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Howard Dean does it again

In a purely partisan mood, I’m tempted to thank Howard Dean for reinforcing the impression that Democrats are hostile to religion. Well, that’s not precisely what he said. He said that the "Democratic Party believes... that there are no bars to heaven for anybody," which is in fact a religious statement, albeit one that theologically conservative people (including, I presume, some in his own party) might have trouble with. As Eugene Volokh and Rob Vischer note, political parties usually don’t take such explicitly theological positions, at least not in countries that aren’t theocracies (another word Dean used, presumably to characterize Christians who kinda like public prayer). I eagerly await criticism of Dean’s remarks from the various Democratic presidential campaigns, from Jim Wallis, or from the various "faithful Democrats" who blog here.

Discussions - 5 Comments

From a purely political point of view, I have a sense that was a shrewd thing for Dean to say. It forces religious conservatives to affirm an exclusionary position. That provides the potential to drive a wedge down the middle of the potential Republican voting base ... and almost certainly the more moderate 10% that decide elections.

Most mainstream Protestant church-goers probably believe, to some degree, what Dean said. Listen to the language in most Methodist or Presbyterian churches, and you'll hear something that borders on Universalism. Get a GOP candidate to endorse a more exclusive theology, even tacitly, and a wedge has been formed.

The conservative Christian theology of "only through Jesus" is often presented in an inverted fashion -- it makes the actions of the person the key to acceptance by God, with the requirement often being a profession of belief in a set of theological propositions. "Believe this and you're in, otherwise you're out of the Club."

So, again, from a political perspective I think we run the risk of underestimating Dr. Dean on this one ... he might be playing a clever hand here.

Michael, we laughed at Dean with his "50 state" strategy, yet the Democrats made significant gains in 2006 in states that should have been easy GOP holds. True, other factors at play. True, Senator Schumer's role was at least as significant as Dean's.

I agree the GOP response should be to decline to respond to the specific question about salvation doctrine.

I doubt some conservative Christians will pass up the opportunity to comment.

If the press senses a dispute -- particularly one that favors the Democrats -- they'll pursue it.

The GOP candidates may get drawn in ... forcing them to either affirm a tenet of conservative Christianity, deny it (unlikely), or try to dance around it. The latter would stir the blood of the conservative right. It would be akin to denying Christ in some eyes.

Again ... from a political point of view, this was not stupid on Dean's part. And I think too many underestimate Dean.

One could argue that Dean is revealing the secret of the party of Thomas Jefferson, who quietly hoped that everyone would become a Unitarian.

The serious theoretical question is whether our democratic republic requires a religious foundation, and whether that religious foundation can be supplied by "(almost) any religion" (by a kind of religious pluralism) or by a rationally reconstructed Christianity such as Dean and Jefferson offer--well, Jefferson at least. Dean just blabs.

I meant to add that if the Jeffersonian Dean were serious, he would in fact be hostile to religion as it's practiced by a substantial proportion of the American populace.

Wouldn't a more fundamental set of questions be:


  1. Can a republic be formed without regard to morality?
  2. Can the source of moral knowledge be merely ourselves?

I would answer "no" to both questions. But I suspect many in today's world would disagree with that. I'm not an expert in Jefferson, but wouldn't he answer "no" to both those questions as well?

One of the problems we have in today's world is that "religion" is often divorced from a belief in the reality of a self-existent creator being. I suspect that most people who claim to "be religious" harbor inner doubts about the reality of God's existence. It's a concept neither rejected or embraced. It's just "there."

Hence the discussion of "religion" in today's political talk is an odd thing ... what exactly do people mean by it? I suspect in many cases it's little more than belief in a set of human-based propositions and little more.

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