Saturday, January 03, 2004

Dean's religious awakening

Dean Now Willing to Discuss His Faith:
Campaign Changed Him, Candidate Says

STORM LAKE, Iowa, Jan. 3 -- 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 night. "I am gradually getting more comfortable to talk about religion in ways I did not talk about it before."

Dean said frequent trips to 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 new strategy may have backfired, however. Some were taken aback when Dean referred to the Gospels as, "Those four dudes." He then appeared to get off script when he launched into an angry rant questioning why "women aren't given more significant leadership roles in the Bible." He then said that although he did not believe it, one of the more interesting rumors he had heard "was that God was sexist." The Dean campaign later issued a press release clarifying that Governor Dean did not endorse that view, and that he was just repeating a rumor he had heard.

"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.

Having secured the cyclist vote, Dean is now deftly tacking back toward his religious faith.

Unlike Canada, our neighbor to the north, the southern United States is foreign soil to Dean. One benefit to campaigning is the opportunity to discover new and strange cultures.

"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.

And those aren't just people, they're voters.

Dean said he prays daily and has read the Bible from cover to cover.

When pressed, Dean admitted that it may have been the Cliff Notes.

When asked Friday night about his favorite book of the New Testament, he cited Job, about a righteous man whose faith was tested mightily by God through great suffering. After thinking about the scripture, Dean pointed out an hour later that Job is from the Old Testament. Dean said Job reinforces the uncomfortable fact of life that "terrible things can happen to very good people for no good reason."

And that's true regardless of what Terry McAuliffe does or doesn't do. (Eds. note: Biblical scholars have pointed out that the "no good reason" was that God was testing Job. Although God refused comment, citing confidentiality policies, rumor has it that God is not pleased with Dean's critique of his faith-testing tactics.)

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