MUSCATINE, Iowa -- Democratic presidential candidate Howard Dean said yesterday his decision as governor to sign the bill legalizing civil unions for gays in Vermont was influenced by his Christian views, as he waded deeper into the growing political, religious, and cultural debate over homosexuality and the Bible's view of it.
"The overwhelming evidence is that there is very significant, substantial genetic component" to homosexuality, Dean said in an interview yesterday. "From a religious point of view, if God had thought homosexuality is a sin, he would not have created gay people."
Dean's comments come as gay marriage is emerging as a defining social issue of the 2004 elections, and one that is dividing the Episcopal Church in the United States and many other Christians and non-Christians. Driving the debate is a theological dispute over the Bible's view on homosexuality and a political one over the secular and spiritual wisdom of allowing gays to marry.
Dean said he does not often turn to his faith when making policy decisions, but cited the civil union bill as a time he did. "My view of Christianity . . . is that the hallmark of being a Christian is to reach out to people who have been left behind," he told reporters Tuesday. "So I think there was a religious aspect to my decision to support civil unions."
Earlier Tuesday when the candidates were asked at a debate if religion has influenced any of their policy decisions, Dean was the only one not to respond.
In the interview yesterday, Dean said that he does not often consider his religious views when making policy. "I don't go through an inventory like that when making public policy decisions," he said.
Dean has been expanding on his religious views in a series of conversations with reporters, but his remarks Tuesday and yesterday were the first time he has talked about how faith has influenced his policy making.
Dean said he does not consider homosexuality a sin, but nonetheless opposes gay marriage. The civil union bill he signed as Vermont governor in 2000 granted homosexual couples the same rights and protections as if they were married. Ohio Representative Dennis Kucinich, former Illinois senator Carol Moseley Braun, and Al Sharpton are alone among the nine Democratic presidential contenders who support gay marriage.
Republicans are pushing a constitutional amendment against gay marriage, and President Bush has said he would support it. Religious groups and social conservatives in Congress are planning to push the issue aggressively before the November election, in part, to motivate Christian voters and paint Democrats as out of touch. Polls indicate a majority of Americans oppose gay marriage.
Dean, who leads in many polls, is increasingly trying to broaden his appeal by talking about faith and centrist policies such as a balanced budget and tax reform for the middle class. One week ago, he said he planned to discuss his faith more openly in the South, but Tuesday said he would take this message everywhere. "I think we have got to stop thinking about the South as some peculiar region," he said. "I am going to talk about the same things everywhere."
Some Democrats have said Dean, with roots in liberal Vermont and close identification with the nation's first civil union law, might appear too secular to win over an increasingly religious electorate.
Dean, a Congregationalist, which preaches a liberal brand of Christianity, falls on the side of Episcopal leaders in the United States who recently stirred international controversy by ordaining a gay bishop, and the millions of Americans who do not consider homosexuality a sin. This theological debate predates the civil union and gay marriage questions of today, and has divided biblical scholars for a long time.
In broad terms, it pits Christians who argue that the Gospels never quote Jesus talking specifically about homosexuality against more conservative Christians who point to scripture in the New and Old Testaments they believe forbids homosexuality. Leviticus 18:22, for instance, says: "You shall not lie with a male as one lies with a female; it is an abomination."
Polls indicate voters want a religious president and one who talks about faith. Some Republicans, including a few in the Bush administration, worry the GOP could overplay its hand by appearing to divide people with hostility toward gays. But if Dean wins the Democratic presidential nomination, strategists from both parties predict it will become a major issue in the campaign.
At several campaign stops this week, Dean said if Republicans push gay issues, he will talk about "issues that unite us" such as health insurance for every American.