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?
Wallis reminds us that Jesus wasn't "pro-rich," and extrapolates from that that Christians must support higher taxes. Now, the New Testament obviously enjoins us to care for the poor. But what mix of policies is best suited to do that is a practical question. Conservatives happen to think everyone is best served by a low-tax, high-growth economy and by social policies - e.g., welfare reform - that encourage the inner-city poor to work and marry.
To pretend that this mix of policies is forbidden by Christ is a frank abuse of religion. We can draw from the New Testament broad principles - value human life, care for the poor, create a free and just society - but we don't receive guidance about how to handle capital business expenses in the tax code or whether Medicare reimbursement rates are too high or too low. Jesus didn't work at the Brookings Institution.
At a practical political level, the Democrats have a problem, given that secular voters and the only- mildly religious overwhelmingly belong to their party. If they take Wallis' advice, say, to complain about the abuses at Abu Ghraib in the context of Genesis 1:27 ("So God created man in his own image"), many of these more-secular voters will respond: "What does opposing torture have to do with a book about God allegedly creating the world in six days? Are you nuts?"
Besides, teasing strict rules for public policy from the Good Book bears at least a little resemblance to the rules-bound errors of the Pharisees and Sadducees. And we know how much Chairman Dean abhors them.