What makes this virtual silence so interesting is the candidacy of Joe Lieberman, the first Jew to seek high office as the nominee of a major political party. In the election of 1960, John F. Kennedy was continually hounded by grave concerns about his Catholicism. How is it that Lieberman--a Jew--breezes through the campaign with little more than a raised eyebrow, while Kennedy--a Christian--had constantly to justify his faith commitments in a country that many like to regard as Christian?
A new film to hit theatres recently may offer us some insights into the role of religion in the race for the White House. "The Contender" features Joan Allen as Laine Hanson, a woman senator who is nominated to replace a recently deceased Vice President. The bold and controversial nomination is to be the "swan song" of Jackson Evans, the Democratic president convincingly played by Jeff Bridges.
The film offers an inside look at machinations and muckraking in the White House and in Congress. Given the realities of Watergate, Irangate, and Monicagate, the ruthless politics of "The Contender" don't reveal anything about Washington we don't already suspect is true. But there is one point where the film is simply not realistic. In her final statement before the House committee that must confirm her nomination, VP-designate Hanson admits to being an atheist. She worships the religion of democracy, she says, whose chapel resides on Capitol Hill.This statement is in character for Hanson, but not for American politics. It may be a very long time before we see a self-professed atheist in the White House. Simply stated, Americans expect their highest officials to be religious--or at least not anti-religious. And yet, Americans do not want their presidents and vice presidents to appear too religious. Presidential religion should fit within the mainstream of what is often called the "Judeo-Christian" tradition and professed on appropriate occasions, but never to the point of upsetting anyone.
The upcoming election is classic example of appropriate presidential piety. Even though the race is too close to call, there is a 100% chance that religion will occupy the White House for the next four years. In this corner we have George W. Bush, a Methodist who claims that Jesus Christ has been the most influential philosopher in his life and speaks of a spiritual transformation a decade ago that got him off the bottle. In the opposing corner we have Al Gore, a former divinity school student who was "born again" while attending a Baptist church during the late 1970s. Both are clear that faith is the cornerstone of their lives and are not reluctant to make that point to the public. Yet neither mixes political rhetoric with the sort of explicit Christian language that suggests narrow mindedness, zealousness, or intolerance.
Like Bush, Dick Cheney is a Methodist, though we know little more than that about him religiously. In terms of the real, but rarely articulated, religious criterion for a running mate, that makes him an ideal choice for Bush. His Methodism puts him squarely within the camp of conventional American piety, and his religious reticence keeps that piety within bounds of political propriety.
Since Lieberman stands to the right of Gore on many issues, this Commie-baiting brand of anti-Semitism has been inoperative. Just as importantly, Lieberman's identity as a man of religious conviction--one who has facility with the rhetoric of Judeo-Christian morality, the backdrop of American civil religion--has probably helped him overcome whatever latent anti-Semitism lurks in American hearts.
It is Lieberman's very American religiosity, we think, that explains why the predicted backlash has not occurred. In fact, in our experience it is mainly Jews who have expressed discomfort with Joe Lieberman's entry into the political spotlight. One of our colleagues, a Jew and a Democrat, reacted with disappointment the day Gore announced his running mate. "This will sink the Democratic ship," he said. "America will not allow a Jew to be a heartbeat away from the presidency." That was last summer. Now, just a few days from the election, there is no evidence that Lieberman's Jewishness has become a burden to the ticket. In fact, his piety seems to have effectively neutralized any chance for Bush and Cheney to take the religious high ground, a favorite strategy of conservative candidates in recent years. Gore may lose, but it won't be because he misjudged America's tolerance for religious difference.
The reaction of some Jewish organizations has been similar. The Anti-Defamation League has publicly criticized Lieberman for being too religious, for making his religion too much a part of his political persona. It's true that the ADL supports a wall of separation between church and state because breaches in this wall are perceived to threaten Jews. But this criticism also reveals the ambivalence that religious and ethnic minorities have toward seeing their own in positions of prominence. Jews are generally pleased when Jews do well. Some can tell you the name of every Jew that has ever played Major League baseball. But success brings visibility, and visibility can bring resentment from the majority. So it is understandable if Jews have mixed feelings at the prospect of a Jewish Vice-President.
But we think there is no need to worry. In the current political environment, at least, voter comfort with Lieberman's location on the spectrum of acceptable religiosity is more important than his ethnic Jewishness. In the 1950s Will Herberg wrote an influential book called Protestant-Catholic-Jew in which he argued that mainstream religion in America included all three religious groups. Herberg's thesis did not prove true in the 1960 election, when John F. Kennedy's Catholicism became a stumbling block for many voters. But perhaps Herberg was prophetic of the kind of religious consensus that has emerged at the beginning of the twenty-first century. If this era of "political correctness" has contributed to a situation where it is no longer polite to question someone's political qualifications based on his or her religious identity, then we welcome it.