August 17, 2000
Al Gore's gotten good mainstream press for picking the
Orthodox Jewish Joseph Lieberman as his vice-presidential running mate,
but the gutsiness and glitz can't hide the Connecticut Senator's pro-corporate
politics and conservative instincts. Yet the choice does offer something
worth watching: a test of mainstream America's tolerance of diversity.
That test may prove tougher than expected, though less tough than it
A lot of voters will fail the mid-level test once the
voting booth curtain is pulled shut and their polite open-mindedness
evaporates. Despite public proclamations that "Lieberman's religion
is not an issue," closet anti-Semites--and there are a lot of them--will
opt for George W. Bush or Pat Buchanan. Lieberman's candidacy has already
brought out the uncloseted right, gleefully reminding us of the worldwide
Even Ralph Nader may gain some votes. With many on the
left as turned off by Lieberman's God-heavy talk as by the Gore-Bush
Battle of the Born-Agains, Gore's decision to drop his token populism
may enhance progressive willingness to abandon the Democrats.
And though generally proud they finally have a national
candidate, many Jewish voters know that public scrutiny in a country
that's 97 percent non-Jewish can be dangerous. Often embarrassed by
those for whom religious rituals are central to daily life, some Reform,
Conservative, and unaffiliated Jews worry that the nation's highest-profile
Jewish politician will set a standard for religious observance that
most of them rejected long ago. Most will stick with Gore, but some
may switch to Bush or Nader.
Overall, the Orthodox candidate's tolerance test is harder
than the test a more assimilated Jew would offer. The public is used
to Jews who have turned their religion into just another variant of
the Great American Religion. Jewishness that doesn't go much further
than Sunday morning bagels and just-like-church temples wouldn't be
much of a test at all. Lieberman's Orthodoxy--shared by only seven percent
of US Jews--offers a greater challenge to mainstream sensibilities.
Yet despite all the hoopla and the real risk of backlash,
the Lieberman test is easier for the public and safer for Gore than
it might have been. On the surface, Gore's selection of someone differing
both ethnically and religiously from the vast majority lets America
trumpet its growing maturity. Beyond labels, though, Lieberman is reassuringly
bland: an average-looking, intelligent, white male lawyer known for
traditional morality and conventional politics. He doesn't even wear
Importantly, Lieberman's moral and religious persona coincides
with the era's dominant cultural norms. Even most politicians remind
themselves these days not to call the United States a Christian country.
On the verbal level we've had a "Judeo-Christian heritage" ever since
the religious right sought across-the-spectrum legitimacy.
More substantively, Lieberman will appeal to many new
traditionalists. The past two decades has seen an increase in born-again
Christians, observant Jews, and strict Muslims as well as in adopters
of New Age spiritual forms. Those who seek communal religious expression
often share with segments of the left a rejection of excessive individualism,
consumerism, alienation, loss of community, and other hallmarks of modern
life. Traditional religious institutions too often reinforce regressive
public policies, but even if God isn't the best answer, the left might
benefit from comparing notes and exploring occasional alliances with
others who ask some of the same questions.
A tougher test of the nation's tolerance level would have
been someone like Nader's running mate, Native American Winona LaDuke,
whose racial and cultural departure from US norms has more fundamental
implications for public policy than Lieberman's Sabbath observance.
Or someone who would make us ponder whether we're ready to be a "Judeo-Christian-Muslim-Buddhist-Hindu
country" now that Muslims outnumber Jews and Asian immigrants inexorably
alter our religious balance. Even Buchanan picked an African American
woman running mate.
Still, a middling public prejudice test is better than
none. Ideally it could lead to serious discussion about religion and
morality in American life, though so far we're awash in cliched affirmations
of traditional moral values and self-satisfied Democratic congratulations
for finally doing the right thing.
Ironically, Lieberman's unconventionally conventional
religion inoculates him against serious mainstream critique. If he's
moral, he must be right.
It's easy for the left to point out in response where
Lieberman's gone wrong. Easy and accurate. The guy's a hawk, a corporate
toady, an inconsistent purveyor of situational moralism. Common assumptions
to the contrary, politically progressive observant Jews do exist. It's
just too bad Lieberman's not one of them.