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.

FILED UNDER: Campaign 2004
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. jen says:

    “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 –“

    The first half confirms my opinion that he’s pandering. The second half confirms my disbelief in the genuineness of his “faith.”

  2. John Lemon says:

    Jen,

    You beat me to this post this time. I was going to say exactly the same thing.

    Here is what reporters are missing. How many times has Dean gone to church in the past six months, year and five years. This would be a true indicator of his “strong” Christian beliefs. Of course, he could say that he is religious but doesn’t attend church, just as I could say that I’m a good student but don’t attend classes (which is what many of my students DO say!). But Christianity demands active participation, and without that Dean’s statements are going to come off as pandering.

    Then again, he could claim he has been too busy running for President to attend Sunday services (hence I demand to see his attendance record — and donations — five years previously to think his statements are valid). However, most pres candidates make it a point to attend church and have cameras around when they are campaigning.

    Finally, he could claim that he doesn’t go much because not many churches have bike paths leading to them.

    This post coming from Istanbul.

  3. Pharisee Dean
    Howard Dean just doesn’t get southern voters. He puts his foot in his mouth every time he talks about religion.