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How will Dean's faith inform his judgment?

SINCE DEMOCRATIC presidential candidate Howard Dean has said he is a a congregationalist, his religious commitment has come under scrutiny.


He was corrected for attributing the Book of Job to the New Testament. He has been described as the most secular of the Democratic presidential candidates. A candidate's religious affiliation, or lack thereof, does matter.

It is a tribute to religious freedom and pluralism in this country that the candidates have represented a broad spectrum of traditions, including Southern Baptist, United Methodist, Orthodox Judaism, Roman Catholicism, United Church of Christ, Episcopalian, and Pentecostal.

So, what does being a congregationalist say about Dean and how his faith might inform his political judgments? To be accurate, Dean is a member of the United Church of Christ, a 1.3-million-member denomination of nearly 6,000 congregations that was established in 1957 by the union of the Congregational Christian Churches and the Evangelical and Reformed Church. The UCC is the largest Protestant denomination in Massachusetts. But, across New England, where congregational heritage is as prevalent as clam chowder, many UCC members cling to the original "congregational" identity.

Dean belongs to the 1,000-member First Congregational, United Church of Christ in Burlington, Vt. Brought up as an Episcopalian, Dean started attending the Burlington church while completing his medical residency.

His pastor, the Rev. Robert A. Lee, describes Dean as a "supportive and faithful member of the congregation. Howard Dean is known in this community and in the church as a person with strong principled views who speaks his mind and stands up for what he believes in."

Lee says that when the trustees invited members to donate part of their 2002 tax rebate checks to the church to fund ministries for the poor, "one of the first letters I received in response to that appeal was from the Governor of Vermont's office, with a check for [Dean's] entire tax rebate."

The UCC's congregationalist roots trace back to the early 1600s when the Pilgrims and Puritans arrived on these shores. These congregationalists, as they were later called, sought religious independence from persecuting authorities in Europe. They believed in local church autonomy. They eschewed an elite priesthood that, they averred, had amassed too much power and privilege. They were committed to religious freedom (although, regrettably, they failed initially to accord to others the same freedom they sought for themselves).

Today, it is this freedom that allows our members, whether clergy or lay, to hold remarkably different views. A Field Guide to US Congregations, a 2002 publication based on a comprehensive survey of US Christians, found that slightly more UCC members identified themselves as conservative rather than liberal.

Whether liberal or conservative, UCC and Congregational history does have a track record of forward thinking that says a lot about our commitments.

Congregationalists founded the nation's first college (Harvard, 1636), published the first antislavery tract (1700), helped stage our first act of civil disobedience (the Boston Tea Party, 1773), were the first mainline Christians to ordain an African-American (1785), and the first to open the doors of higher education to women (Oberlin, 1833). Congregationalists came to the aid of the Amistad captives, an event that led to the US Supreme Court's first civil rights ruling (1841). Congregationalists were the first to ordain a woman (1853), and the UCC was the first to ordain an openly gay man (1972).

In Massachusetts 10 percent of our UCC congregations have formally voted to be open to and affirming of gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgendered Christians. In none of the above-cited instances, however, were (or are) all Congregationalists or members of the UCC in agreement.

Dean supports civil rights for gay couples, although he is not in favor of gay marriage. The UCC includes those who share this view, as well as those who oppose recognition of homosexual couples and others who support gay marriage.

How can the UCC exist with such a diversity of theological perspectives and social convictions? We believe God is still speaking and did not stop speaking when the biblical canon was closed or the ancient creeds crystallized. Therefore, we are still listening and learning. We are convinced that the thud and clash of competing ideas in uneasy proximity to each other, make for spiritually alive, intellectually agile, and deeply engaged Christians.

To be a member of the UCC is to apply one's own, God-given intellect to inform one's faith. It is to examine an array of possibilities with attention to both tradition and new perspectives. As a member of the UCC, Dean is not instructed what to think by a pope, bishops, or his own pastor, for we do not grant that power to anyone.

Instead, we engage in "responsible freedom" -- the freedom to test and entertain ideas in an environment of respectful, if often impassioned, civil discourse. We should expect no less, of both citizens and elected officials -- religious or otherwise -- across the whole of our political life.

Nancy S. Taylor is minister and president of the Massachusetts Conference of the United Church of Christ.

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