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Dean Gets Religion

Certainly there's a large helping of political calcualtion to Howard Dean's recent spate of statements about his faith shortly after being criticized for being too secular. But I think his apparent secularism is more a New Englander's reluctance to drop the J-word than a lack of religious feeling. He seems to get what Christianity's role in politics should be.

Dean Says Faith Swayed Decision On Gay Unions

Democratic front-runner Howard Dean said Wednesday that his decision as governor to sign the bill legalizing civil unions for gays in Vermont was influenced by his Christian views, as he waded deeper into the growing political, religious and cultural debate over homosexuality and the Bible's view of it.

"The overwhelming evidence is that there is very significant, substantial genetic component to it," Dean said in an interview Wednesday. "From a religious point of view, if God had thought homosexuality is a sin, he would not have created gay people."

... Dean said he does not often turn to his faith when making policy decisions but cited the civil union bill as a time he did. "My view of Christianity . . . is that the hallmark of being a Christian is to reach out to people who have been left behind," he told reporters Tuesday. "So I think there was a religious aspect to my decision to support civil unions."

The first statement from Dean I don't care much for. Some people are genetically predisposed to alcoholism, but that doesn't mean that God approves of alcohol abuse. The second bit, however, is how Christianity should enter into politics. It's consistent with Dean's earlier statement that:

''Christ was someone who sought out people who were disenfranchised, people who were left behind ... 'He fought against self-righteousness of people who had everything ... He was a person who set an extraordinary example that has lasted 2000 years, which is pretty inspiring when you think about it.''

It's not about declaring personal faith in the divinity of Jesus, or about believing you've been divinely appointed to your role. It's about being motivated to show "love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control." Interestingly, immediately after listing those qualities as "fruits of the spirit," Paul says that "against such things there is no law" -- meaning that these are generally acceptable to people of many religions and nonreligious philosophies. That fits in well with Dean's objection -- phrased in a way that makes people think he's anti-religious -- to the "fundamentalist preachers" who would base our law on uniquely conservative Christian dogma. It's a sort of Rawlsian spirituality, promoting core values that can be justified under many different worldviews.

There's a contrast in the political sensibilities of the Old and New Testaments that parallels the contrast between henotheism and universalism. The God of the Old Testament is the God of Israel, a God who seems more interested in making his people victorious over the Caananite worshippers of Baal than in getting the Caananites to worship him. As befits a deity with an interest in a particular people at a particular time, he imparts to them a detailed code of law (forming the bulk of Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy) describing how they are to run their society. The God of the New Testament, on the other hand, turns his attention to the world at large, which was and would be inhabited by many different people with different cultures and different situations. The Jews at the time were hoping for a henotheistic messiah, who would solve their particular current problems (oppression by the Romans). Instead, Jesus and his followers articulate a set of principles -- most importantly the command to love one's neighbor as oneself -- that, in combination with knowledge about the particular situation, can be used to derive more practically applicable specific laws. (UPDATE: Via fantastic planet, I'm reminded of a scripture reference for Jesus' focus on fundamental principles instead of specific applications.)

Politically Christian conservatives often seem to yearn for henotheism. They want America to be the chosen nation of God. And they want to find explicit legal prescriptions in the verses of the Bible. It's perhaps no coincidence that the most popular Bible verse in conservative cultural politics is the prohibition on homosexuality in the Old Testament book of Leviticus.

But the teachings of Jesus, as I read them, don't let us off that easy. They don't give us the final answer. While I believe that Dean is right to say that Democratic policies are the correct particular implementation of God's general spirit, I wouldn't give that interpretation the stamp of divine certainty. A Christian politician must struggle to remain true to God's general spirit while taking responsibility for his or her particular interpretation (rather than ducking responsibility with a "hey, that's just what God says. Go argue with him").


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