Senators probe politics and piety in new books

August 17, 2011

WASHINGTON (RNS) Truth be told, when asked to name a spiritual role
model, few people would likely pick a sitting U.S. senator.

In fact, with congressional approval ratings at record lows, few
lawmakers -- Democrats or Republicans -- would seem to qualify as a
profile in righteousness.

But two new books this summer, Sen. Jim DeMint's "The Great American
Awakening" and Sen. Joe Lieberman's "The Gift of Rest," are trying to
push back against the image of a godless Senate.

To be sure, DeMint and Lieberman have differences both political and
religious: DeMint is a Tea Party Republican from South Carolina and a
self-described "follower of Christ," while Lieberman, an observant Jew
from Connecticut, is a sometimes unpredictable Independent.

But their books offer equally intimate glimpses into the spiritual
lives of America's elected officials.

On the surface, DeMint's "The Great American Awakening" is primarily
focused on the insurgent conservative movement, particularly the Tea
Party.

"The book is really about what Americans did between when Obama was
elected and the 2010 elections," DeMint said in an interview. "The power
has shifted out of the hands of Washington and back into the hands of
the people where it belongs."

While the topic is technically more about politics than religion,
DeMint said the title of the book is meant to echo the Second Great
Awakening, a period of religious revival in the early 19th century.

"(The Tea Party) is as much a spiritual awakening as a political
awakening," said DeMint, a Presbyterian. "The concern about our country
... has awakened the faith of many people."

DeMint frequently cites Christian theology and biblical passages to
help make his points. "The spiritual assessment is just the lens I look
through," he said.

Such strong connections between faith and politics seem second
nature to DeMint in his book. Arguing that the separation of church and
state "is contrary to what our founders envisioned," he attacks the idea
of big government on spiritual grounds.

"Big government is a religious issue," DeMint writes. "History shows
in nations where there is a big government, there is a little God. When
people are dependent on government, they are less dependent on God, and
their spiritual fervor fades. Socialism and secularism go hand in hand,
as do faith and freedom."

DeMint admitted that he hasn't always been so passionate about his
faith. His political education started later in life, around the same
time he started his faith journey.

"I had never spoken in public until I was 25," he said. "My first
public talk was giving my testimony. ... I had some time wasted up until
that point."

In addition to attending a weekly Senate prayer breakfast, DeMint
meets once a week with a bipartisan group of Senators to pray and "keep
each other accountable" despite the often tense political environment of
Washington.

"(These meetings) help me recognize the bond we have in Christ and
the love we have for each other even when we disagree, sometimes
strongly," DeMint said. "I think it helps keep the flame (of faith)
alive."

While DeMint speaks to a larger group of the faithful in his book,
Lieberman's "The Gift of Rest" centers around his personal understanding
of the Jewish Sabbath, the 24-hour period of rest and worship that
starts each Friday at sundown and lasts until Saturday evening.

Lieberman, who in 2000 became the first Jew to receive a major
party's nomination for vice president, often prays in Orthodox
synagogues and takes the ritual seriously.

"Observing the Sabbath is a commandment I have embraced, the fourth
commandment to be exact, which Moses received from God on Mt. Sinai,"
Lieberman writes. "For me, Sabbath observance is a gift because it is
one of the deepest, purest pleasures in my life."

Lieberman's Sabbath-keeping, which usually means refraining from
work and shunning electronics or cars, has sometimes complicated his
political life. Lieberman almost never holds campaign or political
events on Saturdays, and once had to scramble to find a non-Jewish
staffer to drive him to a last-minute budget meeting at the Capitol.

Lieberman will still go to vote in occasional late-night Friday or
Saturday sessions, but only after walking the hour-and-a-half trek to
the Capitol from his home in Georgetown, even in the rain.

"I think that there has actually been a balance between honoring the
Sabbath and honoring your responsibilities to others," he said.
The retiring senator said his faith supports his role as a lawmaker.

"Judaism is a religion that is focused on the law and the
distinctions between right and wrong," Lieberman said. "I don't call my
rabbi to ask how I should vote on the budget, but there is no question
that a series of values that come with my religion ... have had an
effect on me."