Monday, January 12, 2004

Many South Carolina Democrats believe presidential hopeful Howard Dean’s promise to talk about his relationship with Jesus is a calculated ploy to pander to Southerners — in particular blacks — participating in next month’s South Carolina primary.

“A lot of Democrats here are calling it his ‘Road to Columbia conversion,’” said one senior state Democrat, referring to the state’s capital city.

“I don’t think he’s had any Damascus conversion,” said Ike Williams, a veteran of South Carolina politics and former head of the state branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. “Dean is practicing the politics of convenience.”

It all began around Christmas when Mr. Dean sat down for an interview about a pending visit to South Carolina, where more than 40 percent of Democratic voters are black and an even higher percentage are fervently religious. During the interview with the Boston Globe, Mr. Dean told the reporter he is a committed believer in Jesus Christ and announced that he would incorporate his religious views more into his campaign.

“Christ was someone who sought out people who were disenfranchised, people who were left behind,” Mr. Dean said. “He fought against self-righteousness of people who had everything.”

His decision, he said, was not a calculated effort to curry favor in the Bible Belt, but came after spending time in the South and realizing that voters could get to know him better if he shared his religion more.

“People in the Northeast don’t talk about their religion,” said Mr. Dean, a one-time Episcopalian who now is a Congregationalist. “It’s a very personal, private matter, and that’s the tradition I was brought up in.”

One of Mr. Dean’s rivals, the Rev. Al Sharpton of New York, was skeptical of Mr. Dean’s new tack.

“It is interesting to me that some candidates have regional Holy Ghosts,” he said. “They’re holy in one state; they’re unholy in others.”

Mr. Dean’s announcement surprised many, especially since he had been so blunt about a relative lack of religious principle. In one debate with other Democratic candidates, he said he doesn’t “go to church very often” and boasted, “My religion doesn’t inform my public policy.”

At the time he announced plans to include Jesus in his stump speech, Mr. Dean was featured on the cover of New Republic, a centrist Democrat journal, for a story about his lack of religion.

“Howard Dean is one of the most secular candidates to run for president in modern history,” Franklin Foer wrote in the article. “Seen in this light, a popular contest between Dean’s secularism and George W. Bush’s heartfelt faith could be, well, no contest.”

The God that Mr. Dean talks about may have a different message than the God who sent fire and brimstone raining down on Sodom and Gomorrah.

“If God had thought homosexuality is a sin, he would not have created gay people,” Mr. Dean recently told The Washington Post.

Mr. Dean’s mother was Catholic and his father Episcopalian. He grew up in the Episcopal Church in East Hampton, N.Y. In medical school, he met his future wife, Judy Steinburg, who is Jewish. The couple have two children who were raised Jewish, but participated in both religions growing up.

Mr. Dean remained an Episcopalian until the church he attended in Burlington, Vt., refused to give up land for a bike path he wanted built along Lake Champlain. Upset over the decision, he quit and joined a local Congregationalist church.

“He quit his church over a bike path,” said former Vermont state Sen. John McClaughry, who ran against Mr. Dean in 1992. “That really cracked me up.”

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