Thursday, December 25, 2003

From combined dispatches

MANCHESTER, N.H. — Howard B. Dean, the front-runner for the Democratic presidential nomination who had said little about the role of religion in politics, yesterday told the Boston Globe that he is a committed follower of Jesus Christ and suggested that this would be a winning campaign issue.

Mr. Dean said he will start mentioning God and Christ as the campaign moves into the South. After the Iowa caucuses on Jan. 19 and the New Hampshire primary a week later, South Carolina and five other states — Oklahoma, Arizona, Delaware, Missouri and New Mexico — will hold primaries on Feb. 3. The South Carolina primary, the first test in the Deep South where history suggests that the Democratic candidate must perform well if he is to win the presidency, is particularly important.

The 55-year-old physician, who is a member of the Congregationalist Church, said he does not attend church often, but prays daily. His wife is Jewish, and their two children adopted the Jewish faith.

Jesus is an important influence in his life, he told the Globe interviewer, and he probably will talk to voters about how Jesus has served as a “model” for him.

“Christ was someone who sought out people who were disenfranchised, people who were left behind,” he said. “He fought against self-righteousness of people who had everything. … He was a person who set an extraordinary example that has lasted 2,000 years.”

An ABC/Washington Post poll released this week showed that 46 percent of Southerners say a president should rely on his religious beliefs in making policy decisions, compared with 28 percent in the East and 40 percent in the rest of the nation.

The Globe reported that Mr. Dean has talked of his religious beliefs to one black congregation in South Carolina, where about half of the expected primary votes will be cast by blacks.

“In a rhythmic tone notably different from his usual stampede through policy points,” the newspaper reported, the former Vermont governor said: “In this house of the Lord, we know that the power rests in God’s hands and in Jesus’ 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.’ ”

Mr. Dean continued: “In this political season, there is also other power. Not as important or as strong as the power of Jesus, but it’s important power in the world of politics and the world of Caesar.”

Mr. Dean’s mother is a Roman Catholic, and he was raised in the Episcopal faith like his father, a warden in the Episcopal church that the family attended near their weekend home in East Hampton, N.Y. The son attended St. George’s, a boarding school in Newport, R.I., where he went to church “literally every day and twice on Sunday.”

“My father used to tell us how much strength he got from religion,” he told the Globe, “but we didn’t have Bible readings. There are traditions where people do that. We didn’t. People in the Northeast don’t talk about their religion. It’s a very personal, private matter, and that’s the tradition I was brought up in.”

Mr. Dean’s remarkably candid discussion of his religious faith, and the expected impact of a candidate’s faith in Southern primaries, recalled his remarks earlier in the campaign that a Democratic candidate must campaign for the votes of Southerners “with Confederate flags in their pickup trucks.”

He was harshly criticized for the remarks, which were interpreted in some quarters as endorsing the Confederate flag, and two days later, he apologized.

Other Democratic candidates have talked of their religious faith on the stump. Rep. Richard A. Gephardt, a Southern Baptist, has described the recovery of his son from a serious illness as “a gift of God.” Sen. Joe Lieberman, an Orthodox Jew who will not campaign on Saturday, the Jewish Sabbath, scolded his rivals for forgetting “that faith was central to our founding and remains central to our national purposes.” The Rev. Al Sharpton, who has pulled into a tie for second place in one South Carolina public-opinion poll, is an ordained Pentecostal minister and often campaigns in pulpits.

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