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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