Jewish World Review Jan. 7, 2004 / 13 Teves, 5764

Michael Graham

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Howard be thy name | "I am a committed believer in Jesus Christ." — Howard Dean.

"Job." — Dean's answer when asked which book of the Christian Bible was his favorite.

Gimme that old time religion. You know, the kind that people have when they're not running for president.

Pat Robertson had it. Admittedly, he's a gap-toothed, flap-eared loony who thinks G-d smites homo-friendly theme parks with hurricanes and handicaps presidential races in His spare time. But at least Robertson is authentic.

George W. Bush has it. Though his enemies hate him for it, he clearly believes that it's proper to use his faith to guide his presidency. I don't expect to run into President Bush handing out tracts on the "Four Steps To Salvation" outside an Evanescence concert, but faith is clearly something he takes seriously.

Then there's Howard Dean, the newly self appointed Doctor of Divinity. Just two months ago, Dean was telling Southerners that they should "stop voting on guns, G-d, gays and school prayer." His events didn't begin with prayer and, contrary to tradition, his speeches didn't end with "G-d bless America." He was, in fact, "one of the most secular candidates in modern history," according to the left-leaning New Republic magazine.

But today, with primaries in southern states like South Carolina and Virginia looming, religion has suddenly become a key part of the Dean campaign. Howard Dean has very publicly announced in the New York Times that he will be publicly announcing his very public faith on the campaign trail. St. Paul had the road to Damascus; Dr. Dean has the road to the White House.

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It's hard to tell when this conversion occurred, however. Howard Dean was raised Episcopalian, but when he married, he and his Jewish wife considered converting to Unitarianism as a compromise — the theory apparently being that, rather than believing in two different Gods, they'd join the Unitarians and believe in no G-d at all. But it hardly mattered since Howard Dean, by his own admission, rarely attends church anyway.

He used to attend an Episcopal church in Burlington, Vermont, but they refused to hand over land for a government bike-path project he supported, so he left. As in, he is no longer an Episcopalian.

Well, we all know how touchy these profound theological disputes can be…

Now Howard Dean is a Congregationalist, or was until he showed up for his annual church appearance and heard a sermon suggesting that if you're only going to come to church once a year, you should just stop altogether. So he did.

"I don't go to church very often," Dean told the New Republic. "My religion doesn't inform my public policy." He has also announced his opposition to the public display of the 10 Commandments, says the prayers that begin each session of Congress make him "uncomfortable" and told California Democrats he "doesn't want to listen to the fundamentalist preachers anymore!"

But he wants all us Southerners to know that he really, really loves that Jesus, hallelujah!

Not to question Dr. Dean's sincerity, but I'm not sure how those earnest, southern evangelicals are going to respond when they find out his favorite biblical character is Joan of Arcadia.

This would all be a hoot if it weren't so, well, horrible. What kind of person puts his personal faith up for bid solely for the sake of an election? It would be one thing to skip the topic altogether, or to give the traditionally vague politician's answer to questions about religion. But for Howard Dean to switch from a champion of secularism to a soldier of the cross is as astonishing as it is shameless.

I'm no political Pollyanna. I've worked with candidates who had to, ahem, "nuance" their positions on things like abortion or the death penalty, partly in reaction to the religious views of the voters. But adjusting your position on capital-gains tax cuts or school choice is one thing. What kind of person can flip-flop on G-d?

Yes, yes, I know — it's impossible to look into the heart of a man and know for certain what he believes. It is theoretically possible that Howard Dean is one of those people "committed to Jesus Christ" who just happens to avoid prayer, church and moral judgments and thinks the book of Exodus tells how the Israelites were led out of Egypt by the head of the NRA.

But it's more likely that the old straight-talkin', tell-it-like-it-is Howard Dean who rejected the politics of "guns, G-d and gays" was telling the truth, while the new Howard Dean with the Bible under his arm is a cynical creation of a campaign hell-bent on winning an election.

And if this is true, how can even the most liberal Democrat possibly vote for Dean? If religion is the ultimate moral question, then blatantly, shamelessly lying about your faith is the ultimate moral failing. How can you ever trust him again?

These are the kinds of moral issues Dr. Dean has no doubt read about in what he now claims is his favorite part of the Christian Bible: "something in the Gospels."

You know, the Gospels? John, Paul, George, Ringo…

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JWR contributor Michael Graham is a talk show host and author of the highly acclaimed "Redneck Nation: How the South Really Won the War." To comment, please click here.


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© 2003, Michael Graham