In the drama of the photo finish, we may forget to savor this stunning fact: The United States of America has elected a Jewish vice president.

At the time of Lieberman's selection, there was much speculation about whether he would cost Gore the election. Not only did that not happen, but Lieberman may have been a help: twice as many people said his presence on the ticket was a positive factor than said it was negative factor.

In choosing Lieberman, Gore had two political insights. One was that America was very religious - and would appreciate a devout running mate -- and the other was that America is, at the same time, very pluralistic and tolerant.

Indeed, Al Gore's victory confirms that Americans are now living in a golden age of religious pluralism.

In that sense, the election of Joe Lieberman may ultimately be seen as more important than the election of Al Gore, because it signals a fundamental change in the American approach to religion.

Though the United States has always been a diverse country, it had been, at its heart, a Christian nation (a protestant nation, really) tolerant of minorities. That has changed, and Vice-President-elect Lieberman is only the latest, and most dramatic piece of evidence.

Outside the political realm, the evidence is abundant. Consider the fact that there is one religious figure who has most dominated the best seller lists in recent years - and he's a Buddhist! The Dalai Lama is popular not because we are becoming a Buddhist Nation but because people raised in the Christian or Jewish tradition want to supplement their basic faiths with other sources of inspiration and wisdom.

As Catholic-girl-material-girl Madonna studies Jewish mysticism and Hinduism, Oprah draws huge audiences around her spirituality-heavy shows. The best-seller lists are chock full of general spirituality books -- Conversations with God, Cloister Walk -- that span religions.

Why has this happened?

In part, this is a natural outgrowth of the Baby Boomers getting older. Boomers have always had less connection with America's institutions -- be they political parties, corporations, unions, or churches. Now boomers have hit the stage of life when spiritual matters force themselves into the consciousness. The younger boomers are having kids; the older ones are seeing their parents die.

The result is a boomer-oriented spirituality, in which individuals often have one foot firmly planted in a certain tradition but want to supplement that with ideas and inspirations from others. A study by sociologist Wade Clark Roof found that 60% of boomers said they wanted to learn more about other faiths, while only 28% emphasized learning more about their own faith.

Another reason is immigration. The U.S. is in the middle of the biggest wave of immigration in a century, and, it includes a large percentage who are not protestant and not Christian.

In 1962, 79% of Americans were Protestant. In 2000, 57% were. The percent who were not Christian has doubled from 7% up to 14%.

It is now the norm for Americans to have regular exposure to people of different religions. A typical middle-class American might have a boss who is Hindu and a brother-in-law who is Catholic and a neighbor who is Jewish.

Indeed, half of American Catholics marry outside their faith; so do half of Jews. More than 60 percent of all married Americans are in interfaith or interdenominational marriages. Even a Baptist-Methodist marriage forces a pluralistic mindset on a family: it means there must be a negotiation over where they go to church. And those who don't have that kind direct exposure, get it through television and the movies.

While this tolerance of religious diversity is a long-term trend, it is given extra energy by the country's current economic prosperity, which has the tendency to make American more accepting -- and more interested in finding the inner meaning.

You can see this very clearly on Beliefnet.com itself. Our site draws through its virtual doors an amazing mix of fundamentalists and spiritual seekers, people interested in prayer and those interested in meditation, those interested in learning about other faiths, and those who want to explore their own.

The fact that the Lieberman's religion ended up not being a major factor may be the most significant fact of this election - because it speaks to not only what the country wants but what the country has become.

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