'Taking back God'

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And then it was all over. By the second week of September, after the news had made its run of the talk-show circuit, Lieberman’s God-talk faded from the spotlight. Was the story simply eclipsed by the debates, the convention, the Olympics? Or did the concerned parties just head home after staking out their ideological claims?

The real reason may be more basic. Both campaigns placed great importance on advertising their candidates’ religious credentials, in an attempt to woo certain key sectors of the electorate. It began in the primaries, when both Al Gore and George W. Bush made their born again-ness known; since then, the two campaigns had been plucking an unequivocally pious chord. "The Democratic Party is going to take back God this time," Gore adviser Elaine Kamarck had boasted.

The decision to make Lieberman the running mate, Joan Didion writes in The New York Review of Books, had been part of this strategy--though it ultimately did not have the consequences that the campaign intended. "The choice of Senator Lieberman was widely construed as Gore’s way of ... ‘sending a message’ to the electorate. The actual message that got sent, however, was not to the electorate but to its political class--to the narrow group of those who wrote and spoke and remained fixed in the belief that ‘the Clinton scandals’ contributed a weight that must be shed." The campaign’s religious tone, Didion says, created a "dangerous distance from the electorate."

The polls seemed to concur. Even as the two parties unleashed their own public-relations salvoes, pitting choice of political philosophers against the merits of "WWJD," upwards of 67 percent of voters had little concern for the religious question, surveys said. The media took note. Many pundits criticized the campaigns for enlisting God toward political ends. And the story of the vice-presidential candidate and his peculiar brand of Jewishness quickly dissipated into the political ether.

But what about Lieberman
and his Jewishness? Was all his talk about God just an election-year ploy? Didion seems to think so: Lieberman’s religious language, she says, "... can be set aside, understood as a nod to those ‘pro-family’ or ‘values’ voters." Hers is an appealing, though cynical, argument: the elites take up religion in an attempt to manipulate the public. And if she is right, then the story we’ve just traced is little more than a de-clawed cat, pouncing and scratching nothing. I hesitate, though, to write off Lieberman’s religious-speak as just rhetoric. Rhetoric is an easy target, but if we stop to examine its textures, it reveals volumes. Instead of discounting our tale as a deflated "non-story," let’s examine just how it missed the mark.

Caricaturing Lieberman

Religion in black and white

‘Taking back God’

The story behind the story

A new spiritual skyline

Story Index