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Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Should I Be Nonplussed by Howard Dean?

In this space a while back, I wrote a post entitled "Should I Be Offended by Ann Coulter?"  It discussed Coulter's apparent assertion that her perfect world would be both all-Republican and all-Christian; she added that Jews were "unperfected" because they denied the divinity of Christ, and suggested that everyone should become Christians.  Coulter's remark recalled the statement of then-candidate Bush that the acceptance of Christ is the sole route to heaven -- a remark that was somewhat misconstrued and misreported, but that occasioned complaints then and still does.  I wrote that Coulter could be criticized on a number of levels, but that "simply to bear witness on a fundamental disagreement about matters of faith is not, I think, offensive in and of itself."  I would say the same thing about Bush's statement about salvation.

All of this comes to mind because Eugene links on the VC today to a report by the Jewish Telegraph Agency on a speech by DNC chair Howard Dean to an assembly of Jewish leaders, in which Dean said:

"This country is not a theocracy . . . .  There are fundamental differences between the Republican Party and the Democratic Party.  The Democratic Party believes that everybody in this room ought to be comfortable being an American Jew, not just an American; that there are no bars to heaven for anybody; that we are not a one-religion nation; and that no child or member of a football team ought to be able to cringe at the last line of a prayer before going onto the field."

Eugene's own comments are worth reading.  Eugene points out that many Democrats do believe  that belief in Christ, or in Allah, or in some other religious doctrine, is necessary for salvation.  He says that Dean "can no more make assurances about the Democratic Party's stand on salvation through works than he can about its stand on transsubstantiation or Papal infallibility."

My take on this is similar but somewhat different in focus.  Of course, the Democratic Party qua political party could adopt a particular religious viewpoint if it wanted, by, for instance, enshrining it in the party platform.  In the real world, however, it would not, and such a plan would be ignored even if it were adopted, so Eugene's conclusion is correct, practically speaking.  Mostly, though, I just find Dean's remarks strange and close to incoherent.  It's not just that plenty of Democrats believe that there are specific bars to heaven for non-believers -- that you have to acknowledge belief in the right god to enter into heaven.  Even if we had a more ecumenical view of the turnstiles at the Pearly Gates, though, surely many if not most religionists (including religionist Democrats) believe there are other potential bars to heaven -- for the wicked, the unrepentant, and so on.

Beyond this, and keeping in mind that Dean was talking to a Jewish audience, one must acknowledge that Dean's Democratic theology is simply inaccessible to some of the very audience he was addressing.  Many Jews don't believe in an afterlife at all, and others don't believe in heaven as such.  What could his statements possibly mean to them?  Would they not be either gibberish or an affront?  For other Jews, heaven exists and is available to people of all faiths.  (For quick-and-dirty Internet info, see this.)  Dean's remarks would indeed resonate with them.  But does that mean that Dean is, in effect, adopting a particularly and peculiarly Jewish theology on behalf of his party?  If so -- or even if Dean is simply shopping a similar, but not specifically Jewish, view of heaven -- shouldn't those Democrats, whether Jewish or otherwise, who adopt a different view of the existence of heaven and the preconditions for salvation be offended by his presumption?

Of course, we can understand what Dean is really trying to say: that the Democratic Party sets no religious preconditions on entry into the democratic sphere, and values all faiths equally.  (I might add that this boilerplate applies equally in principle and, generally, in practice to the Republican Party as well.)  But by trying to merge statements about pluralism in the world, and in ordinary politics, with statements about theology, Dean cooks up a dog's breakfast.  In a religiously plural world, as I wrote earlier, everyone should be equally welcome at the table; but that hardly means we are all obliged to share the view that we are also equally entitled to enter into heaven.  There is nothing wrong, from a secular viewpoint, with holding the belief that, say, acceptance of Jesus is necessary to be saved; or that good works are necessary to be saved; or that belonging to some faith or other is necessary -- although it is true that not all these views can be accurate theologically and one can disagree with them on that basis.  Secular politics can and should demand that we live together and reason together, but it cannot demand that we give up fundamental disagreements of this sort.  Certainly the Democratic Party's writ runs out long before that point.

One last question: Should I, or you, be any more or less offended by Dean's remarks than I was by Coulter's?  I might or might not prefer his theology to hers, or vice versa; but are they really that different?  To the extent that Coulter was offensive because she was trying to impose a particular theological view on the world and on her party, is Dean acting any differently?  To be sure, Coulter is a deliberate provocateuse, and we might say that one difference between the two individuals is that Coulter does not want to shut up, while Dean can't seem to shut up.  Certainly she is a more piquant speaker, and we might find her more objectionable for that reason.  But in substance, aren't their remarks equally offensive?  Aren't they both trying to tell us who gets into heaven, even if Dean's answer happens to be "everyone?"       

Posted by Paul Horwitz on November 14, 2007 at 10:15 AM in Religion | Permalink

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Comments

Well, unlike Ann Coulter, Howard Dean is married to a Jew and may well be raising his kids Jewish. So he has more of a stake and maybe more of a right to comment, especially as benignly as this, than Ann Coulter does to make savagely judgmental remarks.

Posted by: Bart | Nov 21, 2007 2:48:52 PM

The statement that "the Democratic Party believes . . . that there are no bars to heaven for anybody" is clearly theological, just as would a statement that the Democratic Party believes in baptism by desire as a route to salvation.

To be fair, though, I suspect what he meant was that "the Democratic Party DOES NOT believe in a bar to heaven for anybody," presumably in contrast to what he thinks the Republican Party believes. (I've never heard this articulated as a Republican Party platform position, but I Dean's calumnies against the Republican Party and other Democrats with whom he disagrees are another matter.) This is true as far I know for both the Democratic and Republican Parties (what some individuals members this is another matter; that's an empirical question).

Basically, due to the complicated syntax of his statement, it's perfectly plausible that Dean confused the notions of believing a negative proposition and not believing something in the first place. We should give him the benefit of the doubt, even if he probably wouldn't do the same for the President or anyone else.

Posted by: Alex | Nov 20, 2007 10:33:59 AM

I don't think I disagree with either of you about what Dean probably actually meant, and I certainly want to be no less charitable in my reading of his statement than I was of Ann Coulter's statement, whose baldness is less susceptible to the notion that she was misspeaking. One response, though, in addition to the caveat Rick offers. First, although Dean's statement fits nicely with the view that he probably meant only to say that the Democrats erect no faith-based barriers to those who seek to belong in the party, his statement does echo the public outcry that greeted candidate Bush's remarks about eligibility for heaven -- a reaction that I think went to the substance of the remarks and not just the fact that a political candidate had uttered them (in response to a question rather than as a volunteered statement, IIRC). It is *possible* that Dean's remarks are a form of that same reaction; and I do think it is noteworthy that many Americans, in some mixture of secular and theological views, think it is downright un-American to deny everyone entitlement to the blessings of the next world as well as this one. This merger of "[views] about pluralism in the world, and in ordinary politics, with [views] about theology" is not an uncommon phenomenon in the development of American religion and politics alike, and I think is worthy of discussion, including through the vehicle of Dean's remarks -- although I acknowledge again, and said so in the post itself, that it is quite possible that Dean meant to say something far narrower.

Posted by: Paul Horwitz | Nov 16, 2007 5:43:10 PM

I think Micah is probably right about what Dean meant, which does not -- in my view -- change the fact that it was unfair and silly to suggest that the "Republican Party", any more than the Democratic Party, believes there are "bars to heaven" or denies the undeniable fact that we are, our history notwithstanding, "not a one-religion nation".

Posted by: Rick Garnett | Nov 16, 2007 9:21:18 AM

I don't think it's hard to distinguish Coulter's comments from Dean's. Dean should have been more careful, but what he said seems to me a long way off from Coulter's claim that America would be better off if everyone converted to Christianity. Her claim goes well beyond the theological, and a whole lot of charitable work has to be done to make her position look respectable. I don't think Dean needs nearly as much charity to make sense of what he's saying. As some of the more lucid comments on Eugene's post suggest, there just isn't any interesting "Democratic theology" there:

1. Dean is easily read as saying that the Democratic Party, unlike the Republican Party, doesn't take a position on such theological claims as who gets into heaven. Of course that's a partisan line, and perhaps unfair to Republicans, but it's the most plausible interpretation of what he said -- the party doesn't have a view that would bar people from participating on theological grounds. Of course some party members might think that people of other faiths are damned, but the party itself doesn't exclude anyone on religious grounds or require any particular theological commitments.

2. Dean's stated contrast is with the Republican Party and with public statements by Republican officials. So, for example, the current Texas Republican Party platform declares the United States a "Christian Nation," and Republican candidates are often perceived (sometimes correctly) as appealing on theological grounds to conservative Christians. (As Paul notes above, in the early 1990s, Bush suggested publicly that he believed non-Christians couldn't go to heaven; interesting that he later said, pace Coulter, that "[j]udgments about heaven do not belong in the realm of politics or this world." Does anyone seriously think Dean thinks otherwise?)

3. Given the perception among many that the Republican Party is aligned with conservative Christianity, Dean is, again, easily read as attempting to distinguish the Democratic Party for its non-sectarianism. It doesn't take much charity to reach that conclusion -- and neither Paul nor Eugene seems really to think otherwise.

So I guess I don't see the incoherence or lack of intelligibility attributed to Dean's remarks. And I don't see the point of construing what he said to create theological controversy where there really isn't any. As for political controversy, that's obviously a different matter altogether.

Posted by: micah | Nov 14, 2007 2:49:35 PM

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