Tuesday, December 30, 2003

Getting Religion

Howard Dean’s Theological Critics
Miss the Mark (and Matthew)

And when you pray, do not imitate the hypocrites:

they love to say their prayers standing up in the

synagogues and at the street corners for people to

see them. I tell you solemnly, they have had their

reward. But when you pray, go to your private room and,

when you have shut your door, pray to your Father who

is in that secret place, and your Father who sees all that

is done in secret will reward you.

Matthew 6:5-6*

In their relentless compiling of reasons why Howard Dean is unelectable,
members of the Stop Dean movement seem to think they have found their strongest one yet: the Democratic frontrunner’s apparent lack of religiosity.

Advanced by Very Smart People with a conventionally wise bent, these critiques have so far tended to be based on a frightfully simplistic view of American religious belief or, in one notable case, logical inconsistency. They depend on a misreading of what the word "secular" actually means, whether through ignorance
or guile. And all smack of a quiet contempt for the mind of the American public, a view of those who toil outside the citadels of power as pathetic primatives.

This current torrent of doubt seems to have begun with a well-written, informative and even thoughtful piece ("Beyond Belief") by Frankin Foer in The New Republic that simply takes one leap too many. (You can get the piece online by signing up for a four-week free trial of TNR.)

There’s secular, then there’s secular

Foer is right to note that Dean’s spiritual path lacks the evangelical fervor that has come to tinge the official biographies of many successful politicians of the last two decades. And it is true that this may pose something of a challenge for Dean, who has so far, in this campaign, never met a challenge he wouldn’t take on.

However, in his interpretation of a 2000 poll by the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press, Foer rules Dean out of the category of "a person of faith" to which 70 percent of the American people want their president to belong. Foer’s conclusion is apparently based on a troublingly narrow reading of just who qualifies as a "person of faith"; regular church-going seems to be his number-one qualifier, no matter how often a man gets down on his knees and talks to his Maker.

The same seems to go for the word "secular"; anyone who is not in church every Sunday is deemed to be "secular" regardless of personal belief or devotion. Yet this is surely a misuse of a word that, according to my Webster’s Unabridged, implies not only an absence of religion, but of spirituality, as well. By Foer’s reckoning, no less a light than Thomas Jefferson would be a purely secular politician, since he rarely attended church and declared himself a "sect unto myself."

Morality and religiosity

A far more troubling piece appeared on the New York Times op-ed
page last Sunday, penned by the liberal religious activist, Jim Wallis ("Putting God
Back In Politics
"). While Wallis does commendable work fighting poverty, his
piece is so intellectually unsound that he endangers the point he hopes to make,
and insults every believer who attends church less than twice a week. Wallis
rightly expresses concern that Republicans define the terms of debate
on the role of religion in our civic life, but his essay evinces his own acceptance of
those terms.  There he confuses morality with religiosity, and church attendance
with religious and spiritual belief.

Wallis demands that Democrats lay bare their personal creeds, even if those
creeds forbid such displays. "God is always personal, but never private," he
asserts. Has he then stricken Jesus’s admonition to the contrary (see Matthew
6:5-6, above) from his personal Bible?

Any politician not thumping personal religious themes in the envangelical style,
Wallis essentially says, fails the cause of the liberal believer. It comes across as
a bit of a conceit to this Northeastern believer of immigrant stock that Wallis sees
his own evangelical tradition as the only one valid for producing political

I do concede, however, that he has a point on general rhetoric. For years, I have
myself urged liberal activists to speak more in passionate, and even spiritual,
terms. But one needn’t directly accuse the other side of being bad Christians in
order to make one’s point. State your own position with the help of unattributed
biblical phrases, and people get the point. They feel the words. People are more
sophisticated than Wallis would care to think.

Still, even though Wallis names "neglect of the environment" as a religious
concern, he scoffs at Dean for leaving his church when it took the part of wealthy
landowners fighting Dean’s local environmental project (a bike path).  In fact, the
bike path caper seems to be the jumping-off point for all those piling on.

Can a spiritual path accommodate bicycles?

Let’s say your church is opposing something you passionately believe is to the
public good, and doing so because, you believe, it is protecting powerful interests.
Would you be wrong to leave your church, and even your denomination, to take up
with one more democratically organized?

As Dean tells it, that’s how the bike path project in Burlington, Vermont, became
his road out of the Episcopal church and into the historic home of New England’s
iconoclasts, the United Church of Christ, or Congregationalists.

Whether you like Dean or not, find him earnest or opportunistic, it’s hard to find
fault with this narrative. Yet Foer chalks Dean’s conversion up to a mere matter
of "local politics", and Wallis implies the conflict was over something
inconsequential in the cosmic scheme of things.

To be fair though, I must admit to
being flummoxed, like Wallis, by Dean’s statement that his faith does not inform
his politics. True faith informs the thought process of the faithful. I can only
surmise a knee-jerk reaction, channelling, perhaps, John F. Kennedy as the latter
sought to deflect questions about his religion.

But Kennedy’s Catholicism demanded fealty to an ultimate mortal religious
authority, the pope, a figure suspect at best in Protestant America. Dean’s
denomination descends directly from the church of the New England Puritans who
landed on Plymouth Rock. If he is to address the topic of his religion at all, he
might do well to both remember that, and note it publicly.

Talkin’ about Jesus

So lately the frontrunner has been uttering the Savior’s name. On Christmas,
Sarah Schweitzer of the Boston Globe reported Dean’s first comments
on Jesus, which focused on the earthly ministry, on Jesus as inspirational leader
of people. This sounds authentic; one hopes Dean doesn’t try too hard to give his
critics what they claim he needs to speak in terms of his faith, because such a
tack from Dean promises nothing but disaster. The American people are not as
stupid as the politicians tend to treat them. They know when they’re being
pandered to. (Comments reported by Schweitzer on Sunday gave me a bit more
pause--not because they seem inauthentic, but because Dean went into the
biblical territory of dissing the Pharisees, whose depiction in the New Testament
has been used in the past as one rationale for anti-semitism.)

What Dean should absolutely not do is tell the world the particulars of his
beliefs. Let him invoke Benjamin Franklin, who also declined a public exegesis of his
belief, remarking that he wanted to "leave this world at peace with the sects," according to theologian Martin Marty.

He should appeal to the sense of justice and individualism of the American people,
simply by telling his audiences that he knows how just and respectful they are,
whether as a result of their faith in God, or in the values upon which this nation
was founded.

When the Democratic Leadership Council (DLC), with its
Southern strategy and vital center, reigned supreme, liberal evangelism became
the means of talking about values. We’re now in a new time. Moderates do not
make for an energized base, which is what the party direly needs right now.
Writing in the American Prospect Online, Michael Tomasky makes urges the DLC
to work with Dean, asking, "Is It Time to Believe?"

By discussing values in terms of America’s founding, and invoking Jefferson on the
subject of faith, Dean could knock down some walls between the churched and
unchurched within the party. But he must remain true to himself, to his own
tradition, and stop fibbing here and there about what he said last year or last

Jonathan Edwards or Ralph Waldo Emerson? DLC or

In essence, the flap over Dean’s religion (or alleged lack thereof) is yet another
incarnation of the fight for control of the Democratic Party between Dean’s
insurgents and the Democratic Leadership Council that produced Bill Clinton’s
presidential bid. (Indeed, the crusade against Dean as infidel began at the hands
of another DLC disciple, foundering presidential canidate Senator Joe Lieberman.)
In bringing the party toward the center, the DLC saw the value of evangelical
religious expression. Evangelicals, after all, represented a growing demographic.
Today, the disenfranchised represent an even faster-growing demographic, one that cuts across class, racial and religious lines.

It would be wrong, however, to define this contretemps in such small
terms, for the controversy, such as it is, represents a tension that has existed in
American culture since before the founding of the Republic, as represented by the
cool, Enlightment philosophy of Jefferson, and the fire and brimstone of the Great
Awakenings. Dean’s private sense of religion, his likely ideosyncratic belief system
and his ecumenical journey evoke not only Jefferson, but one of New England’s
later lights, Ralph Waldo Emerson of Concord, Massachusetts.

Yet the evangelical tradition stems, as pointed out in an important piece by Jay
Tolson in U.S. News & World Report, from the first Great Awakening,
the revival fomented by Jonathan Edwards of Northampton, Massachusetts.

Like Dean’s edgy centrism and the DLC’s moderate conservatism, Edwards’
austere ecstaticism and Emerson’s exuberant stoicism stem from the same root.
In the case of Edwards and Emerson, that root was the Congregationalist

Too much at stake

One more thing--before lobbing around terms like "secular" and "religious", the
Very Smart People who do so should show more care. Far too much is at stake
this time to go on making sport of what is written on the human heart.


For more on religion and the presidential candidates, see David Brooks today in the New York Times.

For a sober explanation of anti-Bush anger, see E.J. Dionne in today's Washington Post.

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Monday, December 08, 2003

I Feel Good (Who Knew That I Would?)

Weekend Politics - Sunday Show Wrap-Up

Who knew the Reverend Al Sharpton, our favorite gadfly presidential candidate
and general thorn in the Democratic side, could sing? Sharpton’s turn before the
band on “Saturday Night Live” this weekend wins him the prize in the weekly
Sunday show sweepstakes. (Yes, the show starts on Saturday, but ends on
Sunday, so that’s how we’re working it in.)

In a very funny bit--with Tracy Morgan playing the younger Sharpton, arrayed in
the rev’s once trademark track suit and medallions (not to mention the James
Brown hairdo)--the candidate covered the Godfather of Soul’s theme song with
aplomb, including the footwork
. (Unfortunately, the rest of the show failed to live
up to the standard set in this opening piece.)

Most Dems I know roll their eyes when Sharpton’s name comes up, but I must
confess, I’m glad he’s in the race. A good friend--a civil rights activist who is
African American (I am not)--says, “Addie, Al Sharpton doesn’t stand for anything
but Al Sharpton.”

Well, even if that’s true, I’m still glad he’s in it, because he’s keeping the party’s
feet to the fire--and if there ever was an election year in which that’s needed, it’s
this one. For if the base stays home, as much of it did in the midterm
congressional elections, Bush gets to coast right back into Term 2.

In the 1990s, presidential elections turned on the suburban swing vote, hence the
success of the triangulation strategies employed by Bill Clinton. But in the dark
times since the millennial meltdown of our election system, it’s the disenfranchised
who will make the difference. After all, it’s a growing demographic.

So the formula for Democratic success will rest on turnout of the traditionally
disenfranchised (ethnic and racial minorities, women and the urban poor), plus the
Southern whites (“Nascar dads”) of whom Dean so famously spoke (pick-up
trucks and Conferderate flags), and all those suburban folks struggling to pay for
health care, day care and minivans. Listing to the right won’t help the Dems win
those folks.

Dean is right when he says that, in order to win, the Dems need to override the
agenda set by the Republicans--“God, gays and guns” as he told Chris Wallace
on “Fox News Sunday”. But the economic and foreign policy agenda intended to
supplant it must be famously liberal, in the FDR sense of things. The Republican
call to remove Roosevelt’s image from the dime (to be replaced, of course, with
that of Ronald Reagan), is a perfect jumping off point for a national discussion on
America’s economic values. Turn the conversation to this topic, and the Dems
clearly have the upper hand--so long as they’re not pulling punches with it.

New kid in town

Speaking of “Fox News Sunday”, Chris Wallace’s debut in the host’s chair made
for some arresting television. As Wallace’s first guest, I suspect that White
House Chief of Staff Andrew Card may have felt a bit sucker-punched.

Although Wallace’s challenges to Card--especially on the economy--were
questions that any journalist of any stripe should be asking, he pursued his subject
with such tenacity that I’m sure producers may have been thinking to replace the
coffee with decaf next time.

With Tony Snow in the host’s chair, for denizens of the White House the show
had always been a sort of cozy visit with a sweet maiden aunt. (In fairness, I
should say that Snow never went terribly hard on anybody.) With Snow gone, and
a real newsman at the helm, there’s nary a place of comfort left for the
administration on Sunday morning.

Wallace’s pacing was a bit more relaxed with is next guest, Democratic
presidential front-runner Howard Dean--though not exactly a walk in the park for
the candidate.

The topic du jour for Dean remains the 10-year seal on his gubernatorial papers
he managed to win, despite Vermont’s tradition of a six-year seal. Like the rest of
the media, Wallace gave the topic star treatment, and Dean remained
unconvincing when he stated his reason for the seal being the protection of those
who had revealed personal information when seeking his counsel and intervention
when he served as governor.

When the document question first arose a couple of weeks ago, Dean’s instinct
was right, but his facts were, alas, lacking. He asserted that he would release his
papers when George W. Bush released his papers from his days as the chief
executive of the great state of Texas. Unfortunately for Dean, it seems Bush had
already released those papers. Where Dean should have gone with his artful
deflection was the Reagan-era papers whose release has been delayed by
Bush’s executive order. Speculation there runs high that the papers would not
reflect well on Bush père.

Wallace also took Dean to task for an off-handed comment the good doctor had
made on NPR’s “Diane Rehm Show” the week before: that “the Saudis may have
tipped us off” about the 9-11 attacks before they happened. Dean didn’t exactly
espouse this view--he called it an “interesting theory”--but, nonetheless, it’s a bit
provocative, wouldn’t you say? (It was actually Dean’s way of illustrating why the
administration needs to be more forthcoming with its records from the days that
led up to the attacks.)

Speaking of the good doctor’s turn before Diane Rehm’s mike, a most fascinating
assertion has failed to receive pick-up in the broader media. You’ll recall that the
frontrunner took some guff from Republicans (and Leon Panetta) for calling for
“re-regulation” of some industries. When pressed by Rehm as to what industry
he’d begin with, the candidate unhestatingly said, “I’d start with the media.” He
then did a whole riff on media consolidation, and recent ruling by Michael
Powell, chairman of the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), regarding ownership of broadcast outlets. Does the lack of attention to
this little Molotov cocktail of a comment illustrate Dean’s point?

Just wondering.

Hill gets her day

While Al Sharpton clearly won the weekend for style, Senator Hillary Clinton was
the big winner on substance.

You’ll recall that the junior senator from New York visited Afghanistan and Iraq last
week, only to be pushed off the front pages by President Bush’s strategic strike in
Baghdad. But for Hill, it wasn’t over. A strategic response kept her trip alive in
the news, when she suggested that the current push to turn governance of Iraq
over to Iraqis was pegged to the U.S. election schedule.

That won her long interviews on both “Meet the Press” and “This Week with
Geoge Stephanopoulos”. It was especially fun to see her sit across from
Stephanopoulis, given the Sturm und Drang that has characterized the
Clinton-Stephanopoulos relationship over the last decade.

As is her wont, Sen. Clinton was tightly focused and on point in both interviews
when it came to Iraq--and, thank goodness, Afghanistan. (Remember that
place?) And, in both interviews, she laughed most appealingly at the suggestion
that she might run for president. (She gave the classic politician’s answer: I’m the
senator from blah-blah, and I’m happy doing the work for the people of blah-blah.
Theoretical scenarios that might draw her into the presidential race were met with:
“That’s not going to happen.”)

With Stephanopoulos, however, she was more relaxed. When the former Clinton
aide addressed her famous assertion of a “vast right-wing conspiracy”, she
refused to back away from it. Her only regret, she said, was that she called it a
“conspiracy”, since it’s all happening very much in the open.

You go, girl!

Ire of Newt

Our Sunday wrap-up would not be complete without noting the appearance of
Newt Gingrich on “Meet the Press”. Apparently, Hill and Newt had a meeting of
the minds in the green room, and like her, he came out swinging against the
administration’s Iraq timetable. He lauded the president’s speeches on freedom
and democracy in the middle east, but said that “within the bureaucracy” there
were forces at work that were getting in the way of the president’s vision. When
pressed by Tim Russert as to whom he might be talking about, the former
speaker demurred. His antipathy to Colin Powell is well-known, but I somehow
doubt that Powell is driving the hand-over agenda.

Could the man who drove a revolution in Congress be taking shots at Karl Rove,
the president’s Rasputin?

It’s going to be an interesting election season.

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