In a November 11 speech to 3,500 delegates attending the General Assembly of United Jewish Communities in Nashville, Tennessee, Democratic National Committee Chairman Howard Dean asserted, among other things, that "The Democratic Party believes that everybody in this room ought to be comfortable being an American Jew, not just an American; that there are no bars to heaven for anybody; that we are not a one-religion nation; and that no child or member of a football team ought to be able to cringe at the last line of a prayer before going onto the field."
Delegates to the convention had hoped to hear from Nancy Pelosi, but they got Dean, and comedy gold, instead. Pelosi would not have been able to pack so many straw men into a single paragraph. That position summary is odd even by the impressive standard of the former Vermont governor, who admitted in 2004 that an argument over a bike path persuaded him to leave the Episcopal Church.
Is the right to cringe going the way of tax cuts? Are Republicans really trying to impose a Christian theocracy? And if the fundamentalist strain of Christianity is so threatening, how would Dr. Dean explain the enthusiasm with which a Jewish-American musical icon like Neil Diamond writes and performs a song about "Brother Love's Traveling Salvation Show"?
Some of us can and do smile about Howard Dean being one toke over the line yet again, but the response to what Steve Miller might have called his pompatus of love has been more entertaining than the Dean speech was.
Canadian blogger Kathy Shaidle expressed eloquent exasperation with Dean's ode to inclusivity: "Even a few seconds' (mature) thought leads to the conclusion that, nice as the concept sounds initially, an all-inclusive heaven is an unjust heaven, because the evil and the good receive the same reward. Which, come to think of it, is basically the Democratic Party platform. Never mind...," she wrote.
Commenters on the conservative bulletin board Lucianne.com were more acerbic. "Glad he cleared that [salvation question] up," wrote Lucianne Goldberg herself, tongue in cheek.
In remarks that Ben Stein would probably endorse, one Jewish Republican wrote to say that he had not read anywhere that Republicans did not want him in their party, and that contrary to Dean's implication, he has never been made to feel unwelcome by the Republican courtship of evangelical Christians.
Someone else on the same board chimed in with "I'm sure Jesus is relieved to hear Howie say [that Jews can go to heaven]." Another critic heaped scorn on the assertion that the Democrat party is "inclusive" and "respectful of all people" by walking through a list of those whom Dean and his party disdain, because they are inclusive of everyone except for Christians, pro-lifers, and "pro-Iraq, pro-abstinence, pro-family, and (ironically) pro-Israel" constituencies.
Yet another commenter wanted to ask Dean where aborted children go, because Dean has been associated with Planned Parenthood, "and he should know."
Fruitful discourse, this is not, but in its frustrated appeal to logic, it cannot be called "Swiftboating" or "the politics of personal destruction," either.
Instead it must be reckoned as telling, and possibly symptomatic of the continuing problem many Democrats have with outreach to Christian voters. Most of the people who heard or read about Dean's speech did not come away impressed, not least because there are so many possible rebuttals to choose from.
That Dean was out of his depth is obvious. Any person or thing imbued with a religious tradition will bear the marks of that creed: witness the charming implementation of search engine functionality on the website for the Roman Catholic archdiocese of St. Louis, Missouri, which Web surfers bring to the fore by clicking on a link labeled "St. Anthony Help Me Find..."
The easy familiarity with evangelical Christian culture displayed by Jewish-American singer Neil Diamond has already been mentioned, but it is also worth remembering that Norman Greenbaum (note the name) sang about going to heaven years ago in a well-deserved hit. Greenbaum used backup singers and a catchy bass riff under lines like "When I die and they lay me to rest, I'm gonna go to the place that's the best."
Dean suffers from constraints that musicians do not have, because in front of a microphone he must stay on message and true to party platform, though the results can be embarrassing. Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama labor under many of the same constraints, but generally do better than the theologically inept Dean because outside of proposals for higher taxes or more entitlement programs, they are more apt to remember the "Dirty Harry" Callahan dictum about how "a man's got to know his limitations."
The one upside for Democrats after episodes like the one Dean just presented us with is that they make observers like me inclined to be charitable about the double standard that lets Democrat politicians speak from Christian pulpits with impunity as long as those pulpits are in black neighborhoods, while sounding alarms at ACLU offices if Republican politicians dare to do the same thing. Are you steamed about the hypocrisy involved in that? I used to be.
But I now understand why Democrats pander more brazenly to people of faith than Republicans do: they need the practice.