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Editorial A barrier broken

February 16, 2011

By Staff Reporter

The selection of Connecticut Sen. Joseph Lieberman to run as vice president on the Democratic ticket is one that should resonate with many Irish Americans. The immediate connection, however, has little to do with Lieberman’s politics, which are decidedly centrist in nature. Irish Americans, after all, hold opinions on the issues of the day that span the political spectrum. Rather, Lieberman’s visceral appeal has to do, in a very broad sense, with the issue of his religion. More precisely, it has do with the fact that his religion doesn’t matter.

Lieberman’s selection marks the first time a Jew has been included on the presidential ticket of a major political party in the U.S. It wasn’t too long ago — four decades, to be precise — that American voters elected their first Catholic president. To the demagogues of the day, the prospect of a John F. Kennedy victory was viewed as an invitation to the Vatican to manipulate the American political system — this though the pope, as Kennedy himself pointed out, lived in Italy and hardly ran things there. Though it all seems so laughable today, at the time that fear was given widespread credence in the press and from the pulpit.

Similarly, Lieberman’s selection by Al Gore will no doubt be viewed by some anti-Semites as yet another opportunity to spew their odious venom. Indeed, within hours of Monday’s announcement, small-minded callers to radio talk shows were warning of undue influence from what they conspiratorially refer to as "the Isr’li lobby."

But a day later, as praise for Lieberman poured in from both major parties, it was clear that those who object to him for who he is rather than what he stands for are little more than cranks. To be sure, American politics and the American people have come a long way since JFK. Many recognize Lieberman as the conscience of the Senate and understand that his moral compass, in his case perhaps set by Orthodox Judaism, would likely be as strong and reliable were he a devout Catholic or Muslim or Episcopalian.

Kennedy himself effectively put the religious issue to rest in September 1960. Speaking before the Ministerial Council of Churches in Houston, he said: "I believe in an America that is officially neither Catholic, Protestant nor Jewish — where no public official either requests or accepts instructions on public policy from the pope, the National Council of Churches or any other ecclesiastical source — where no religious body seeks to impose its will directly or indirectly upon the general populace or the public acts of its officials — and where religious liberty is so indivisible that an act against one church is an act against all."

Lieberman, like Kennedy before him, has never made faith an issue in his political career. It is part of who he is but not what drives him in his public life. He made this clear when, after accepting Gore’s offer, he said: "The vice president won’t make a decision based on religion [and] I’m absolutely confident, based on my own life experience, the American people are tolerant and they won’t make their decision based on religion, either."

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