WASHINGTON — The American left has always had a simple view of religious people and politics. If they are liberal, welcome. If they aren’t, be gone. So it seems to be with Democratic vice-presidential nominee Joe Lieberman.

People of faith have played a critical role in U.S. politics since the nation’s founding. Even in our more secular age, people of faith — Christians, Jews and others — have played a leading role in such political crusades as the civil rights and anti-Vietnam War movements. For these, leftwing politicians and journalists laid a red carpet.

But in the 1970s religious conservatives — fundamentalists and Southern Baptists, for instance — began to enter the political realm. And they wanted (gasp!) to protect the unborn, teach moral values in school and protect their families from Washington social engineers. For the left, this was beyond the pale: Religion obviously had no place in public life.

Now, however, a Sabbath-observant Jew is running for vice president as a Democrat. His running mate, Al Gore, declares himself to be a born-again Christian who often asks himself, “What would Jesus do?”

Never mind what Jesus would do. What should a good liberal do?

Nothing, it turns out. The religious rhetoric might be embarrassing. But Gore and Lieberman are reliably leftish in their politics. So most liberals accept what would otherwise be seen as ostentatious religiosity.

Nevertheless, the Lieberman candidacy, win or lose, will make it harder for the usual suspects to criticize religious conservatives. Past Republican-Christian connections seems less exceptional after the Lieberman candidacy.

In fact, it is entirely proper for religious people to be involved in politics. The humanist has no more claim than the Christian or Jew to be heard. But just as secularists should accept the participation of religious believers, the latter need to recognize that the public square is a public place. Government is a civil institution, charged with enforcement of civil, not ecclesiastical, law.

It is intended to serve everyone, believer and nonbeliever alike. Religious-based moral principles belong in the public square, but the state is not a vehicle for advancing any particular faith.

Thus, fulfillment of most the president’s duties, from managing nuclear weapons to setting budget policy, requires intelligent analysis and political competence more than religious faith. Just as Martin Luther said he would prefer to be governed by a smart Turk than a stupid Christian, so should Americans prefer a nonbelieving president able to maintain peace and prosperity than a believing one liable to lead the nation to disaster.

This doesn’t mean that moral character isn’t important. But the starting point for choosing a public official should be public competence.

Moreover, Christian moral theology, at least, is not particularly helpful in constructing public policy. There is no scripturally mandated political agenda.

Some religious concerns are appropriately matters of government concern. Abortion, for instance, involves another human life. But most issues are questions of prudence, not theology.

Control of sin simply because it is sin is not a proper state function. The ancient Hebrew covenant nation bears no resemblance to today’s flamboyantly secular state; the early Christian church showed little interest in enlisting government authority on its behalf.

To the contrary, the apostle Paul instructed his Corinthian readers that while they were “not to associate” with the immoral who called themselves believers, they were to leave alone nonmembers. “God will judge those outside,” he wrote. (1 Cor. 5:12-13)

If believers want the state to act — to stamp out drug use, for instance — they need to emphasize public arguments involving safety and crime. These are questions of fact, not faith, however — drug prohibition actually creates health risks and gang wars — and religious people can decide differently on them.

Moreover, these matters should not be treated as necessarily more important than other concerns. A growing economy, in which one can better care for one’s family and the disadvantaged, is no small matter.

Questions of war and peace, too, are significant. A willingness to promiscuously bomb other nations, like Serbia, for frivolous reasons, killing hundreds or thousands of innocents, must be balanced with a candidate’s position on social issues.

In sum, believers need to lower their expectations for government. The political realm is important, but not redemptive. Believers must express their faith in all aspects of their lives, most of which are not political.

Lieberman’s candidacy has helped legitimize the role of religious values in political debate. But Americans should vote for him only if they believe that he and Al Gore will actually make the best vice president and president.

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