WASHINGTON — The most important aspect of the Joseph Lieberman candidacy is the positive reaction: He has been welcomed by the American people and, reflective of this attitude, he has been a marked help to the Democratic presidential ticket.
I've waited awhile before making a firm judgment of Al Gore's choice of Senator Lieberman as a running mate. Yes, I had described it as "refreshing" and had hailed Mr. Lieberman's convention speech. But I've been waiting to see if Lieberman as a candidate would, in explaining his Orthodox Jewish views or in his expression of faith, step over the line that separates church from state. In my view, he hasn't.
I'm aware that Lieberman's statements like "As a people, we need to reaffirm our faith and renew the dedication of our nation and ourselves to God and God's purpose" and "We are also children of the same awesome God" have drawn criticism that they make nonbelievers in God feel excluded.
But I don't think Lieberman has gone against the constitutional requirement for the separation of church and state. To me, Lieberman was simply exercising his free exercise of religion - which is also protected by the Constitution. And my reading of public reaction is that almost all Americans have been comfortable with what Lieberman has said in expressing his religious views.
As a longtime observer of the American scene, what strikes me as almost astonishing is what the Lieberman story tells us about public prejudice. How far we've come! Yes, there's a sizable distance yet to go. But the progress! That's what I think historians will note above everything else in looking at this election year.
Much of this breakdown of prejudice pertaining to the presidency has come in my lifetime.
As a boy I knew that no one except an Anglo-Saxon Protestant could make it to the White House. Then came 1960 and the Roman Catholic John F. Kennedy's nomination and presidential victory. And now, 40 years later, a Jew has been put on the Democratic presidential ticket.
Kennedy went out of his way to keep his religion out of the race against Richard Nixon. He first made it clear that he would honor the Constitution's separation of church and state. And then he said nothing more that was faintly religious. He knew there was still a lot of anti-Catholic prejudice among the voters and he took pains not to stir it up.
But this prejudice has faded with the years. Hardly anyone noticed that Barry Goldwater's vice-presidential teammate - Bill Miller - was a Catholic.
But there was a widespread view that remained, certainly in political circles, that no Jew would be placed on a presidential ticket simply because his presence there would hurt that ticket. So, as has been widely noted, Mr. Gore took a huge risk in choosing Lieberman.
But Gore assessed the public correctly. Prejudice has abated over the years. The American people simply looked at Lieberman and liked what they saw. I think those who vote against the Gore-Lieberman ticket will be doing so because they differ on issues and policies. There's no evidence that anti-Semitism has reared its head, even just a little.
So far I have not addressed a pertinent question: Where in politics is the line drawn between church and state?
This is a question that eludes an overall answer; it must be examined case by case. But when a church-related organization, like the Christian right, shapes policies and backs candidates who support its view - well, that's a clear overstepping of that line.
That's one glaring example. Another would be if a politician paid a minister to influence the vote of his church members.
But when George W. Bush speaks about how Jesus Christ has reshaped his life, when Al Gore speaks of his reliance on God, and when Joseph Lieberman talks about his faith and values, I say, "Hurrah!"
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society