Howard Dean rolled into red-state Tennessee during Holy Week and promptly quoted Scripture twice. While Billy Graham shouldn't yet worry about being eclipsed by the Democratic National Committee chairman, Dean is an aggressive participant in a partywide attempt in the wake of the 2004 elections to, as they say in the revival meetings, "get right with God."
There is much good in this: The Democrats need to demonstrate greater openness to religion, and in the past, faith has informed great liberal causes, including the civil-rights movement. But there has been a fumbling quality to the Democrats' recent grappling with politics and religion, bringing to mind the old Casey Stengel plaint about his hapless New York Mets: "Can't anyone here play this game?"
Dean, who used to be famously uncomfortable talking about religion, is trying his best. But the effort behind his trying shows, which gives his religious references an off-key feel. A few weeks ago Dean compared Republicans to the rules-obsessed Pharisees and the Sadducees, pretty deep biblical allusions for someone who not too long ago thought the Book of Job was in the New Testament. You can imagine the briefing for Dean prior to this statement: "Mr. Chairman, it's pronounced - now repeat after me -- 'sad'ue-seez, sad'-ue-seez.' Got it?"
Democrats oddly tend to go too far, overadjusting, when they do God talk. In his desperation to invoke religion toward the end of the 2004 campaign, John Kerry compared George Bush to a "false prophet" from the Bible, a harsh charge given that false prophets could be stoned or crucified. Howard Dean said in February, "When you think of the New Testament, [Republicans] get about two of the values, and we get about 27." Dean's bottom line: Democrats are better Christians than Republicans. While it's possible to imagine some televangelist on the conservative side making the opposite claim, no responsible figure in the GOP would ever say such a thing.
The theorist of the new Democratic religious offensive is liberal evangelist Jim Wallis, author of the book "God's Politics." Wallis is an over-reacher himself, arguing that biblical verses directly mandate certain public policies. He suggests that a few lines in Isaiah, for instance, mean that we should only cut international trade deals that include the labor and environmental strictures demanded by trade unions. Who knew that four out of five biblical prophets oppose NAFTA?