The convention had ended, the Democrats had bounced back in the polls, and the candidates were campaigning from a riverboat on the Mississippi. But the vice-presidential candidate wasn't there. Why not? It was Saturday and he and his family had left the campaign trail to spend the Sabbath quietly in LaCross, Wis., walking the mile and a half from their hotel to attend services at the only synagogue in town.
Forty years ago, John F. Kennedy's nomination for president raised three religious questions. Could Americans overcome religious prejudice and vote for a Roman Catholic? Would his faith make a difference in how he conducted his presidency? How would Americans respond to an overtly "religious" president?
This year, Joe Lieberman's nomination for vice president raises the same three questions.
Since 1960, we've made progress towards accepting diversity. According to a Gallup poll, Kennedy received 78 percent of the Roman Catholic vote, 38 percent of the Protestant vote. But last year a Gallup Poll showed that 92 percent of voters would vote for a Jewish person. Already this country, only 2 percent Jewish, has elected 34 Jews to both houses of Congress.
As to the second question, Kennedy insisted that his religious faith was personal to him and had nothing to do with his public views and his presidential leadership. Lieberman, on the other hand, openly acknowledges that his Orthodox Jewish faith is "a wonderful organizing principle" of his life. "It gives it order, a sense of purpose," he says, adding that the Sabbath provides him a weekly "sense of sanctuary."
Lieberman should be commended for the effect of his religion on his life. After all, what good is one's religious faith if it doesn't offer guidance for daily living?
But how will Americans deal with someone who practices his religion so openly? "He talks about God too much," said one friend, after Lieberman mentioned God 12 times in his first appearance with Al Gore. This bothers many people. In 1968 some people were uncomfortable with Mormon George Romney running for president. And in the late '70s some Americans didn't like knowing that President Jimmy Carter prayed five times a day in the White House.
Lieberman's public observance of the fourth commandment is especially challenging to Christians who insist the list should hang in city halls but don't even know which is which. Except for a few faithful soccer moms who won't let their kids play on Sunday, who among us remembers the Sabbath and keeps it holy? But Lieberman does not travel or write on the Sabbath or participate in political activity.
Perhaps more important, Lieberman describes his faith as "a major contributor to who I am," adding, "and who I am determines how I vote on particular issues." This led him to be the first senator to denounce as "immoral" President Clinton's affair with Monica Lewinsky and has led his Senate peers to describe him as a "moral compass."
According to our Judeo-Christian heritage, God is a living God, still at work in the world, creating and redeeming today's history. God is always presenting new challenges for the person of faith. In turn, our faith should make a difference in how we meet these challenges. It seems that to Joe Lieberman, his faith does. To us, that should not be a concern, but an inspiration.
The Rev. W. Evan Golder is editor of the national edition of United Church News.