Caricaturing Lieberman
How the media missed the story
on religion in the 2000 election

published April 9, 2001
written by Ben Helphand / Chicago
illustrated by Vasus Das / New York

1 | 2 3 4 5 INDEX

Our curtain rises on August 8, at the State Legislative Plaza in Nashville, Tennessee. Joseph Lieberman, the Democratic senator from Connecticut, stands on the stage, next to presidential hopeful Al Gore. The hit pop song by Jewel, "Who Will Save Your Soul," is playing in the background. It is a fitting accompaniment for the devout Jewish politician as he introduces himself to the nation. "I ask you to let the spirit move me as it does," Lieberman requests, and then proceeds to quote a verse from the book of Chronicles. As the first Jewish nominee to a major party ticket, Lieberman calls his selection a "miracle" and praises Gore, repeatedly, for his "bold" move.

Media outlets across the nation dub the nomination a historic event. Taking cues from the senator himself, they compare his candidacy to that of John F. Kennedy, the first--and only--Catholic president. But news analysts, tempering their enthusiasm, also ask if the country is ready for a Jewish vice president. Taking into consideration anti-Semitic sentiment and Jewish voting patterns 92 Percent Democratic in the 1996 election), they try to calculate the impact Lieberman will have on the Gore campaign. The cliché "Leap of Faith" pops up in the headlines for both Time and Newsweek. The phrase has a double meaning, speaking to both the electorate’s faith in putting a Jew a heartbeat away from the presidency, and to the campaign’s strategic leap toward a more faith-centered message.

Focusing on the senator’s well-publicized scolding of Bill Clinton during the Monica Lewinsky scandal and his reputation as a "moral compass," writers paint Lieberman as the "Un-Bill," a moral air-freshener. Lieberman’s ritual observance is presented as proof of his inward piety, and some pundits say that his moral credentials will neutralize "character" as an issue in this election. The senator is not "just Jewish," we learn: he is a member of a minority denomination, a Modern Orthodox Jew. The "Orthodox" indicates that he adheres to a type of Jewish observance that differs from that of the vast majority of American Jews, while the "Modern" means that he is more integrated into mainstream society than other Orthodox.

But soon the journalists have a problem: where exactly does Lieberman fit in? Uncomfortable with a left-leaning candidate of such piety and profile, they suddenly seem at a loss. And so their profiles of Lieberman begin to become caricatures. Like the philosophizing postman Cliff Claven on Cheers, the pundits gleefully toss around imponderables: will Lieberman be able to maintain his religious practice if elected? Will the Sabbath prohibitions conflict with the demands of the vice presidency? Seeking to understand their new specimen, reporters compare the Jewish politician to the only political group of religious persuasion they know--the religious right. "Now the Democrats have a vice-presidential candidate who talks about God as eagerly as any Evangelical Republican," reads Time’s report on the Democratic Convention. "Jerry Falwell in a yarmulke," one pundit calls him. The analogy pops up throughout coverage of the campaign, to the point that The Boston Globe’s Mark Jurkowitz takes notes of a certain anxiety running through the press corps. "While most political displays of religious fervor originate from the conservative Christian right," he writes, "Lieberman is a Jewish Democrat with moderate-to-liberal social leanings. All this has left journalists struggling with the question of how to cover this new brand of Bible thumping ... Reporters are in a kind of catch-22."

From the moment Lieberman stepped onto the scene in Nashville, his combination of religious devotion and left-leaning politics baffled reporters. Whereas Kennedy and Al Smith downplayed their religious affiliations, Lieberman exulted in his faith--sharing (or, some might say, flaunting) his beliefs on the campaign trail. A moderate Democrat, an openly observant Modern Orthodox Jew, and a consistent critic of what he called the nation’s "moral vacuum," Lieberman wasn’t exactly a tidy match for the two templates that journalists used in their religious reporting: "religious conservative" and "secular liberal." The media responded with a peculiar sense of ambivalence--what one reviewer politely called their "hesitancy" regarding the topic.

It would become their error. As the 2000 campaign progressed, new trends finally became apparent in religion, politics, social justice, environmental awareness, and even foreign affairs--among other things, the appearance of a new centrist and religious politics. But journalists did not know how to tie these developments to the politics of the moment, the news that captured the headlines every day. And they did not see Lieberman against this backdrop. And so coverage of the first Jewish vice-presidential candidate reverted to the old categories, with reporters forcing Lieberman, like a mismatched puzzle piece, into their picture.

"When the news media set out to represent religion ... they are operating with ideas of what religion is and is not, of what it ought and ought not be," writes Mark Silk in his book Unsecular Media Therein lies the reason for the media’s shortsightedness in the 2000 election: their inability to get beyond their preconceived notions of religion. The failure would be significant. At stake was the proper understanding of not just the Gore-Lieberman ticket, but also the changing role of faith in politics. Wearing the blinders brought on by their ambivalence, the media ended up presenting some rather outdated and inflexible notions of religion as fact. And they failed to see how the political and religious landscape--on the left, on the right, and in the center--was being transformed.

Caricaturing Lieberman

Religion in black and white

‘Taking back God’

The story behind the story

A new spiritual skyline

Story Index