Monday, January 12, 2004

SHOPPING FOR FAITH: I’ve made versions of this comment on several other people’s blogs – now let me use it as fodder for a blog post of my own. I am only slightly deterred by the fact that this op-ed piece by Steven Waldman already made many of my points for me.

Several reporters and pundits have recounted the story of how Howard Dean changed churches, from an Episcopal to a Congregational church, over a bike path. Julian Sanchez in Reason, Franklin Foer in The New Republic, George Stephanopoulos on ABC News, and probably others have referred to it.

It peeves me that this story is retold in a shorthand way that makes Dean seem frivolous or flaky with regard to religion. Stephanopoulos, for instance, seemed bewildered: "A bike path? Really?" (It's partly Dean's fault to allow it to be spun that way.)

The "bike path" episode was a land use controversy, a protracted fight over whether a piece of property fronting Lake Champlain in Burlington, VT would be developed for private profit, or conserved for public use. It seems to have been an important chapter in Dean's life -- part of his transition out of medicine and into politics. It’s also the kind of controversy that a great many communities have experienced, and one that gets pretty much right at the heart at the great American ideological divide: balancing the public and private spheres.

Dean’s Episcopal parish was a player in the dispute; it held a piece of the land being fought over. Dean was disappointed in the position his church took in the controversy, so he switched his membership to a different church. The point, to me, is not that Dean takes his religion so lightly, but that he takes environmental politics pretty seriously, and his politics informs his religious viewpoint.

The Episcopal Church and the UCC (aka Congregational Church) are not that dissimilar. As Steven Waldman points out, “church shopping” is a well-known, much-remarked feature of contemporary American religion. Many, many churchgoing Americans switch between denominations at some point in their lives.

Dean switched from Episcopal to UCC; GW Bush has switched from Presbyterian to Methodist; Wes Clark has switched from Baptist to Catholic. Personally, I don't think ANY of them is a deeply pious or spiritual man. But switching churches doesn't prove anything one way or the other.

Part of the point here is that the national press is (a) reflexively dismissive of a Democrat attempting to talk about his faith, and (b) pretty uninformed about the details of religious life in general. Another point is that millions of people in this country can relate to a pragmatic approach to organized religion, an open search for belief--even to love and marriage and family ties with people of a different religious tradition. So Howard Dean, or another Democrat, can offer a model of spiritual synthesism and pragmatism that can compete with the uptight, intolerant Republican version of religion.

The gay marriage issue may give the Democrats a chance to take the offensive. Religion is one of those aspects of politics where the Democrats just concede huge amounts of territory. They shouldn't concede an inch.

No comments: