After a series of largely ignored debates and months of organizing and cajoling, candidates for the Democratic Party's presidential nomination are about to enter a dizzying period of caucuses and primaries that could determine the nominee by March. The conventional wisdom is that Vermont Governor Howard Dean, who has run on a staunchly anti-war, anti-Bush platform, is the man to beat. Dean has energized the Democratic base, won the endorsement of important labor unions, and raised more money than any other candidate through his unprecedented use of the Internet. As the frontrunner, Dean has increasingly come in for vilification from his rivals, who are eager to question his "electibility," casting this Yale-educated governor of a small, liberal Northeastern state as outside the American mainstream. Much of this is predictable political cut-and-thrust, and jockeying for position. There seems little doubt that Dean, should he win the nomination, would steer his campaign to the political middle, as nearly all major-party candidates do.
However, there is one pronounced aspect of Dean's candidacy, and apparently his personality, that may not be easy to modify or reshape. Dean's resolute secularism and tin ear for religion are likely to prove formidable obstacles in any attempt to broaden his appeal to those outside his party's core constituencies, especially to Evangelical Christians and to Catholics. "My religion doesn't inform my public policy," Dean has said. In fact, it is the other way around. He is now a Congregationalist because his former Episcopal Church refused to surrender land it owned on Lake Champlain for a public bike path.
This conversion story has struck many people as an example of Dean's superficiality and ignorance of religious values. He has defended his decision as an instance of not tolerating hypocrisy in a church that preaches public spiritedness but practices something else. Dean has also been criticized for his dismissive attitude toward the moral concerns of Evangelicals and has come under intense scrutiny from prolife groups for his prochoice position and for serving on the Northern New England board of Planned Parenthood.
Writing in the New Republic (December 29, 2003), Franklin Foer offers an astute analysis of Dean's "religion problem." Foer compares Dean to Michael Dukakis, who radiated a certain kind of Eastern elitism and found it nearly impossible to talk about his religious values. "Howard Dean is one of the most secular candidates to run for president in modern history," Foer writes, noting that the last five presidential races were won by the more unabashedly religious candidate. In voting for president, many Americans look for a certain level of trust and comfort in a candidate, and religion plays an important role in establishing that connection. That is a political reality that Democratic candidates from the South, especially Bill Clinton, understood. Foer argues that Evangelicals and Catholics, especially in the Midwest, are a more diverse and politically moderate group than liberals think. Clinton did a masterly job of appealing to these swing voters in 1992, reducing George H. …