Thursday, December 25, 2003

Politics and Faith

Some noise is being made about this Boston Globe article that talks about Dean's plans to start talking about religion more in this campaign.

Presidential contender Howard B. Dean, who has said little about religion while campaigning except to emphasize the separation of church and state, described himself in an interview with the Globe as a committed believer in Jesus Christ and said he expects to increasingly include references to Jesus and God in his speeches as he stumps in the South.

Is this just a blatant pander to voters, especially Southerners, who tend to view spiritual life and political life as much more closely bound together than others? Or is it an honest attempt to open up about his personal beliefs in a way that he is just not used to doing?

My impression from reading what little has been reported on this is that Dean is a religious and spiritual individual but he comes from a tradition that frowns on public displays of religiosity. Dean, in his naturally rough style (born out of his lack of experience talking about these matters), is essentially saying that he understands that this is an important issue for some people and he is willing to open up more about his personal beliefs in order to reassure them.

Dean quotes one of my favorite Bible passages:

[In an African-American church in Columbia, S.C.,] before nearly 100 parishioners, Dean said in a rhythmic tone notably different from his usual stampede through policy points, ''In this house of the Lord, we know that the power rests in God's hands and in Jesus's hands for helping us. But the power also is on this, God's earth -- Remember Jesus said, `Render unto God those things that are God's but unto Caesar those things that are Caesar's,' '' a reference to Jesus's admonition that the secular and religious remain separate.

This is one of my favorite passages because it is one of the clearest expositions on the separation of church and state.

Dean's faith tradition is much like my own. I don't belong to any particular denomination (though my wife and I attend a local Presbyterian church on a semi-regular basis) nor do I consider myself a Christian in particular. I believe that faith is important and that it ultimately cannot be separated from the rest of our life. But I also believe that religion and government, when to closely intertwined, can seriously damage each other.

I also, like Dean, do not believe in public protestations of faith. Not because I am uncomfortable with them but simply because they often seem to be based more on a "holier than thou" attitude than any legitimate concern about the well-being of others. By your acts, not your words, shall they know you.

[Dean] is a steadfast believer in separation of church and state, he said, and opposes the placement of the Ten Commandments in a courthouse, is uncomfortable with a prayer invocation before a congressional session, though he would leave the matter to Congress, and is not bothered by the phrase ''under God'' in the Pledge of Allegiance.

On the issue of a moment of silence in schools, Dean said, ''Whatever the courts say is OK with me.'' The US Supreme Court has struck down state-required moments of silence in schools.

Of the president's faith-based initiative for social services, Dean said, it is ''overdone.''

''It's not a bad thing to have churches involved in delivering social services, but I think the president has used it to reward certain churches and make it less likely for others churches to prosper,'' he said.

Asked whether a presidential candidate could win without talking about religious faith, Dean said, ''Dick Nixon and Ronald Reagan never said much about religion. I think it's important, and you have to respect other people's religious beliefs and honor them, but you don't have to pander to them.''

He added, ''That's why I don't get offended when George Bush or Joe Lieberman talk about their religion . . . I have a feeling it has something to do with them as a human being, and they are entitled to talk about what makes them human.''

I'm impressed, and I'm not just saying that because I am already a Dean supporter. I know many people are driven ape-shit by Bush's public professions of faith and I understand their reaction (as I said above). But Dean's attitude towards the faith practices of others just feels right and accepting in the best religious tradition. If Bush's faith requires of him that he speak about it publicly on frequent occasions than more power to him.

The problem with religion is not the individual practice of it but the way we deal with the conflicts that arise between faith traditions. That is the real test of our character and Dean's open attitude on this is one I would like to see adopted by more public officials.


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