WASHINGTON — On the Larry King show last Friday, when Vice President Gore was still considering running-mate options, humorist Bill Maher joked about the situation that might arise if Sen. Joe Lieberman, an Orthodox Jew, became vice president.
"What happens if there's a nuclear war on a Saturday?" Mr. Maher asked. Mr. King cracked back, "I think he'll get a rabbinical dispensation."
That same day Democratic party chair Ed Rendell, himself Jewish, said of the Connecticut senator's chances: "If Lieberman were Episcopalian, it would be a slam dunk."
By Monday, the droll possibility had become a fact. The choice of Mr. Lieberman was bold in three ways. He has had differences with the administration on issues such as school vouchers and capital gains taxes. He was the first Senate Democrat to denounce President Clinton on grounds of morality. And, as the first Jew on a national ticket, he confronts America once again with the issue of latent bigotry.
In the discussion of religious prejudice, one could hear echoes of 1928, when the governor of New York, Al Smith, was crushingly defeated for the presidency because he was a Roman Catholic. So traumatic was the defeat for Democrats that Sen. John Kennedy was denied a No. 2 spot on Adlai Stevenson's 1956 ticket because advisers feared an anti-Catholic upsurge. Four years later, Kennedy confronted the Catholic issue head-on in the presidential primaries. Some supporters of Hubert Humphrey used a campaign song to the tune of "Give Me That Old-Time Religion." In West Virginia, Kennedy appealed for "fair play and a fair chance." Before the nation's newspaper editors, he spoke words still remembered by some: "If there is bigotry in this country, then so be it; there is bigotry. If that bigotry is too great to permit the fair consideration of a Catholic who has made clear his independence, then we ought to know it."
Kennedy added, "Are we to say a Jew can be elected mayor of Dublin, but a Catholic cannot be president of the United States?"
The tactic of letting the sun shine in on the dark recesses where anti-Catholic bigotry lurked succeeded. And, as Kennedy went on to win the nomination and then the election against Richard M. Nixon, the Catholic issue began to fade from national politics.
So, now, the Lieberman selection confronts America with another test of latent bigotry. A Gallup poll taken before the Lieberman selection showed 92 percent of respondents willing to vote for a Jew as president compared with 46 percent in 1937. But people are not always candid with pollsters, and Andrew Kohut, director of the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press, says, "Anti-Semitism is a reality in the United States... There will be voters who will judge Lieberman on the basis of his religious beliefs."
So, in this very unorthodox choice of an Orthodox Jew on Gore's ticket, America has another opportunity to test the limits of its tolerance. Then, on to the challenges of prejudice because of color, gender, and ethnicity.
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society