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
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. …