DEAN AND FAITH REDUX
From page A1 of today’s WaPo: Dean Now Willing to Discuss His Faith
Howard Dean, after practicing a quiet Christianity throughout his political career, said he is talking more about his faith because the presidential race has awakened him to the importance of religious expression, especially to southerners.
“I am not used to wearing religion on my sleeve and being open about it,” the former Vermont governor told reporters aboard his campaign plane late Friday. “I am gradually getting more comfortable to talk about religion in ways I did not talk about it before.”
Dean said frequent trips to Bible Belt states such as South Carolina, where evangelical Christianity flourishes often in public ways, are prompting him to more candidly discuss his faith. “It does not make me more religious or less religious than before. It just means I am more comfortable talking about it in different ways,” he said.
He cited the Gospels — Matthew, Mark, Luke and John — as a strong influence. The Gospels tell the story of the life and teachings of Jesus Christ. “As I have gotten older I have thought about what it means to be a Christian and what the role of religion is in my life,” Dean said.
Dean’s comments about Christianity provide a rare, if obscured, look at the Democrat who is leading in the polls. He has seldom talked about his family, feelings or religion when campaigning, unlike other candidates who discuss such issues to connect with voters on a personal level.
“The campaign has changed the way I am willing to talk about religion. It has not changed my religious beliefs,” Dean reiterated Saturday.
In some ways, Dean is coming to acknowledge a reality of American politics: Voters, particularly in the South, want to hear more about faith and morality from national leaders. This phenomenon has hurt Democrats and helped President Bush, according to strategists from both parties. A recent poll showed 63 percent of voters who regularly attend church back Bush, while a similar percentage of those who rarely or never attend lean toward Democrats. A small shift in support of religious voters could provide a big boost to the Democratic nominee.
Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman (Conn.), an orthodox Jew, and Al Sharpton, a minister, are the two Democratic presidential candidates who have given their faith and God a role in their campaign rhetoric. Retired Gen. Wesley K. Clark recently said faith will become a centerpiece of his campaign message, too. Dean is still wrestling with how prominent a place faith should take in his campaign. The more he talks about it, though, the more comfortable he feels, an aide said.
“I am still learning a lot about faith and the South and how important it is,” said Dean, a Congregationalist. The Congregationalist Church is a Christian denomination that preaches a personal relationship with God without a strong hierarchal structure guiding it. Dean was reared an Episcopalian, but left the church 25 years ago in a dispute with a local Vermont church over efforts to build a bike path. Dean’s wife is Jewish, as are their two children.
“Faith is important in a lot of places, but it is really important in the South — I think I did not understand fully how comfortably religion fits in with daily life — for both black and white populations in the South,” he said. Dean has visited South Carolina, which holds its presidential primary Feb. 3, nine times since the beginning of the campaign. “The people there are pretty openly religious, and it plays an ingrained role in people’s daily lives,” he said.