Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman (I-Connecticut) has been doing a farewell tour of media interviews and gave a Senate speech looking back on his Senate career and legislative accomplishments. But his greatest achievement was not on the Senate floor but in an election he lost.
Lieberman will be remembered as the man who broke an important religious barrier when the Democrats nominated the Orthodox Jew as their party’s vice presidential nominee in 2000. He may have lost the election but he won a landmark victory for American Jews. The nation learned much about Judaism from this observant man who was very open about his religion.
Unlike too many in politics today, particularly on the religious right, he had no interest in imposing his beliefs on others.
There was little noticeable anti-Semitism during the campaign and no evidence Lieberman’s faith had any negative impact, despite the fears of many in the community, especially in Lieberman’s generation and older. If anything, Jewish pride no doubt helped bring in contributions and votes for the Gore-Lieberman ticket. Al Gore and Lieberman won a majority of the popular vote but ultimately lost the election by a 5-4 vote in the Supreme Court. Whatever the outcome, it was a victory of religious tolerance and acceptance.
Another losing candidate who scored a similar historic victory was Mitt Romney. When he first ran four years ago, and to a lesser extent this year, there was a concerted effort to discredit him based on his Mormon religion, which many evangelicals and Catholics considered a sect; to some Mormonism was neither a legitimate religion nor even Christian. Romney quietly and calmly countered those fears, met with people, answered their questions. Like Lieberman he sought to assure them he had no religious agenda, his message was tolerance.
Romney and Lieberman may have lost their elections but they won great victories for religious tolerance and paved the way for their co-religionists to be on national tickets and have their faith be irrelevant.
Barely anyone noticed that the running mates on both tickets this year, Joseph Biden and Paul Ryan, were Roman Catholics. Not very long ago that was also a disqualifier.
In 1960 there was a lot of very open hostility to Massachusetts Sen. John F. Kennedy based on his Catholic religion. It had been 32 years since the first Catholic ran for President. In 1928 his opponents spread the rumor that if New York Gov. Al Smith, the Democratic nominee, were elected, the Pope would move to Washington to run the government. Smith, fortunately, had a good sense of humor and said the first thing he did after losing the election to Herbert Hoover was to send the Pope a one-word telegram: “Unpack.”
This year, for the first time ever, there was no white, Protestant male on either national ticket.