Voters like Faith - but Not Theology ; Today, Americans Say They Have Little Problem with Politicians of Faith - Even of a Different Kind

Article excerpt

In 1928, New York Gov. Alfred E. Smith, a Roman Catholic, won the Democratic nomination for president after a decade of effort. But in his campaign against Republican Herbert Hoover, Governor Smith ran headlong into a barrier of religious prejudice. Among the wilder rumors that circulated in the South was that the Pope planned to live in the US if Smith won - and that Smith was planning to extend New York's Holland Tunnel under the Atlantic to the Vatican.

Eighty years on, voter attitudes toward religion in presidential politics have undergone radical change. Polls show atheism would be far more damaging to a presidential or vice presidential candidate than adherence to any major religion.

But US voters prefer that candidates' public religiosity remain bland. General pronunciations of faith and values win votes. Specific theological discussion can lose them.

"Americans don't want to see a candidate who appears to be shoving religion down anyone's throat," says James Guth, a political scientist at Furman University in Greenville, S.C., who has studied the role of religion in public life.

Al Gore's selection of Sen. Joseph Lieberman of Connecticut for his running mate has raised the issue of religion in politics anew. Senator Lieberman is the first Jewish person named to a national ticket. Furthermore, he's an observant Jew who refuses to campaign on the Sabbath.

In his initial round of campaign appearances this week Lieberman has, if anything, emphasized his religious heritage. In a speech on Tuesday he praised what he termed Al Gore's audacity for selecting him by using the Yiddish word "chutzpah." He opened his speech with a prayer from Chronicles.

"It is Al Gore who broke this barrier in American history," said Lieberman. "And you know what it shows? It shows Al's faith in the tolerance of this diverse nation."

Not ready for an atheist in Oval Office

If polls are any guide, anti-Semitism has indeed practically disappeared from US presidential politics. In 1937, a Gallup poll found that only 37 percent of respondents said they would vote for a qualified Jewish candidate. In 1999, 92 percent of respondents said they would.

The 1999 poll found that 94 percent of voters surveyed said they would vote for a Catholic presidential candidate. Atheism, however, remains a political problem. Only 49 percent said they would vote for a professed nonbeliever, however qualified.

Tolerance for religion in politics has increased gradually, as the nation becomes more diverse and voters are increasingly exposed to people with different heritages. …