime, we haven't had the experience of someone who is an overtly religious person and for whom that is an essential part of their up-front persona as a candidate for a large office" in New York.

While it is "the nature of New York" to be "suspicious" of religious passion in politicians, according to Sheinkopf, Lieberman is commonly perceived to be sincere in his zeal and therefore passes the smell test. More questionable for conservative and progressive Democrats alike is Lieberman's last-minute retooling of conservative stances in areas such as affirmative action and school vouchers. "Who is the real Joe Lieberman?" asks state assemblyman Dov Hikind of Boro Park, a conservative Democrat who is nevertheless supporting the Gore-Lieberman ticket. His "flip-flopping on all the issues" is most disturbing to Hikind, who fears "he's going to lose everybody on every side."

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