Dr. Howard Dean's God problem is like his Confederate flag problem. The more he tries to explain himself, the worse it gets and the further from political grace he strays.
First Dean swears he's committed to Jesus Christ, then says he'd rather not talk about it. Except in the South, where he promises he'll be saying more and more about religion.
Which doesn't come easily to him, he reminds us, because he's from the Northeast where people don't wear their religion on their sleeves, as do those good folks down yonder.
But, well, when in Rome - Georgia, that is - praise Jesus and pass the grits.
From the boys in pickup trucks with Confederate flag stickers to the Bible-thumping Jesus bloc, one wonders what's next? Beauty queens, golfers and deer hunters? Look for Dean in camo, teeing off at Myrtle Beach with Miss South Carolina while tailgating on venison stew. Better make it an SUV, Bubba.
Dean's latest problem, however, isn't really about religion. It's not about whether he can accurately quote scripture or knows to which Testament the book of Job belongs. Recently Dean said Job was his favorite book in the Bible and placed it in the New Testament.
No, Dean's problem is far more complicated, and potentially more politically crippling, than the measure of his Christian content. The elephant in his front parlor is class. When he starts talking about Jesus to Southern religious folk, Dean betrays his upper-class dimness and insults the less privileged he hopes to attract.
Dean saying he's uncomfortable talking about religion because he's from the Northeast and his people don't talk openly about religion only reminds Southerners that he's from "off." And, let's face it, it underscores that he knows as much about poor people as he does about Job.
Personally, I have no problem with rich people. I don't think humble origin makes one more qualified for any job or that poverty endows greater virtue.
It's admirable when people make it on their own, to be sure. We love that in America. But given that we all strive to improve our lives materially, and hope that our children fare even better, it's contradictory to issue demerits to those who prove the American dream true.
Besides only a generation or two separates the rich from the poor in the United States. As Joan Didion once wrote, it's not as though Americans have been gazing down 600 years of rolled lawns. We're all cut from the same cotton duck.
I also don't think Dean deserves to be beaten up for misplacing Job in the New Testament. Speaking extemporaneously is tricky, especially after months on the road, and slips of the tongue are both expected and forgivable.
But Dean's biblical slip, which merely underscored his awkward foray into the religious realm, damages most for casting light on his blinding insincerity. One day he scolds the South for casting votes around guns, God and gays. A few weeks later, he confesses to devotion to Christ and starts invoking the Lord.
He's like the carnival barker who says what potential suckers want to hear: "You want Jesus? Have we got Jesus!"
What Dean doesn't seem to "get" - and perhaps this is owing to his privilege - is that out-front religion in the South is often as much a function of social class as it is of faith. Among many poor blacks and whites, church is the cocktail party without the booze, the social club without the pedigree.
You don't find Southern Episcopalians, who prefer Chardonnay with their communion wafers, standing on street corners imploring passersby to prepare to meet Jesus. They're as lock-jawed and emotionally taut as any Park Avenue Yalie.
In other words, Dean's New England excuse is just another backhand to the poor voters he courts.
Here's what I've noticed having lived much of my life in the Bible Belt: Southerners have a bird dog's nose for artifice. And one sure-fire ticket to damnation, regardless of faith or denomination, is to be a fake.
That's why George Bush and Joseph Lieberman can talk about their faith with impunity. Faith is part of who they are rather than something they dust off at election time. The same was true of Jimmy Carter, but not of Bill Clinton, who brought out the Bible only when his tear ducts needed priming.
Dean would have fared far better had he stuck to his true grit, rather than his Southern impression. Religion is personal, he might have said, and even Southerners could understand that. What they can't understand, and are less likely to forgive, is a man who bears false witness.
Proverbs. Old Testament.