Ungodly politics: Dean bends to pressure

The other day, I was reading an interview with Democratic presidential candidate Howard Dean in Newsweek when I had to stop and check that it was indeed Newsweek and not, say, Christianity Today. Yes, it was indeed Newsweek.

And, after a series of questions about a variety of public policy issues, Dean was asked, out of the clear blue, the following question: "Do you see Jesus Christ as the son of God and believe in him as the route to salvation and eternal life?" For the record, Dean's somewhat cagey answer probably did little to assuage doubts about his religious faith: "I certainly see him as the son of God. I think whether I'm saved or not is not gonna be up to me."

The real issue, though, is why this question even came up in a political magazine. Do we now have a religious test for public office– something that was explicitly rejected by the Founders of the United States of America?

I am not, for many reasons, a Dean supporter. But in the past few weeks, Dean has been the target of something dangerously close to a religious witch-hunt– and that should concern all of us, whatever our party affiliation or our political, religious, and moral convictions.

In late December, The New Republic published a cover story by Franklin Foer on "Howard Dean's religion problem." Foer explained that, no matter what his actual policy positions, Dean would have trouble presenting himself as a moderate or a centrist because he is "one of the most secular candidates to run for president in modern history."

He has said that he doesn't go to church very often and that religion does not inform his views on public policy, and "when he discusses spirituality, it is generally divorced from any mention of God or church."

In today's America, Foer wrote, a politician cannot be an open secularist without paying a penalty at the polls: "This is, for better or worse, an openly religious country that prefers its politicians to be openly religious, too– a trend that has only become more pronounced in recent national elections."

Perhaps partly in reaction to Foer's article, Dean has tried to repackage himself, rather clumsily, as a man of faith. The results have been rather pathetic to watch, since his new persona is so transparently an act dictated by political strategy (Dean has all but openly admitted this with his remarks about the need to appeal to religious sentiment when campaigning in the South).

Whatever points Dean may have scored with his God talk he has probably lost by looking opportunistic and insincere. The fault, however, lies not only with him but with a political climate in which a politician who is not very devout is advised to fake it.

In a column for beliefnet.org, a website that deals with religious issues, Rabbi Shmuley Boteach asserts that nonreligious people have a problem taking a strong stand against evil; as an example, he cites Dean's dovish stance in the war against terrorism. What piffle. Whatever one thinks of Dean's views, there are plenty of secular hawks in this war– including the outspokenly atheistic British-born journalist Christopher Hitchens. And there are, of course, plenty of doves who embrace sometimes extreme pacifism in the name of religion.

Like any other philosophy, religion can be a force for both good and bad. Historically in this country, Christian tenets have been invoked by both abolitionists and slaveholders, by both supporters and opponents of equal rights for African-Americans and women. It is also interesting to note that, while America is indeed a religious country that wants its leaders to be religious, public sentiment about religion in politics is more mixed than we have often been led to believe.

In a Pew Research Center poll released this month, nearly six out of 10 Americans said that religion seldom or never influences their voting decisions. In a Gallup poll last year, 60 percent of Americans said that religious leaders should not try to influence public policy on abortion.

Political leaders whose faith is central to their lives, such as President Bush or Democratic candidate Joseph Lieberman, have every right to discuss their religious beliefs in public; to muzzle them would be intolerant and illiberal.

But what about the intolerance of stigmatizing secularists? Polls show that approximately 40 percent of Americans do not belong to a church and do not consider religion a very important part of their lives. The state of political discourse today seems to reduce them to second-class citizens.

Cathy Young is a contributing editor at Reason magazine and a columnist at The Boston Globe, where this essay first appeared.