Imagine a major presidential candidate saying: “I want my country back! We want our country back! I am tired of being divided! I don’t want to listen to the priests and rabbis anymore.”
Across the political spectrum, people would immediately denounce that candidate as a bigot. Pundits would draw comparisons to the Know-Nothings. There would be calls for an apology, if not a withdrawal from the race. And the words would haunt the candidate forever.
Now substitute “fundamentalist preachers” for “priests and rabbis,” and you have a verbatim quotation from Howard Dean’s speech to the California Democratic state convention last March. It was not a one-time slip. With some variations in the wording, attacks on “fundamentalist preachers” have been part of his stump speeches ever since.
So is it fair to accuse Dr. Dean of dispensing bigotry?
His defenders would deny the charge, saying that he is not referring to all fundamentalist Christians or their pastors, but only to a few right-wing activists. But Dr. Dean is an intelligent and articulate man. If he just meant to assail specific individuals, he could easily find the words. Again, picture a candidate repeatedly attacking “priests and rabbis” without qualification. Would any serious person doubt that he was pandering to anti-Christianity and anti-Semitism?
Dr. Dean’s partisans might claim that “fundamentalist preachers” differ from other members of the clergy because so many of them are pushing a political agenda.
Such a defense would not stand a moment’s scrutiny. American religious leaders have played an active role in political issues since colonial days. In the years before the Civil War, supporters of slavery complained that abolitionist clergymen were trying to impose their religious beliefs on everyone else. In the 1960s, segregationists made the same case against the priests and rabbis who marched with Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr.
In short, Dr. Dean’s comments are indefensible. He is stoking prejudice against fundamentalist Christians, and he deserves condemnation. So why aren’t editorial pages taking him to task? Why aren’t investigative reporters asking why he has denounced other Americans on account of their religious beliefs?
New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof suggested the answer earlier this year, when he acknowledged that “nearly all of us in the news business are completely out of touch” with conservative Christians. While journalists are not intentionally turning a blind eye to anti-fundamentalist bigotry, they overlook remarks that would otherwise set off their prejudice-detectors.
Meanwhile, Dr. Dean’s attacks on fundamentalist preachers continue to trigger cheers from his supporters. Apparently, many of them share his prejudice.
In the longer run, though, Dr. Dean’s venom will hurt his chances of winning the White House. According to a recent poll by the Pew Research Center, 35 percent of American adults agree with the statement: “The Bible is the actual word of God and is to be taken literally, word for word.” Biblical literalism is not a complete definition of fundamentalism. But the 35-percent figure roughly corresponds to the share of the electorate who would take personal offense at Dr. Dean’s attacks.
And that figure may include a number of black voters. African Americans have liberal political beliefs but many adhere to a conservative interpretation of the Bible. Perhaps that’s one reason why Dean rallies are whiter than the Stockholm chapter of the Barry Manilow Fan Club.
Even worse for Dr. Dean is that many non-fundamentalist Americans would disapprove of his tactics. They might not believe in the inerrancy of the Bible, and they may disagree with the political positions of many fundamentalist preachers. But they don’t like it when politicians threaten their fellow citizens with secular excommunication.
To paraphrase the good doctor himself, they are tired of being divided.
–John J. Pitney Jr. is professor of government at Claremont McKenna College.