Lieberman and the party of unbelief

Posted: Jan 18, 2003 12:00 AM
Tossing his hat into the presidential race, Sen. Joe Lieberman promised he would not run from using the G-word whenever a natural occasion to mention the deity arose. (As in, "Ohmygod, the election is two years off and this guy is announcing already?")

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 (, 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.

He is helped in the task by the remarkable extent to which fundamentalist and evangelical Christians have developed warm and fuzzy feelings toward Jews.

Political scientists have developed a polling tool called a feeling thermometer, which asks respondents to rate social groups and political leaders on a scale ranging from 0 degrees to 100 degrees. Anything below 35 degrees (the average score whites express toward illegal aliens) reflects pretty fierce antipathy; scores above 50 degrees suggest varying degrees of warmth.

In 2000, the average white Christian fundamentalist rated Jews a warm 66 degrees, basically the same rating that Catholics and mainline Protestants gave to Jews.

Have we reached a nirvana of religious tolerance? Well, almost. There is one religion that it is still acceptable to openly hate in America. In fact, "One has to reach back to pre-New Deal America," write Bolce and De Maio, "... to find a period when voting behavior was influenced by this degree of antipathy toward a religious group."

Which group? Fundamentalist Christians, of course.

In 2000, about a quarter of white respondents rated fundamentalists 35 degrees or below, compared to just 1 percent who felt this antagonistic toward Jews and about 2.5 percent who expressed this much hostility toward blacks and Catholics. Among Democratic elites, the hatred is more intense: The majority of delegates to the 1992 Democratic convention gave Christian fundamentalists the absolute minimum score: 0 degrees.

The Party of Unbelief believes in tolerating all points of view, unless they you happen to have one they find really irritating, in which case all bets are off.