Democrats and religion, part 2

The hot-button issue of the moment, it seems.

I talked about Howard Dean and religion a few days ago. Since then, a whole lot of people have said a bunch of things as well. Here's a roundup:

The peculiar blend of religions in this Presidential race

First of all, to put this into perspective, here's David Brooks in the New York Times:

George W. Bush was born into an Episcopal family and raised as a Presbyterian, but he is now a Methodist. Howard Dean was baptized Catholic, and raised as an Episcopalian. He left the church after it opposed a bike trail he was championing, and now he is a Congregationalist, though his kids consider themselves Jewish.

Wesley Clark's father was Jewish. As a boy he was Methodist, then decided to become a Baptist. In adulthood he converted to Catholicism, but he recently told, "I'm a Catholic, but I go to a Presbyterian church."

What other country on earth would have three national political figures with such peripatetic religious backgrounds? In most of the world, faith-hopping of this sort is simply unheard of. Yet in the United States, we simply take it for granted that people will move through different phases in the course of their personal spiritual journeys, and we always have.

Note that Howard Dean's wife Judy is Jewish, which explains the religious divide in their family. See the article for more on Wesley Clark (the link is to page 4, which is where the quote is from).

Dean's religious learning experience

We've also got the LA Times' take on De 1000 an's effort to talk about religion:

During a conversation with reporters on his campaign plane late Friday night, Dean said recent stops in South Carolina had moved him to try to be more forthcoming about his view of religion to connect with voters who speak openly of their relationship with God.

"I think that I'm gradually getting more comfortable to talk about religion in ways that I did not talk about it before," he said. "It doesn't make me more religious or less religious than I was before, but it does mean I'm willing to talk about it in different ways."


Dean indicated that he was trying to adjust to the idea of being more frank about his religious views, especially after seeing how people in South Carolina easily refer to God in public conversation.

"The people there are pretty openly religious, and it plays an ingrained role in people's daily lives," he said. "I think that I didn't understand fully how comfortably religion fits in with daily life in the South, in both black and white populations."

This, of course, follows the pattern of Dean travelling around the country, like any other political candidate, talking to people and - gasp! - listening to them. This is something to be deeply admired, this process of discovering America in order to lead it, this political road movie of a pre-campaign, and rather that castigating candidates for initially having had a tin ear, I think we should concentrate our blame on those who still don't get it, those who are unable to learn.

Note, incidentally, the following passage from the article:

When asked about his favorite book in the New Testament, Dean first cited the Book of Job, which is in the Old Testament and is the story of a pious man whose possessions are stolen and children killed before God ultimately restores his good fortune.

Dean corrected himself about an hour after the interview ended, returning to the front of the plane to tell reporters he misspoke when he said the book was in the New Testament.

There's two interesting things here. First, that Dean cited the book of Job when asked for his favourite New Testament book. (I think Job is pretty damn interesting as well, but surely he should have realised that it's an amazingly Old Testament-style book?) Secondly, that the journalist didn't call him on it at the time.

As it is, the article snarks that Dean was wrong, and doesn't mention that either a) the journo was unable, for whichever reason (nervousness? partisanship? Dean's Reality Distortion Field?) to correct him, or b) that the journo didn't spot the problem either. And if it's b, you've got to wonder who spotted the mistake first.

Anyway, if that was Dean's only problem, he'd be home and dry. The problem is that the Republicans have come out swinging.

Anti-semitism rears its ugly head

First comes Cal Thomas, in the Moon-funded Washington Times (I understand he also appears on Fox regularly). The stand-out snarky paragraph is this one:

Mr. Dean is from a Congregationalist background, a liberal denomination that does not believe in ministerial authority or church hierarchy. Each Congregationalist believes he is in direct contact with God and is entitled to sort out truth for himself. Mr. Dean's wife is Jewish and his two children are being raised Jewish, which is strange at best, considering the two faiths 1000 take a distinctly different view of Jesus.

Michael J Totten (via Matthew Yglesias) rebuts him far better than I could, but I'll merely point out that the paragraph in question appears to be objecting to both Protestantism and mixed marriages, which seems rather un-American to me.

Incidentally, consider:

In the Globe interview, he said Southerners understand religious talk better than his fellow New Englanders. Yes, that "vast Unitarian wasteland of the Northeast," as Charles Colson has jokingly called it, is the latest target of Mr. Dean's regional stereotyping.

You can't have it both ways, Mr Thomas. You can maintain that you have to have lived in a particular part of the US for a hell of a long time, maybe even been born and raised there, to really understand it. That prevents Dean from talking about the South with authority, but it also adds power to any statement of his about the North East of the US, given that he's spent all his life there (born and raised in New York, most of his adult life in Vermont).

Alternatively, if you want to say that Howard Dean is stereotyping his fellow New Englanders, you can disclaim any requirement to feel the country in your bones - and, of course, you've just lost one of your main arguments for why Dean is wrong about the South.

My Jesus is better than your Jesus

Meanwhile, Matt Grills quotes his favourite parts of the Bible, and badmouths the ones that Howard Dean likes. Frankly, we could be here all night: we're talking about a literary text which is translated differently in a number of different respectable religious traditions, who also disagree on which individual books are canon and which are apocrypha. Anyway, the choice paragraph is this one:

Well, can't we just set aside both views and call him a great teacher? Wrong-o. Jesus' teachings aren't a salad buffet. You don’t just pick what you want. You can't hold onto "do unto others as you have them do unto you" and ignore the fact that Jesus said he sits at the right hand of God and that he'll return someday. Believe it all or don't believe at all.

Mr Grills has just branded as unbelievers a number of British Anglican bishops, I believe. As well as urging a standard for political candidates to the highest office of the country that violates the first amendment that the President is legally obliged to uphold.

Beyond that, you can pick and choose. You can disagree on what the Bible means. People have been doing it ever since the Gnostics, and, effectively (i.e. their erstwhile friends didn't slaughter them too much for it) since the Reformation. And that certainly extends to recognising the universal moral commandments that underpin Judaism, Christianity and Islam, to mention just some closely-related religions.

Incidentally, you can also say that a particular moral philosopher said such-and-such, and remark that, incidentally, Jesus also said that.

Matt Grills' argument appears to be a very modern copyright-rights type of argument, which is ironic as I don't believe even Disney wants copyright to persist 2000 years after death. (OK, OK, strictly speaking 1960-odd years or something.) Because, as I understand it, it goes like this:

  • Jesus said a number of things, which he wrote down. By believing in them, and ascribing them to Jesus, you are quoting the New Testament.
  • We do not accept the notion of fair use. We will, however, waive eternal damnation of your soul in exchange for a commitment to accept the belief system of the rest of the Bible, entire and unabridged.

To which I say: you first.

(Yes, I know that's the Old Testament. But: 1) Jesus of Nazareth was a Jew; 2) I can probably dig out discrepancies in the New Testament as well if you like.)

Sorry, there's another one:

[...] "My father used to tell us how much strength he got from religion, but we didn't have Bible readings," he told the Boston Globe. "There are traditions where people do that. We didn't."

Um, Howard, reading Scripture isn't considered "tradition" for most Christians. It's the best and only way to learn about God, about Jesus and about living a holy life. Even more important to Christians than baptism and communion are the Holy Scriptures. It's the only written record we have of Jesus and his teachings. The first thing a new Christian is handed is a Bible. It is muy importante.

Grills, you numbskull, have you ever entertained the possibility that some people read silently? Have you even considered the possibility of silent contemplation? A great number of monasteries were founded on such principles.

The reasoned Democratic response to all of this

Beyond all of this, there's the issue of how Dean can talk about religion in the US, despite his alleged secular background.

Well, first of all, I think he'll adapt and learn. He's a much better public speaking than he used to be, and I think when the race shifts to the South he'll get more comfortable about talking about religion. Anyway, I think the Howard Dean campaign has the Democratic primary pretty much locked up - even if the candidate trips up slightly, he's got such a base of fervent support that it will take a lot to defeat him. So he's got time to learn.

But once he gets to the general election, Bush and his Republican friends will bash him relentlessly. So what are the Democrats to do?

Here's the second interesting thing: the Democrats don't actually need the South. If the Democratic candidate wins all of the Gore states and takes Arizona, he wins. If Florida goes his* way (*: I don't believe Carol Mosely-Braun will win the nomination), it's not even funny. As it happens, OK, so the Democrats probably can't win the South, but the Republicans can't win New York and California either. In terms of electoral votes, it's pretty much all-square.

Still, we have the issue of Howard Dean having a Jewish wife, and his children being raised Jewish, which a number of Republican wing-nuts will say is a sign of Dean's limp-wristedness, that he wasn't able to impose his rightful religious views upon his family.

Well, let's ignore for the moment the unfortunate fact that Jewishness is matrilineal, and that it makes sense, therefore, for the kids to be raised Jewish and then given the opportunity to decide whether they want to continue to be Jewish or not once they're adults, or close to adults. (Both of the kids decided to stay Jewish.) Let's think how it's important that we have a President who is religiously tolerant.

  • Hispanics and Arab-Americans: OK, so Howard Dean may be a Protestant, but his wife and children are Jewish. He's got to live religious to 1000 lerance every single day in his private life. You can seriously expect his administration to follow suit.
  • Israelis and Palestinians: if it took Nixon to go to China, a US President with Jewish wife and kids, with the aid of Presidents Clinton and maybe Carter, is peculiarly persuasive when it comes to asking the Israelis to give up some land in exchange for peace.
  • Al Qaeda: this is more difficult, but any less Bible-thumping from the bully pulpit is bound to help. If a Dean administration can find a way to tie foreign aid into a campaign of reducing the influence of the madrassas, all the better.

And what if people still don't agree? Well, that's fine, it's a free country. And would you want to live in a country where you could only get the job you wanted if you loved the right sort of person?