A Special Kind of Courage: President Kennedy no doubt would be amazed.

Upon hearing that Al Gore had chosen Joseph Lieberman to be his running mate, a friend remarked: Very interesting. He’s religious. He’s for school vouchers. He’s against partial-birth abortion. Pause for effect. I guess the bishops have their man!

As the would-be No. 2 put it, only in America.

Of course, Mr. Lieberman’s public positions are not precisely in line with those of the U.S. Catholic Conference. The bishops are far more progressive on issues of social justice. The senator from Connecticut made a name for himself by challenging the ministers of popular culture, but he has been muted in his criticism of the greed-is-good crowd. Those responsible for churning out mayhem under the guise of entertainment deserve the Senator’s scorn; would that he were similarly righteous in condemning those who reduce humankind to mere units of production and consumption.

Still, it is remarkable how many Catholic friends and relatives of mine have come to admire Senator Lieberman, although they are disappointed by his support for abortion rights. His attacks on Hollywood already had recommended him, and now his much-publicized professions of faith on the campaign trail have confirmed their favorable impressions, for they see his cultural criticism and his affirmations of faith as evidence of a special kind of courage, a willingness to defy those in charge of the national conversation.

Political commentators, who work for organizations that are often partnered with the entertainment industry, have little patience for the Senator’s movie reviews, and they are visibly uncomfortable with his commitment to his faith. When Lieberman spent a pre-Labor Day Sunday (after taking Saturday off, as promised, to observe the Jewish Sabbath) telling audiences of the need to reaffirm our faith and renew the dedication of our nation and ourselves to God, commentators in the secular press could hardly contain their horror. And, writing in USA Today, Walter Shapiro noted that Lieberman’s emphasis on faith made many Democrats uneasy.

Perhaps so. But those who resent the dictates of the great baby-boomer meritocracy, which claims to celebrate diversity but rarely shows toleration for those who dissent from the era’s political and cultural conventions, see in Senator Lieberman a potential soulmate, a man as dubious as they are of the meritocracy’s valuesor lack thereof.

As the campaign headed into its final two months, beginning with the traditional Labor Day kickoff, Lieberman’s emphasis on faith-based values dominated news coverage, an extraordinary development on two levels. First, vice presidential candidates rarely dominate news headlines, and when they do, it is rarely because of something positive. Geraldine Ferraro certainly received her share of publicity after her nomination for the vice presidency in 1984, but the attention was soon directed not at her positions or her history-making role as the first woman on a national ticket, but at her husband’s business affairs. Dan Quayle likewise received a fair amount of attention, little of it of the welcome variety. Senator Lieberman, however, was in the news because he was helping to set the agenda for the fall campaignand that’s something vice presidential candidates never do. It was inevitable that some attention would be paid to Lieberman’s Orthodox Judaism, but that would have passed in the weeks after his nominationexcept, of course, that the senator kept talking about his faith, and the role of faith in modern society. Suddenly, the Sunday morning talk shows and op-ed pages across the nation were talking about religion and politics in a way we haven’t witnessed since 1960.

And here is where the story moves to another, more astonishing level: the national conversation about religion and politics is being driven by an Orthodox Jew. And that conversation is taking place on his terms. This is a remarkable tribute to the changes in American life in the last few decades. Forty years ago, John Kennedy found it prudent to avoid the subject of religion, lest he remind voters that he was Catholic. His major address on the subject, his famous speech to Baptist ministers in Houston, was defensive in a characteristically elegant fashion. Kennedy strove to assure the ministers that he believed in the separation of church and state, that he would not take political direction from the Vaticanin other words, that he was as good an American as any Protestant. He was compelled to note that he opposed sending an American ambassador to the Vatican, and was against public aid to parochial schools.

President Kennedy no doubt would be amazed to see how Senator Lieberman is dealing with his religion question. And, amid all the chatter about the establishment clause of the First Amendment, we ought to take a moment to be amazed, too. Senator Lieberman doesn’t see the need to assure the rest of America, 96 percent of which is gentile, that he can be a good American and a good Orthodox Jew. That, for the most part, is a given. Nobody is asking Lieberman the dual loyalty question that once nagged Catholics and Jews in public life.

Rather than avoid situations that might call attention to his faith, Senator Lieberman begins speeches with a prayer. Whether or not this is appropriate in a secular republic is almost beside the point. We almost forget that the man saying those prayers is Jewish, and that he may soon be a proverbial heartbeat away from the presidency.

Quite remarkable, indeed.

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