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Accepting Joseph Lieberman: The Electorate Grows Up

by Stephen A. Allen on Sep 8, 2000


The biggest story in this year's otherwise uneventful presidential campaign has been the selection of Joseph I. Lieberman as the Democratic vice-presidential candidate.

         Almost every American president or vice-president to date has been a Protestant Christian. Al Gore made history by choosing a Jewish running-mate. But the real story here is not Lieberman's candidacy. The real story is that his nomination has not created a major uproar.

         Only four decades ago, the prospect of a non-Protestant president
— let alone a non-Christian one — was enough to cause panic among many
Americans. When John F. Kennedy ran for office in 1960, he had to confront
anti-Catholic prejudice in both the Democratic primary and the presidential
election. Neither party had nominated a Catholic candidate since Al Smith,
a Democrat, had run (and lost badly) in 1928. In that election Protestant
ministers, especially in the religiously conservative South, had denounced
Smith from the pulpit, and much the same thing happened to Kennedy in 1960.

         It wasn't just radical Protestants who objected to the idea of a
Catholic president that year. A group of some of the country's most
respected mainstream Protestant leaders met in Washington, D.C., in
September 1960 under the leadership of Norman Vincent Peale. As Theodore H.
White wrote in "The Making of the President 1960," they gathered "to
question the loyalty of any Catholic candidate for the presidency and the
wisdom of choosing any man of that faith for the high office."

         It is a sign of how much the United States has matured since then
that no similar group has met to publicly question Lieberman's loyalty. In
fact, many of today's leading Protestant ministers — even the leaders of
some of the most conservative congregations — have publicly praised
Lieberman as a man of deep and abiding faith. The only apparent effect his
religious beliefs have had on the campaign so far has been to prove that
Republicans do not have a monopoly on displays of faith at political

         The only substantial dissenting voices to have made themselves
heard belong to a handful of black activists. Lee Alcorn — who was the
president of an NAACP chapter in Dallas — said in a radio interview that
blacks should be "suspicious" of Lieberman because he is Jew. Louis
Farrakhan has publicly suggested that Lieberman might be "more faithful" to
Israel than the United States. But these comments have drawn a negative
reaction from the most blacks as well as whites, and they represent a
minority opinion even within the black community.

         Another sign of how things have changed since 1960 is the
different ways in which Kennedy and Lieberman presented their faith to the
public. Kennedy took great pains to keep his religious beliefs and his
political aims separate. He insisted that he would be his own president,
and not the Catholic Church's. "I believe in an America where the
separation of church and state is absolute," he told a meeting of
Protestant ministers in Houston in 1960. "I believe in a president whose
views on religion are his own private affairs."

         Today it seems that candidates for high office are expected to
openly proclaim their religious beliefs. Certainly, Lieberman does not seem
to think that his beliefs are "his own private affairs." On the campaign
trail, Lieberman frequently mentions God, and do George W. Bush, Dick
Cheney, and to a lesser extent Al Gore.

         In fact, as far as a sizable portion of the electorate is
concerned, the "absolute separation of church and state" leads to moral
decline and national ruin. Kennedy all but said that he would resign if his
beliefs came into conflict with the duties of his office. Now it seems as
if many voters want candidates whose beliefs will dictate how they carry
out their duties.

         Of course, it should be remembered that this time around Lieberman
is only a vice-presidential candidate. The real test of whether or not
Americans can fully accept a Jewish chief executive will come if Lieberman
decides to run for president. Then we will be able to get a truer picture
of how much we have grown as a nation.

Stephen A. Allen is a doctoral candidate in the Medieval Institute at the University of Notre Dame and a writer for the History News Service.

[The Medieval Institute, University of Notre Dame, Notre Dame, IN 46556-5692. e-mail:]