A more perfect Union: Former Sen. Joe Lieberman discusses the Constitution
At a troubled time in American politics, one man has a unique perspective, having been at the center of several key turning points. Joe Lieberman is a former senator and vice-presidential candidate.
He sat down with KSL’s Boyd Matheson for our series, “A More Perfect Union,” exploring the principles of the Constitution. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Boyd Matheson: Why does the Constitution still matter today? Some people think it’s a relic, backward-facing document. Why is it relevant?
Sen. Joe Lieberman: First, thanks for focusing on the Constitution. It really guides our lives. I mean, as Americans, it sets the structure for so much that encompasses our freedom or business activity or personal activity. The Constitution really secured the future of the United States of America because here we are, more than 230 years later, and this constitution is still providing us with the ground rules of American society, but also is the foundation of what really distinguishes us, which is that we are a rule of law society.
Boyd Matheson: I want to dive into that just a little bit in terms of that, to the balance of the strength of the government but also citizens have a role to live with virtue in the public square.
Sen. Joe Lieberman: That’s a really important point, George Washington and the farewell address, said, I’m paraphrasing, ‘Do not suppose that the, that America will be a moral nation, without the power of faith and religion.’ And I think what he meant was, he described it amplified a little bit. But I think what Washington meant by that was, in our Constitution and our first laws creating a government of limited powers, we’re not going to tell everyone what to do with every moment, because then we wouldn’t be a free people, we’d be back to a monarchy or a dictatorship. So there have to be other sources, other motivations for good behavior, that are non-governmental. And Washington and a lot of the founding fathers felt that there was none better to play that role than religion. That was true then. And it’s true today. And the amazing thing, of course, about the founders is that they did that, although they were all really Christians, they did it without creating an official religion. In fact, in the First Amendment, they decreed that there could not be ever in America, the establishment of an official religion.
Boyd Matheson: Let’s talk about some of those first freedoms. Yeah, how vital they are in the world today, they all seem to be more interconnected than I think we often focus on.
Sen. Joe Lieberman: If all those freedoms articulated both in the Constitution and then certainly in the Bill of Rights don’t connect, we’re not a free people. I mean, what your question brings back to, once I went with a delegation of senators to Uzbekistan, and there was a man named Karima, who was the dictator there. And being good American senators, we raised the question of human rights. So, he said, “If I’m not mistaken, all of you senators are either Christian or Jewish. So, I urge you this is a majority Muslim country. It talked to the Jewish and Christian citizens of my country and asked them if they have freedom of religion.”
Well, that was interesting. So, we actually met with a group of human rights activists in Uzbekistan the next day at the U.S. Embassy. So, we asked them the question, and they said, “Well, generally speaking, he’s right, we have freedom of religion. But if we say the slightest word of criticism toward the dictator, regardless of our religion, we’re in jail, or worse.” In other words, it wasn’t enough to just have freedom of religion, it also had to be matched with the political freedom and freedom of the press, particularly, which in a lot of countries does not exist. So Religious freedom is a premise. And I think faith is a premise for a lot of the rights that were embraced in our Constitution, but freedom of religion is not enough and hasn’t been enough in America, to make us a truly free society, we have to have all those other freedoms that are dear to us.
Boyd Matheson: You spent a good portion of your life under oath, to protect and defend the Constitution. What did that mean to you?
Sen. Joe Lieberman: Well, when I took those oaths, I really took it to be sacred. And as you will know, the tradition is to put your hand on a Bible, when you do it, because it does make it an oath. So it’s meant to me that I had to do whatever I could really to uphold the principles in the Constitution and most fundamentally, to keep America a country that was truly free.
Boyd Matheson: Often the keeping of that oath, is the challenging part, we live in a world of situational ethics is a real thing. You’ve had to have those times as we always say, it’s easy to shout at your enemies, it’s much harder to tell your friends, they’re wrong. You’ve had times where you’ve had to have that kind of integrity to live up to that oath to the Constitution.
Sen. Joe Lieberman: It challenges us at different times. I mean, I will be as open as I can be your question. Takes me back to when the Clinton Lewinsky scandal broke. I had known Bill Clinton since he was at Yale Law School. I lived in New Haven, and we became friends he got he was actually a volunteer my very first campaign for a state senator, I was the first senator to the outside of Arkansas to support him when he ran for president in 1992. And I really believed in what he was doing, but then this awful scandal comes out and I really wrestle it first because I want to believe his denial. So, I remain silent but agitated. And then when he acknowledged that he had not told the truth about this relationship with this young woman, I really ..it boiled up in me. And there’s no question my religious upbringing, but specifically, the examples that the Bible provides send a message which is that the greater your authority, the greater your responsibility to live by a code of right and wrong because if you don’t uphold your values, presumably the values that you believe God wants you to uphold the consequences are much more severe than if an average person doesn’t uphold them. It was painful because he was my friend. But I look back at it. And I’m glad. I’m glad I do.
Boyd Matheson: What’s the one thing you wish that citizens across the country would think about relating to the Constitution? What’s the one thing that we’re just missing?
Sen. Joe Lieberman: So, I think the most important thing is for people across the country to appreciate how fortunate really blessed we are, to live in a country that’s been guided by this document, the American Constitution, that created our government and enshrined our liberties created this land of extraordinary freedom and opportunity. And to understand that it just doesn’t go on forever, unless we uphold it in our time, and we’re not doing a good job. But do you remember the famous a moment outside the Constitutional Convention was when Franklin came out and the lady in the crowd shouted Dr. Franklin, do we have a republic or a monarchy? And his answer to paraphrase, “A republic if we can keep it.” So, I would say we’re blessed to live in a true constitutional democracy. And the question is whether our generation and the ones that follow can keep it.
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