Wednesday, December 24, 2003

Yes, Senator, freedom from religion, too. Religion is starting to sneak into the presidential campaign in a fairly rancid way. The latest example is Joe Lieberman, who, according to this article in the New York Times, is going after Howard Dean for being too secular.

In what Times reporter Diane Cardwell calls a "veiled swipe" at Dean, Lieberman reportedly said:

I know that some people believe that faith has no place in the so-called public square. They forget that the constitutional separation of church and state, which I strongly support, promises freedom of religion, not freedom from religion. Some people forget that faith was central to our founding and remains central to our national purpose and our individual lives.

The good senator, of all people, should know that religion is treacherous territory in public life - and that if religiosity is a good, old-fashioned American value, so too is anti-Semitism. If Lieberman were actually in a position to win, his Orthodox Judaism might prove to be a problem with some of the very people he's trying to win over. It's unseemly of him to go after a fellow Democrat on religious grounds.

Still, Lieberman's outburst is not without context. This week's New Republic features a cover story (sub. req.) by Franklin Foer arguing that Dean simply isn't religious enough to get elected in November. Foer notes a survey showing that "70 percent of Americans want their president to be a person of faith."

"Howard Dean is one of the most secular candidates to run for president in modern history," writes Foer, citing Dean's switch from the Episcopal to the Congregational church over his anger at the Episcopal diocese's opposition to a bike path he was championing; his admission that he rarely goes to church; his marriage to a Jewish woman, Judith Steinberg, whose religious views also appear to lean secular; and his frequent attacks on religious fundamentalists. (Representative Dean soundbite: "I don't want to listen to the fundamentalist preachers anymore.")

But is it the religion of the politician that matters, or the politics of the religious? Earlier this week, the Boston Globe published a column by its former Washington-bureau chief, David Shribman, on a well-known phenomenon: the overwhelming preference that Christian fundamentalists have for Republicans. (You can find it here, on the website of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, where Shribman is the executive editor.)

Shribman notes:

In the 2000 election, Bush swept more religiously observant voters by large percentages - and, in the case of white evangelical Protestants, by a margin of more than five to one.

Shribman doesn't quite connect the dots, so I will: this wide split took place despite such Gore-ian ick as his wearing a WWJD ("What would Jesus do?") bracelet. For the fundamentalists, it's not whether you were born again; it's where you stand on such cultural issues as abortion rights and same-sex marriage.

It doesn't matter to me whether a candidate is a secular Protestant, such as Dean; a Catholic, such as John Kerry; or someone like Wesley Clark, whose father was Jewish and who apparently switches to a different Christian denomination every couple of years.

Then again, I suppose I'm one of those secularists who Joe Lieberman's mother warned him about.

A close encounter with mad-cow disease. News that a downer cow in Washington State has been diagnosed with mad-cow disease has brought this low-simmering story back to a boil. Here is the story from the hometown Seattle Times.

Two years ago I identified mad cow as a shamefully undercovered story and urged the media to get off their butts and start reporting. You can read it here.

The best - and most horrifying - overview remains Ellen Ruppel Shell's piece in the Atlantic Monthly of September 1998, "Could Mad-Cow Disease Happen Here?"

So put down that burger and start reading.

And have a Merry Beef-free Christmas!

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