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Beyond Belief

Howard Dean's religion problem.

Talk to sensible Howard Dean supporters these days, and they’ll tell you that the former governor’s campaign to date has been a grand sleight of hand. Sure, it has harnessed Bush hatred and antiwar fervor. But the real Dean isn’t a frothing lefty like his supporters; he’s a closet centrist. Once he finishes exploiting the left’s anger to seal the nomination, he will reveal his true self, elegantly pivoting to the middle. As The Washington Post’s Dan Balz and Jim VandeHei put it in early December, “[Dean] has provided [himself] ample room to modify his image.”

On paper, there is a good reason to believe this strategy could work. For all his red-meat, liberal rhetoric, Dean hasn’t committed himself to many policy positions that can be portrayed as far left—unlike, say, Richard Gephardt, with his massive $230 billion health care plan. After the primaries are over, Dean will be able to emphasize his commitment to fiscal discipline, his opposition to gun control, and even the hawkish streak in his foreign policy prior to 2002. (Dean was a rare Democratic supporter of the first Gulf war.) The problem is that, no matter how much he talks about these authentically centrist impulses, Dean will still have a hard time selling himself as a moderate. It’s not just his opposition to the war—though that may pose more of a problem now that Saddam Hussein has been captured. No, the real reason Dean will not be able to escape a liberal caricature has little to do with policy and everything to do with a warning flag that will mark him as culturally alien to much of the country: Howard Dean is one of the most secular candidates to run for president in modern history.

Dean himself is frank on this point, perhaps too frank. “[I] don’t go to church very often,” the Episcopalian-turned-Congregationalist remarked in a debate last month. “My religion doesn’t inform my public policy.” When Dean talks about organized religion, it is often in a negative context. “I don’t want to listen to the fundamentalist preachers anymore,” he shouted at the California Democratic Convention in March. And, when he discusses spirituality, it is generally divorced from any mention of God or church. “We are not cogs in a corporate machine,” he preached last month in Iowa. “We are human, spiritual beings who deserve better consideration as human beings than we’re getting from this administration.”

One day, a truly secular candidate might be able to run for president without suffering at the polls. But that day won’t be soon. 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. A 2000 poll by the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press found that 70 percent of Americans want their president to be a person of faith. This religious vote isn’t just concentrated in Southern states that a Democrat has no chance of carrying. It also saturates the Midwest, where Dean would have to win to have a chance at the presidency. (According to the American Religious Identification Survey, only about 15 percent of respondents in Wisconsin, Iowa, and Illinois describe themselves as nonreligious.) Indeed, in the last five presidential elections, the candidate who more aggressively conveyed his religiosity (whether honestly or not so honestly) won. Seen in this light, a popular contest between Dean’s secularism and George W. Bush’s heartfelt faith could be, well, no contest. And the same, in turn, could be true of the election.

Dean, to be fair, recognizes the need to provide some sort of narrative of his faith—an answer to Bush’s story of Billy Graham-inspired redemption from alcoholism. For Dean, the road to Damascus goes around Lake Champlain. In 1980, Dean, then a practicing doctor in Burlington, caught wind that a local real estate developer was planning to build a pair of high-rise condominiums on the shore of the lake. For most of its recent history, the shorefront had been an industrial wasteland; now, it was going to become a haven for avaricious developers, without any public access. Along with a Burlington lawyer named Rick Sharp, Dean began to campaign against the project, proposing in its place a scenic nine-mile bike trail. “He became a crusader,” says Sharp. Dean went door to door with leaflets; he stood in the street with petitions; he cleared brush and laid bricks.

The early ’80s were a time when progressives dominated Burlington politics, having even stuck a socialist in city hall. Dean and his crusaders tapped this raw liberalism and turned the real estate developers into a communal bte noire, killing the condo project in 1981. Then, the hard part began: getting the land for the bike trail—a fight that ultimately wound its way to the U.S. Supreme Court. Part of the struggle involved convincing the local Episcopal diocese to cede ownership of a stretch of old railroad tracks that ran across their property. When the church first resisted, threatening to join a lawsuit, “Howard went to talk to them into it,” says Sharp. Thanks to Dean’s persistence, the Episcopalians eventually succumbed. But their initial resistance left a bad taste in Dean’s mouth. As Dean has described it in recent months, the dispute over the bike path caused him to break with the Episcopal Church and become a Congregationalist.

As conversion stories go, Dean’s hardly conforms to the conventions of the genre. Rather than show how religion helped him to change his life—see, again, Bush overcoming the bottle—it shows how a conflict in everyday life made Dean change his religion. Not only is the role of religion in the story subsidiary; it’s also essentially negative. More important still, Dean’s spiritual narrative is, well, not very spiritual. His moment of truth has nothing to do with God or theology or personal faith; rather, it’s about local politics. It’s hard to imagine this story will resonate with religious voters, because very few people would untether themselves from their spiritual home over a bike path. Indeed, when Dean first explained his denominational switch on ABC’s “This Week,” George Stephanopoulos was incredulous: “Over the bike path?” Most people respond that way, even Dean’s friends and family. My questions about the centrality of the bike path take them by surprise. “I have never heard that before,” says his brother James Dean. “I had another reporter ask me that, but he never told me that at the time,” remembers Sharp.

Whatever the reason for Dean’s decision to switch denominations, it was part of what seems to have been a personal journey away from organized religion altogether. For generations, Dean’s family members were stalwarts of St. Luke’s Episcopal Church in East Hampton, New York. His father had served as the church warden. And, every Sunday until his thirteenth birthday, Dean attended St. Luke’s himself. “When we were about thirteen,” says James, “Dad said, ‘We’re not going to make you go to church anymore.’“ When Howard Dean stopped attending church, it wasn’t just rebellion against his devout father. It was a sign of the times. During the 1950s and 1960s, mainline Protestantism lost its grip on the elite. In a courageous act of noblesse oblige, the elite had democratized its schools and universities and given them a secular, nondenominational tint. But, in the process of secularizing these institutions, they ruined their prime instruments for inculcating Protestantism. Once upon a time, Dean’s prep school, St. George’s in Newport, Rhode Island, might have given him a healthy dose of “muscular Christianity.” Instead, his theology classes consisted of lessons in ethics and a more “literary” reading of the Bible.

Dean’s decision to join the Congregationalists in 1982 didn’t just coincide with his bike-path fight with the Episcopal Church. It also coincided with his first campaign for the state legislature. Like all American politicians, even in progressive Burlington, he needed a spiritual mailing address. As he shopped around for churches, it was natural that he turned to Congregationalism, a denomination famous for its informality and liberal stances. Last November, Dean told a reporter from the Forward that he liked that “there is no central authority” in the tradition. By the time Dean joined the church, Congregationalists had already authorized the ordination of gay ministers. Yoga is taught in the church. Sermons sometimes make the case for lefty causes, especially the plight of the Palestinians. (Last June, a sermon at Dean’s own Congregationalist church blared, “The real violence is the violence of the occupation of Israel to over three million Palestinians living in the Gaza Strip and the West Bank, including East Jerusalem.”)

Dean’s decision to switch churches is not the only way in which his religious journey progressed from more to less structured—or in which he mimicked his class as a whole. Soon after the Protestant elites had opened their institutions, they opened their families, with intermarriage becoming common in the 1970s and ’80s. “New England Protestants have assimilated Catholics and Jews. We are constantly searching for a combination of rituals and doctrines. We’re not afraid to cherry-pick,” says Peter Hall, a Harvard professor who studies religious politics. So, when Dean married a Jewish woman, Judith Steinberg, in 1981, nobody paid much notice. (His father, after all, had married a Catholic.) The new Dean family would celebrate Christmas and Passover. Religion in the household became not only nontraditional but extremely casual. As Dean put it at a candidate forum in November, “We go to temple once in a while, and, last time I went, we got a lecture about Jews that only go to temple on high holy days, just like I used to get a lecture at the Congregational church about Christians that only go to church on Christmas and Easter.” As James Dean told me, “[Religion] is just not something we really talk about.”

Dean’s ambivalent spiritual narrative would likely pose problems for him on the national level under any circumstances. But, in 2004, it could play straight into Karl Rove’s hands. Rove has been surprisingly blunt about the centrality of faith in his electoral calculus. In 2001, he told an audience at the American Enterprise Institute that the previous election had been so close for only one reason: evangelicals. “Four million of them failed to turn out and vote,” Rove explained. Ever since Bush entered office, Rove has been obsessed with altering this result. Newsweek describes the evangelical vote as “the primary demographic objective of [Bush-Cheney 2004].” In pursuit of this objective, Rove has dispatched Ralph Reed, of Christian Coalition fame, to manage campaign operations in the Southeast (read: Florida); the Southern Baptist Convention will plaster its churches with voting guides.

But successfully turning out the evangelical vote is far from inevitable. That’s because there has been a decade-long trend of Christian conservatives retreating from the political activism of the mid-’90s. In part, this is a consequence of the decay of the Christian Coalition and other organizations that stoked evangelical participation. And, in part, it is a consequence of Bush’s political strategy. Even as he has tried to throw bones to evangelicals, pushing pet issues like African slavery and his faith-based initiative, he has studiously avoided culture-war hot buttons that might upset moderates. He tried to split the difference on stem cells, struck a relatively moderate tone on gays, and has largely steered clear of talk about abortion.

But, by keeping the culture war from flaring up, he has created an environment in which religious-right voting drives could have a hard time gaining traction. “Evangelicals are populists,” says University of Virginia sociologist James Davison Hunter. “They participate in politics when they feel embattled, when they feel like the culture is out to destroy the way of life they cherish. Right now, they don’t feel that.” But, he says, Dean could make them feel embattled. Indeed, he already has. In Vermont, when Dean signed the civil-unions bill in 2000, he became a target for social-conservative activists. Operation Rescue’s Randall Terry and groups from as far away as Kansas made their way to Vermont so they could denounce Dean to his face. And that’s not Dean’s only vulnerability. Because he served on the Northern New England board of Planned Parenthood, he has become a favorite source of ire for anti-abortion groups, too. warns that he may be the “most pro-abortion candidate.”

Far from tamping down this animosity, Dean appears to revel in it. Not content to take on Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson by name—as John McCain did after the South Carolina primary—Dean went after the entire category of “fundamentalist preachers” at the California Democratic Convention. When talking about the social issues that matter most to evangelicals, he doesn’t even make a pretense of respecting their side. Describing the debate over partial-birth abortion, he told NARAL Pro-Choice America last January that “this is an issue about nothing; it’s an issue about extremism.” On the subject of civil unions, he has lambasted his opponents for “unchristian” behavior. When I asked conservative activist Gary Bauer about Republican plans for exploiting such statements, he told me, “The Republican Party can write the direct mail in their sleep.” A former Christian Coalition official concurs: “This is the opponent that Ralph [Reed] dreamed of. He will be a kid in the candy store.”

Dean’s problem isn’t just that he will bring GOP evangelicals to the polls but that he could also lose the evangelicals who have voted Democratic in recent elections. Polling done by the scholars John Green, Lyman Kellstedt, James Guth, and Corwin Smidt has broken down the white evangelical voting bloc into four groups—highly traditional, traditional, centrist, and modernist. While Republicans dominate the two traditionalist groups, they have basically split the centrist and modernist ones with the Democrats. And, while these more moderate evangelicals don’t make up an overwhelming percentage of the electorate—only about 8 percent—they happen to be heavily concentrated in the Midwest. According to Kellstedt, these are voters Democrats often win with an economic agenda, but Dean might lose “on the basis of religious style points and strident rhetoric on [social issues].” And, in a close election, a few thousand votes squandered in Iowa and Illinois could ruin Dean.

If the problem were only evangelicals, maybe Dean could survive. But, as the sociologist Alan Wolfe argues in his new book, The Transformation of American Religion, “There’s also a sense in which we are all evangelicals now.” By which he means all U.S. religions—from Catholicism to Islam—have adopted a style of worship that in important ways resembles evangelicalism, especially its emphasis on the “intimate and personal sides of faith.” This shift to an evangelical mode of discourse has altered politics as well. Before Jimmy Carter came along, postwar politics had been largely devoid of religion, aside from John F. Kennedy’s efforts to diffuse the controversy over his Catholicism. But Carter changed all that. Importing evangelical personal testimony, he felt free to describe his faith, right down to the lust “in my heart.” Since his 1976 victory, presidential politics has been filled with such testimonials. Candidates’ spiritual lives have literally become open books: The 200-page The Faith of George W. Bush by Stephen Mansfield can be found on the front table at your neighborhood Barnes & Noble.

It’s common for liberals to complain that Bush talks about religion too much. But few Americans agree. Recent polling by Pew shows that only 14 percent think Bush talks about his faith too much. The vast majority, 62 percent, like the way he deploys religion, and 11 percent think he doesn’t invoke it enough. This is one reason there’s little hope of Dean riding a secular backlash into the White House, but it is not the only one. Although the number of Americans who attend church less than once per year is growing, it is still at 30 percent, a decided minority. According to the pollster John Zogby, “Appealing to secular voters might help you win a Democratic primary—but that’s it.” The University of Akron’s John Green, the pollster who has looked the hardest at the electoral implications of religion, argues that voters “are looking for signs that they can trust a candidate. One of the things that they are looking for, one of the things that makes sense to them, is religiosity. If they don’t see it, they may have a hard time voting for a candidate.”

Take, for example, Michael Dukakis, another secular New England governor who ran for president and one of the few recent candidates as secular as Dean. As his wife, Kitty, admitted in 1987, “None of us is very religious.” Dukakis’s opponent, George H.W. Bush, might not have been any more religious—at least not in a publicly expressive, evangelical way. But he had spent eight years watching as Ronald Reagan ended every speech with the phrase “God bless America” and stuffed religious imagery into every rhetorical corner. Bush could see the adoration such pronouncements brought from Christian conservatives. As he campaigned for president, he tried gamely to ape his boss. Speaking to ministers from Bob Jones University, he used the evangelical formulation “I believe in Jesus Christ as my personal savior.

The 1988 campaign is remembered for Bush’s attacks on Dukakis’s patriotism and Massachusetts-liberal instincts. But, rereading Bush’s fusillades, it becomes clear that these arguments had a unifying theme: Dukakis’s godlessness. When Bush blasted Dukakis for making the Pledge of Allegiance optional, he was really talking about the phrase “one nation under God”—a phrase evangelicals cherished as one of the few permissible references to the deity in public school. When he derided Dukakis’s membership in the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), he tried to make a similar point about his opponent’s embrace of secularity. “I don’t think [the ACLU] is right to try to take the tax exemption away from the Catholic Church,” Bush bellowed in one debate. “I don’t want to see ‘under God’ come out from our currency.” The attacks worked wonders. As Garry Wills wrote in Under God: Religion and American Politics, “For many Americans, the coldly technological ‘Massachusetts miracle’ was not only godless but the enemy of God.” This perception enabled Bush to run up amazing numbers among evangelicals—77 percent of their vote—en route to a 39-state general-election victory.

Fortunately for the Democrats, there’s a counterpoint to the Dukakis story. Four years after that disastrous campaign, Bill Clinton, also running against the elder Bush, made his faith a central part of his political persona. At the 1992 Democratic convention, Linda Bloodworth-Thomason’s biographical film showed Roger Clinton telling the camera, “Church-going was really important to the two of us. ... Even to this day, it’s an extremely significant part of his life.” In his acceptance speech, Bill Clinton described his program as a “new covenant” and quoted from Corinthians. Where Dukakis and Walter Mondale had resolutely avoided churches and other religious settings, Clinton and Al Gore sought them out. In an interview on the VISN Christian cable network, he sat in a West Virginia church directly in front of the altar: “If I didn’t believe in God, if I weren’t, in my view, a Christian, if I didn’t believe ultimately in the perfection of life after death, my life would have been much more difficult for me.”

Moreover, because Clinton hailed from the relatively conservative Baptist Church (as opposed to the liberal Congregationalists), he understood how to paper over differences with voters who disliked his positions on social issues, especially abortion. “With Clinton, evangelical voters no longer felt like they were locked in a battle against a secular Democratic Party,” says the University of Virginia’s Hunter. By the end of the campaign, Clinton and Gore seemed sincere enough that the Associated Baptist Press trumpeted them as “the first all-Baptist ticket for the nation’s two highest offices.” George H.W. Bush’s share of the evangelical vote fell from 77 percent in 1988 to 56 percent in 1992. As a result, Clinton nearly swept the border states and made important inroads in the South.

Indeed, a case can be made that the Democrats’ recent presidential success with Southern candidates is only secondarily connected to their geographic roots. Candidates who grow up in the South come from a world steeped in Jesus. Even if they don’t buy the theology themselves, they intuitively understand the role that faith plays in people’s lives; they have absorbed enough of the lingo to plausibly pass for religious or at least avoid offending the faithful.

Dean, on the other hand, utterly lacks this gift. In a CNN interview last week, Judy Woodruff asked him about his bike-path conversion. She seemed bemused over the story. “Was it just over a bike path that you left the Episcopal Church?” Dean told her, “Yes, as a matter of fact, it was.” He explained how the diocese had resisted handing over the land for the trail. “One thing I feel about religion, you have to be very careful not to be a hypocrite if you’re a religious person. It is really tough to preach one thing and do something else. And I don’t think you can do that.” As the discussion continued, Woodruff asked, “And you don’t believe, governor, the Republicans are going to have a field day with comments like these?” Dean replied with unwitting clarity: “The Republicans always have a field day with things like this.” Yes, they do.

Franklin Foer is an associate editor for The New Republic.