If Lieberman, an Orthodox Jew, were elected, it would of course break new ground. "I am not running on my faith, but my faith is at the center of who I am, and I'm not going to conceal that," says Sen. Joe.
But if polling is an accurate guide, Lieberman's faith will be an asset, especially for a Democrat -- if he can get the nomination. You doubt it?
The problem for Lieberman is that if the Republicans are the party of the Christian right, the Democrats, as two political scientists from Baruch College point out in The Public Interest (www.thepublicinterest.com), are increasingly the Party of Unbelief: Atheists, agnostics, anti-fundamentalists and determined secularists flock to its banners.
The New York Times and Washington Post ran 682 stories about the GOP and conservative Christians between 1990 and 2000, while running just 43 stories identifying secularists with the Democratic Party. Is this because the Party of Unbelief is too small to influence elections? No. Today, say professors Louis Bolce and Gerald De Maio, secularists are about as large a Democratic voting bloc as organized labor: "about 16 percent of the white electorate." The religion gap among white voters, note Bolce and De Maio, is more important than the gender, education, income, occupation, age, marital status or region in explaining cleavages among voters in the last three presidential elections: "If the GOP can be labeled the party of religious conservatives, the Democrats, with equal validity, can be called the secularist party."
The Democrats' dilemma? "Just as Republicans need to win the evangelical-fundamentalist vote without scaring off religious moderates, so too must Democrats mobilize secularists and anti-fundamentalists without becoming too identified in public discourse as the party hostile to religion."
Just as President Bush sought to reassure moderates without alienating his base by running as the kind of Christian who scares nobody's mama, Lieberman hopes that a lot of straight God talk from Gore's former running mate can hold the Party of Unbelief, without alienating the vast middle of a basically religious country.
Maggie Gallagher is a nationally syndicated columnist, a leading voice in the new marriage movement and co-author of The Case for Marriage: Why Married People Are Happier, Healthier, and Better Off Financially.