Robert Novak

WASHINGTON -- When six opponents gathered at public broadcasting studios outside Des Moines last Sunday for yet another debate, they searched frantically for some way to slow Howard Dean's presidential express. Two candidates blistered the Democratic front-runner for advocating across-the-board tax increases, but no adversary dared bring up Dean's mixture of religion and politics.

However, one of the three news media questioners, National Public Radio's Michele Norris, raised Dean's new promise to talk about God and Jesus in the South. "In the Northeast," Dean replied, "we do not talk openly about religion." However, "in the South, people do integrate religion openly" and so he would talk about it there. Dean then warned: "I think any columnist who questions my belief is over the line." In short, don't delve into something I brought up. Nobody during the two-hour national television presentation probed what Dean really thinks about God.

That may be why commentators Sunday night declared the former Vermont governor was "unscathed" by the debate. Disagreeing, the adviser to another candidate told me: "I thought he was seriously scathed." Scathing Dean, he said, was his own decision to play the Jesus card during coming intra-party tests in South Carolina and Oklahoma. This critic and like-minded Democrats are unwilling to permit use of their names, only privately criticizing the front-runner about his religious perambulations.

Brought up in his father's Episcopal faith (his mother was Catholic), he married a fellow physician who is Jewish. His children were raised Jewish though they and their mother hardly ever attend services now. Dean himself moved from Episcopalian to Congregationalist "because I had a big fight with a local Episcopal church about 25 years ago over the bike path." He does not hesitate to reveal this information or to declare that he seldom goes to church.

This fits the highly secular profile of Democrats and particularly Democrats who vote in primary elections. One reason for the surprisingly poor standing of Sen. Joseph Lieberman is that, in the words of critics inside the party, "he wears his religion on his sleeve." In contrast, reporters who followed Dean on the campaign trail recently observed that they never had seen so secular a presidential candidate, one who never mentioned God and certainly not Christ.

Robert Novak

Robert Novak (1931-2009) was a syndicated columnist and editor of the Evans-Novak Political Report.

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