Tuesday, June 21, 2005

My Problem with Dean

When Howard Dean went on his foot-in-mouth rampage a few weeks ago, he left a trail of blogposts in his wake. There were the conservative condemnations, of course. On the progressive side, we had a wave of defenses, followed by a couple of waves of posts condemning the Democrats who woodshedded Dean.

Not much from the Left really questioning Dean, which distressed me. I wasn't happy. A couple of items in today's news reminded me why.

In the Plain Dealer today is an item about a dust-up during the debate over the military spending bill. Rep. David Obey (D-Wisc) proposed putting Congress on the record against coercive prostelization at the Air Force Academy. The Academy controversy has been pretty well documented. Here's a WaPo story on the controversy.

Anyway, in the course of the debate, John Hostettler (R-Ind.) went off on the Democrats-hate-Christians tip: "[l]ike a moth to a flame, Democrats can't help themselves when it comes to denigrating and demonizing Christians." He continued, "[t]he long war on Christianity in America continues today on the floor of the United States House of Representatives."

Now I concede that people who make such arguments will do so regardless of the state of the evidence. But does the Democratic Party chair have to give such made-to-order support? The statement that the Republicans are "the white Christian party" sounds hostile. It sounds like Dean is saying that it is bad that Republicans are Christian. It certainly will sound like that to people are paranoid to begin with. Imagine, for the purposes of contrast, if Dean had said something like "one problem with the Republican Party is its apparent hostility to people not exactly like themselves. I wonder how comfortable a racial minority or a non-Christian would be in that party." It says the same thing, but doesn't give quite so much copy for the next wave of Religious Right fundraising letters.

It reminds me of an interview I heard recently on a Christian radio station in Columbus with this woman. Her book -- the Criminalization of Christianity -- sounds as substantively ridiculous as its title. She cites a number of "examples" of hostility toward religion to bolster her case that the agenda of gays and liberals (is there any difference) is to proscribe religion altogether. She explicitly says that Christians have to win the culture war, not just to avoid to horror of a gay couple moving next door, but to (dramatic pause) stay out of jail. Again, she will spew this nonsence no matter what, but remarks like Dean's give her actual ammunition.

Many of the examples she sited on the radio were from other Western democracies -- Canada and Sweden I recall. But she did mention an evangelist being arrested for preaching on the street in the US, though she didn't mention where. If it was Columbus, said preacher has benefitted from the independent judiciary. A preacher there whose street sermon was interrupted by police telling him to move along settled a civil rights case for over $80,000.

This of course is why incidents from other countries is meaningless when talking about what is happening to religion in the United States. Democrats should be loudly celebrating an outcome like this. Here we have a wonderful example of the freedoms guaranteed by our constitution -- freedoms that the religious right want to pick and choose from. It is an example, first and foremost, of the fertile ground America is for religious expression. It is easier to convincingly celebrate the country's religious life when the head of our party refrains from making remarks that sound hostile to religion.

I did not sign the "Howard Dean speaks for me" petition that was circulating after the controversy. A petition saying "Howard Dean speaks for me but I wish he wouldn't do so with the jawbone of an ass," that is a petition I could get behind.