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Seeking a new emphasis, Dean touts his Christianity

Southern campaign plans to increase religious references

MANCHESTER, N.H. -- Presidential contender Howard B. Dean, who has said little about religion while campaigning except to emphasize the separation of church and state, described himself in an interview with the Globe as a committed believer in Jesus Christ and said he expects to increasingly include references to Jesus and God in his speeches as he stumps in the South.

Dean, 55, who practices Congregationalism but does not often attend church and whose wife and children are Jewish, explained the move as a desire to share his beliefs with audiences willing to listen. His comments came as a rival, Senator Joseph I. Lieberman of Connecticut, chastised other Democrats for forgetting "that faith was central to our founding and remains central to our national purpose."

The move is striking for a man who has steadfastly kept his personal life out of the campaign, rarely offering biographical information, much less his religious beliefs. But in the Globe interview, Dean said that Jesus was an important influence in his life and that he would probably share with some voters the model Jesus has served for him.

"Christ was someone who sought out people who were disenfranchised, people who were left behind," Dean said. "He fought against self-righteousness of people who had everything . . . He was a person who set an extraordinary example that has lasted 2000 years, which is pretty inspiring when you think about it."

He acknowledged that he was raised in the "Northeast" tradition of not discussing religious beliefs in public, and said he held back in New Hampshire, where that is the practice. But in other areas, such as the South, he said, he would discuss his beliefs more openly.

Some of Dean's competitors have made no secret of their religious beliefs. US Representative Richard A. Gephardt of Missouri regularly describes his son's recovery from an illness as a gift of God, while Lieberman takes pains to emphasize his inability to attend campaign events on Saturdays because of the Jewish Sabbath.

On the Republican side, President Bush is outspoken about his religious journey, which he has said began in 1986, when he gave up drinking and recommitted his heart to Jesus Christ, whom he named as his favorite philosopher.

Political analysts note that discussing religious beliefs could provide an important link to Southern voters. Greater numbers of Southern voters feel religion and politics need not be separate. An ABC/Washington Post poll released this week showed that 46 percent of Southerners said a president should rely on his religious beliefs in making policy decisions, compared with 40 percent nationwide and 28 percent in the East. The South is a potential problem area for Dean's campaign for the Democratic nomination, particularly as rivals like retired Army general Wesley K. Clark of Arkansas and Senator John Edwards of North Carolina invoke their Southern roots. In recent years, the South has been tough ground for any Democrat in the general election.

"If the Dean people are playing chess instead of checkers and are moving down the board and trying to figure out how to win a general election as well as how to win a nomination, they had best explain Dean to the people in terms of religiosity," said Stephen Hess, a senior fellow in governmental studies at the Brookings Institution.

Hess added that Dean's public showing of faith could help distance him from the issue of gay marriage, expected to be a contentious subject in the 2004 political season. Dean, who backed the creation of civil unions for gays and lesbians in Vermont, has said gay marriage should be left to the realm of churches.

Just how much Dean will inject religion into his campaign, Hess said, remains to be seen. He pointed to an appearance at an African-American church in Columbia, S.C., as an example of what voters might hear in the future.

There, before nearly 100 parishioners, Dean said in a rhythmic tone notably different from his usual stampede through policy points, "In this house of the Lord, we know that the power rests in God's hands and in Jesus's hands for helping us. But the power also is on this, God's earth -- Remember Jesus said, `Render unto God those things that are God's but unto Caesar those things that are Caesar's,' " a reference to Jesus's admonition that the secular and religious remain separate.

Dean continued: "In this political season there is also other power. Not as important or as strong as the power of Jesus but it's important power in the world of politics and the world of Caesar."

Dean's own religious background is a complex mix. His mother is Catholic, but he was raised Episcopal like his father, a warden in the Episcopal church the family attended near their weekend home in East Hampton, N.Y. Dean attended St. George's, a boarding school in Newport, R.I., where he went to church "literally every day and twice on Sunday."

Religion was a private matter for Dean growing up. "My father used to tell us how much strength he got from religion, but we didn't have Bible readings. There are traditions where people do that. We didn't," he said. "People in the Northeast don't talk about their religion. It's a very personal private matter, and that's the tradition I was brought up in."

While attending Albert Einstein College of Medicine in the Bronx, he met his wife, Judith Steinberg, who is Jewish. The two were married by a judge, and neither opted to convert, Dean said, because both felt strongly about their respective religions.

"We considered becoming Unitarian as sort of a compromise that wasn't going to respect either person's tradition," Dean said. "But you know, our religions mattered enough that we didn't really want to change."

The couple's two children, Anne, a sophomore at Yale University, and Paul, a high school senior in Burlington, were given their choice of religion. Both chose Judaism.

Dean himself made a decision about religion in the early 1980s, opting to leave the local Episcopal church when it sided with landowners seeking to preserve private property in lieu of a bike path in Burlington.

"Churches are institutions that are about doing the work of God on earth, and I didn't think [opposing the bike path] was very Godlike and thought it was hypocritical of me to be a member of such an institution," Dean said.

Dean chose Congregationalism -- a denomination, he said, that suits him, because "there is no centralized -- almost no centralized authority structure -- and I like that."

Dean does not attend church regularly, but he said he prays daily.

He is a steadfast believer in separation of church and state, he said, and opposes the placement of the Ten Commandments in a courthouse, is uncomfortable with a prayer invocation before a congressional session, though he would leave the matter to Congress, and is not bothered by the phrase "under God" in the Pledge of Allegiance.

On the issue of a moment of silence in schools, Dean said, "Whatever the courts say is OK with me." The US Supreme Court has struck down state-required moments of silence in schools.

Of the president's faith-based initiative for social services, Dean said, it is "overdone."

"It's not a bad thing to have churches involved in delivering social services, but I think the president has used it to reward certain churches and make it less likely for others churches to prosper," he said.

Asked whether a presidential candidate could win without talking about religious faith, Dean said, "Dick Nixon and Ronald Reagan never said much about religion. I think it's important, and you have to respect other people's religious beliefs and honor them, but you don't have to pander to them."

He added, "That's why I don't get offended when George Bush or Joe Lieberman talk about their religion . . . I have a feeling it has something to do with them as a human being, and they are entitled to talk about what makes them human."

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