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Christianity Today, Week of January 5

Weblog: 'Allegory' Job 'Favorite Book in the New Testament,' Says Howard Dean
Presidential candidate having some trouble talking about religion.
Compiled by Ted Olsen | posted 01/05/2004

Democratic presidential candidate Howard Dean, whom The New Republic in a recent cover story called "one of the most secular candidates to run for president in modern history" promised to talk more about his religion. Last week, he began keeping his promise.

"I am not used to wearing religion on my sleeve and being open about it," he told reporters Friday. "I am gradually getting more comfortable to talk about religion in ways I did not talk about it before. It does not make me more religious or less religious than before. It just means I am more comfortable talking about it in different ways."

He's talking more about his religion for several reasons, he said. "The campaign has changed the way I am willing to talk about religion. It has not changed my religious beliefs," he said. But he added that his religious beliefs have changed: "As I have gotten older I have thought about what it means to be a Christian and what the role of religion is in my life."

While Dean says his religious beliefs haven't changed, his view of how those beliefs should influence him apparently has changed. Just a few months ago, he criticized President George Bush and his Democratic opponents for talking too much about religion. "I don't think that religion ought to be part of American policy," he told an interviewer.

Dean's epiphany comes as he begins campaigning in the South, where he says religion is more important and prominent than it is in his New England home.

"I am still learning a lot about faith and the South and how important it is," he told reporters. "Faith is important in a lot of places, but it is really important in the South. I think I did not understand fully how comfortably religion fits in with daily life, for both black and white populations in the South. The people there are pretty openly religious, and it plays an ingrained role in people's daily lives."

With few exceptions, notes The Washington Post, "Dean's remarks about his faith have been mostly confined to discussions with reporters and campaign stops at African American churches in South Carolina. At the same time, he tells Democratic audiences to move elections away from 'guns, God and gays.' … He rarely attends church services, unless it is for a political event. When he talks about Jesus, he usually focuses on Christianity's teachings about helping the poor and less fortunate."

That approach is changing, notes The New York Times:

In South Carolina the other day, an invocation preceded the political speeches, and David Mack, a state legislator, closed the rally with 'God bless you and keep you.' In Iowa last weekend, Dr. Dean referred to the New Testament. On Friday in New Hampshire, he invoked a Muslim phrase, inshallah, God willing, to make a point about Americans believing they control their destiny. … The campaign has brought Dr. Dean back to the pews, clapping along with hymns in African-American churches from Harlem to San Francisco. At a Hanukkah party for his staff last month in Manchester, N.H., Dr. Dean proudly chanted the blessing over the candles in well-accented Hebrew and then repeated it for an Israeli television crew.

He's also using religion to beat up on others. "I'm pretty religious. I pray every day, but I'm from New England, so I just keep it to myself," he said in Iowa last week. "Don't you think Jerry Falwell reminds you a lot more of the Pharisees than he does of the teachings of Jesus? And don't you think this campaign ought to be about evicting the money-changers from the temple?"

But Dean's most prominent religious statements have come from that conversation with reporters on Friday, when he talked about visiting Galilee and standing where Jesus reportedly preached the Sermon on the Mount.

"If you know much about the Bible—which I do—to see and be in the place where Christ was and understand the intimate history of what was going on 2,000 years ago is an exceptional experience," he said.

Responding to this comment, along with earlier statements that Dean has read the Bible cover to cover, a reporter asked the candidate what his favorite book from the New Testament is. He answered by citing Job, a book from the Old Testament.

"But I don't like the way it ends," he said. "Some would argue, you know, in some of the books of the New Testament, the ending of the Book of Job is different. … I think, if I'm not mistaken, there's one book where there's a more optimistic ending, which we believe was tacked on later. … Many people believe that the original version of Job is the version where there is not a change, Job ends up completely destitute and ruined. It's been a long time since I looked at this, but it's believed that was added much, much later. Many people believe that the original ending was about the power of God and the power of God was almighty and all knowing and it wasn't necessary that everybody was going to be redeemed."

About an hour after his comments, Dean returned to the reporters to admit that Job was in the Old Testament, not the New. Still, he said, he likes Job. "It's such an allegory," he said. "It sort of explains that bad things could happen to very good people for no good reason."

Asked again about his favorite part of the New Testament, he responded, "Anything in the Gospels."

The New York Times columnist William Safire, who has written a book about Job, says that Dean is right about the existence of such interpretation of the ending of the Old Testament book, "though there's no other Job book in Scripture with an optimistic ending other than the familiar one. I think he means that some scholars believe that the Old Testament Book of Job that we know was amended by later rabbis fearful of portraying God as unjust."

Still, he takes issue with Dean's application, noting that the candidate told reporters, "I'm feeling a little more Job-like recently."

Safire concludes, "He identifies with the Gentile from the Land of Uz, now called Iraq, because he feels he is being unjustly punished for standing up to authority. How's that for chutzpah?"

Meanwhile, Dean's press secretary is doing damage control. "[Dean] obviously has read the Bible and knows the passages fairly well," Doug Thornell told The New York Times. "But just in terms of having a theologian's knowledge of the Bible, he doesn't want to pass on the impression that he does."

But if Dean doesn't want to pass on the impression that he's well-versed in Scripture, perhaps he should stop starting sentences with "If you know much about the Bible—which I do."

The real problem with Dean's approach to religious speech is less on questions like "What's your favorite New Testament book," and more with questions about his religion's applicability.

"At a breakfast here Saturday, Dean had an opportunity to discuss his faith when an Iowan asked what sustains the front-runner when his rivals are relentlessly criticizing him," The Washington Post's Jim VandeHei writes. "Instead, Dean shared a secular belief in the power of people to change government."

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