Voters like faith - but not theology

Today, Americans say they have little problem with politicians of faith - even of a different kind.

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.

The 1960 election of the nation's first Catholic president, John Kennedy, broke the barrier that defeated Smith. The political and social change of the 1960s and '70s saw churches become more outspoken about public issues - and Americans more used to religion in public life.

"There's more acceptance of religion and religious people in politics than there was in the past," says Andrew Kohut, a Pew Research Center pollster who has written a book on the subject, "The Diminishing Divide."

It's unclear what that means in terms of specific voters for the Gore-Lieberman ticket. Lieberman has many admirers in the Christian conservative community, who have fought with him on such issues as violence in popular culture. But that group is heavily Republican, and is unlikely to swing Democrat on his appeal alone.

Similarly, the Jewish vote is already heavily Democratic. "The upside potential for the Jewish vote on the Democratic side is limited," says Professor Guth.

But Guth and other experts note that there is still a religious dividing line in American politics. It is no longer drawn between denominations, but between the manner in which people practice them.

Don't preach from the stump

On one side of the line are people who are conservative in their religious traditions, and are open about public expressions of specific belief. On the other side are those who are more liberal in their spiritual heritage and are turned off by involved public discussion.

"One could argue that when politicians begin discussing theology, that's when they really get in trouble," says John Green, a political scientist at the University of Akron and an expert in the politics of religion.

General religiosity in a candidate is seen as evidence of good moral character. Thus Jimmy Carter won votes in 1976 because his piety was seen as tonic to the Watergate years.

Specific talk about the practice of faith, however, can come across as hectoring. President Carter was criticized, for instance, for talking about the number of times he prayed in the Oval Office. Mentioning Jesus in public discourse - something George W. Bush has done in the 2000 campaign - is seen by some voters as a sectarian appeal, says Mr. Green.

"People don't object if someone has special beliefs," he says. "They just don't want to hear about them."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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