In last Friday's Maroon, Viewpoints columnist John Lovejoy joined the ranks of conservative critics of Howard Dean, the current democratic front-runner, on the issue of his religious faith. Though Lovejoy's article was essentially a regurgitation of recent articles in major newspapers tinged with his own crass depictions of how liberals understand God, the issue itself has become a focal point in recent media coverage of the democratic primary race, and as such, it requires attention.
First and foremost, Howard Dean has been honest in his approach to the religious influence many Americans bring to the polls. Rather than try to cast himself as something he is not, Dean has been unabashed about how his background has influenced his faith, and in what ways this background has limited his ability to connect with some voter groups. Speaking in an interview quoted in The New York Times on January 4, 2004, Dean said "I'm a New Englander, so I'm not used to wearing religion on my sleeve and being as open about it. I'm gradually getting more comfortable with talking about religion in ways that I did not talk about it before." He added, "I'm still learning a lot about faith and the South and how important it is." The Times also quoted a Dean aide who said of Dean, "he obviously has read the Bible and knows the passages fairly well, but just in terms of having a theologian's knowledge of the Bible, he doesn't want to pass on the impression that he does." Dean and his campaign are tackling the sticky topic of religion in America, which Democrats often leave for Republicans to address, in the same way they have dealt with many other important campaign issues. In a forthright way that neither skirts the issue nor makes false claims about the man himself.
Many critics, including Lovejoy, have labeled Dean's recent focus on religion "opportunistic" or "convenient." They point to an incident in which Dean switched churches in Burlington, Vermont, over the issue of building a bike path as an example of how his faith is "superficial," in Lovejoy's words. These people claim that Dean stands no chance of garnering religious votes in this country. These accusations are false, products of political naiveté and self-righteous hypocrisy.
The argument that Dean's recent focus on religion is politically expedient is fatally flawed. If Dean was only acting and speaking in a "convenient" way, he would certainly have avoided the powder-keg issue of religion while tight races in Iowa and New Hampshire neared. Dean's continued presence in Iowa contradicts Lovejoy's assertion that he is looking ahead to Southern primary races. Rather, Dean's decision to begin speaking on this hot topic, and his continued pursuit of it despite scathing attacks from other candidates and the media, demonstrate his commitment to running a straightforward campaign that does not shy away from key issues, no matter the cost.
Secondly, Lovejoy incorrectly asserts that Dean "renounced" his faith when in fact he switched denominations of Christianity. Nowhere has Dean claimed he abandoned God or lost his faith as a result of the bike-path issue, and switching churches and renouncing the Christian faith are entirely different actions. In fact, switching churches instead of abandoning church altogether is a reaffirmation of faith, and it is foolish for conservatives to criticize this action when our current president, George W. Bush, is himself a born-again Christian who once reaffirmed his faith to kick his alcoholism.
As to whether or not Dean can actually win over the religious voters, the same survey that Lovejoy refers to (done by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life and co-chaired by U of C professor Jean Bethke-Elshtain) but fails to cite when he claims Dean is on the wrong side of religious issues, also reported that a full 72 per cent of Americans, including 52per cent of registered Republicans, think universal health care is a morally necessary issue. Throughout his campaign, Dean has emphasized his commitment to this issue. Another interesting feature of the Pew Forum's survey found that majority opinion on the issues Lovejoy cites has declined in recent years. This speaks to the emergence of a more open-minded approach to these once dogmatic issues in the United States. This bodes well for Dean and poorly for the fundamentalist right.
Will Dean win hardcore members of the Religious Right, followers of Falwell and Robertson? The odds are very slim. However, by addressing religion in a straightforward and measured way, Dean may well attract Americans such as Alex Lampros, who wrote in a letter to the Maroon last Tuesday that Contrary to what one might believe from listening to America's right wing, Jesus seems to have spent most of his time healing the sick, feeding the hungry, and casting out the unrighteous. The Bible (of course) never mentions abortion, and personally I doubt it would condemn it if it could have." Though certainly less noisy than the strident Religious Right, people like Lampros in the middle and on the left have begun quietly supporting Dean with signatures, contributions, and the like. These are signs that he may well win the Democratic nomination.