Dean’s religious faith examined on campaign trail

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(Host) Recently, critics have claimed that Democratic presidential candidate Howard Dean “got religion” on the campaign trail. But the minister at Dean’s Congregational Church says that Democratic front-runner has deeply held and long-standing religious beliefs. His pastor also says that religion played an important part in Dean’s decision to support Vermont’s historic civil unions law.

VPR’s Steve Zind reports.

(Zind) If Vermonters are surprised to see their former Governor labeled a liberal firebrand, they are equally startled to hear him talk about Jesus.

But the Reverend Robert Lee, who is Dean’s pastor at the First Congregational Church in Burlington, says Dean has long been an active church member.

(Lee) “He’s been a faithful supporter of the church’s ministry, certainly with his financial support. He’s always responded positively to invitations from this church for participation in our programmatic life.”

(Zind) Lee says on one occasion when the church suggested to parishioners that they donate a state tax rebate to the parish’s effort to help the disadvantaged, the first check received was from Howard Dean. As for Dean’s own admission that he rarely attends services:

(Lee) “That can be said of many! (Laughs) In our tradition while attendance at public worship has always been lifted up as a helpful asset for people in their life journeys, it’s never been presented as a requirement.”

(Zind) Making public pronouncements about his religious faith is uncharted territory for Dean. In his recent book “Winning Back America”, Dean devotes a single brief passage to faith.

During the contentious debate over Vermont’s civil unions law both sides cited religious arguments and quoted scripture. Dean never referred to his own faith. Now Deans says his religious beliefs played a role in his position on civil unions. The Reverend Lee says he spoke with Dean about civil unions when the issue was being debated. Lee says it’s clear to him that religion played a role in Dean’s thinking about gay rights and other issues.

(Lee) “I’m fully convinced that – not just in that area but that in his public life – he consistently demonstrates high moral values and deeply held convictions that stem from the Judeo Christian tradition.”

(Zind) Dean says that as a New Englander he’s never felt comfortable talking publicly about his faith. But lately he’s been doing just that. In a recent television debate Dean acknowledged that he has to talk about his spiritual life to connect with many Southern voters.

(Dean) “In the south people do integrate religion openly, easily into their lives, both black Southerners and white Southerners. I understand that if I’m going to campaign for the presidency of the United States I have to be comfortable in the milieu that other Americans are comfortable in, not just for my own region, for everywhere else.”

(Zind) Dean grew up an Episcopalian. He says he left the church 25 years ago in a dispute over his support of a proposed bike path through church property.

Dean’s wife Judith Steinberg is Jewish and their two children have been raised in the Jewish tradition. David Wolk is a close friend of the Dean family.

(Wolk) “He and Judy provided a balanced religious background with respect for the faiths and traditions of Judaism and Christianity as the kids grew up. There’s no question that he has a strong spiritual side but he’s not somebody who talks about it a whole lot and he’s not unlike most Vermonters in that respect.”

(Zind) No recent Vermont governor, Republican or Democrat, has made their religion part of their public life. It’s likely they would have raised some eyebrows if they had.

It’s a different story in Texas. As a candidate and governor, George Bush made no secret of his born again status and he wasn’t alone. Ross Ramsey is editor of the Texas Weekly.

(Ramsey) “The New Testament religions are strong down here and it’s not unusual at all to hear someone in public life talk about being saved and to talk about their religion.”

(Zind) Ramsey says that as governor, Bush brought up his religious beliefs when talking about the death penalty and faith based initiatives. But while Texas voters knew he was born-again, Bush’s faith wasn’t on display. Ramsey says Bible Belt voters object when they feel a politician is using religion to score points.

(Ramsey) “The other thing that’s always dangerous about religious conversation and politics as Governor Dean is finding out about it is the people who care about it know their scripture. You’ve got to be dead on.”

(Zind) Recently Dean when asked to name his favorite book from the New Testament, Dean answered, “Job,” a book from the Old Testament. Critics have pounced on that as evidence of Dean’s unfamiliarity with the Bible, which Dean says he’s read from cover to cover.

In Portsmouth, New Hampshire, the Reverend Arthur Hilson was critical of Dean in the wake of a the candidate’s recent campaign stop at his church. Hilson is Pastor of the New Hope Baptist Church. He says his Sunday services are a popular with primary candidates because the parishioners are predominantly African American. Hilson says Dean’s appearance was carefully orchestrated by his campaign to produce a photo.

(Hilson) “Here was the request: Can your wife sit with Dean in the pew? Now why would that be? It doesn’t hurt to have a picture of the candidate with the pastor’s wife in the black church.”

(Zind) Hilson says Dean stayed only long enough to make a short speech to parishioners and then left. The pastor says Dean’s wasn’t the only brief visit to the church, but it was, more than others, clearly designed as a photo-op.

Dean’s own Pastor, Robert Lee, says Dean’s expressions of faith aren’t a political year conversion, but a reflection of the candidate’s longstanding beliefs.

(Lee) “Anybody who’s maintained a 21-year relationship with a faith community cannot be said to have taken a light, superficial approach to something.”

(Zind) The American public seems ambivalent about religious expressions by political candidates. Three years ago, a survey by the Pew Forum and the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press found that 70 percent of Americans thought it was important for the president to be strongly religious. But the survey also found that 50 percent of Americans felt uncomfortable when candidates talk about how religious they are.

For Vermont Public Radio, I’m Steve Zind.

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