Jewish World Review Dec. 26, 2003/1 Teves, 5764

Wesley Pruden

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Moving south on the sawdust trail | Howard Dean headed south yesterday, searching for the sawdust trail that leads into the heart of the Confederacy.

The former governor of Vermont, who grew up in New York as an Episcopalian, found a Jewish wife and became a Congregationalist, auditioned his Jesus talk in, of all places, Boston. His routine shows some promise, but it needs a lot of work before it opens in Charleston, St. Louis and Oklahoma City on Feb. 3, when primaries across a wide swath of the South and the western reaches of the Bible Belt choose delegates to the Democratic National Convention.

Mr. Dean described himself to the Boston Globe as "a committed believer in Jesus Christ" who expects to "increasingly include references to Jesus and G-d" in his speeches as he stumps the South.

Jesus Christ, he says, "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 2,000 years, which is pretty inspiring when you think about it."

This will sound about as clumsy, and about as convincing, to the born-again Christians who have thought about it as the governor's back-headed tribute to the Confederate battle flag sounded in the ears of the good ol' boys in their pickup trucks. Born-again Christians black and white, in the South and elsewhere, do not speak of Christ in the past tense and are not likely to be impressed by someone who regards Christ as merely an "inspiring example."

Mr. Dean described himself as a Christian in the "Northeast tradition," uncomfortable discussing religious beliefs in public, and if the Jesus talk he displayed in his Boston interview is the best he can do he will be wise to take his own advice, and not talk about it in public. His beliefs smack of "the social Gospel" universally disdained in the Bible Belt, warmed-over Unitarian theology that Mr. Dean says he and his wife rejected when they considered trying to find a faith they could embrace together.

The late Harry Golden, editor of an irreverent magazine called the Carolina Israelite, cited the perils of peddling skim-milk Christianity to Southerners in his account of a semi-successful Brotherhood Week years ago in his hometown of Charlotte. The churches and synagogues traded pastors for one brotherly Sunday morning, and Mr. Golden's synagogue drew the Unitarian minister. Several of the members of the synagogue, who had expected to get the genuine article, a Baptist or a Campbellite who would breathe a little fire, or at least the real McCoy from a moderate Methodist or a polite Presbyterian, were grievously disappointed. "A Unitarian?" complained one member to his rabbi. "For this we have Brotherhood Week?"

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Mr. Dean is, in fact, challenging candidates who know the G-d market better than he does. Rep. Richard A. Gephardt, a Missouri Baptist, regularly and easily talks of his son's recovery from a grave illness as "a gift from G-d," and Joe Lieberman's Orthodox Jewish faith has endeared him to evangelical Christians, who relished his scolding of his oh-so-secular rivals for forgetting that "faith was central to our founding and remains central to our national purpose."

The governor will be playing far out of his league against the Rev. Al Sharpton, an ordained Pentecostal preacher who is at home in the pulpit as he is on the mean streets of Harlem. He can do the talk so well that his followers never notice (or care) that he's not particularly interested in doing the walk. Fully half of the Democratic vote in South Carolina, the crucial test after Iowa and New Hampshire, is black, and Rev. Al has momentum. A new public-opinion poll, conducted by the Pew Research Center, shows the Rev tied for second place with Wesley Clark (who grew up as a Baptist Sunday-school boy in Arkansas), just behind Mr. Dean.

Mr. Dean and his handlers are looking past the primaries, of course, and to the general election, and the good ol' boys, some of whom fly the Confederate flag on their pickups but nearly all of whom are deeply, deeply suspicious of any candidate without a genuine faith. Southerners instinctively mistrust a man who thinks he can do it all by himself.

But worse than a man of no faith is a man who merely pretends to be something he is not. Worst of all, the man who condescends to invoke the name of Christ. Such a foolish man will reap only scorn, and no pity.

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JWR contributor Wesley Pruden is editor in chief of The Washington Times. Comment by clicking here.

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