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Joel BelzVoices Joel Belz

Dizzy Dean

From one Iowan to the others: The Democrats are headed for total silliness if they nominate the former governor of Vermont

LET ME GO AGAINST THE CONVENTIONAL WISDOM here and brazenly predict that most of the political experts are wrong. Howard Dean has not locked up the Democratic nomination for president. Instead, when the Democrats of Iowa huddle on Monday evening, Jan. 19, for their famous caucuses, Richard Gephardt of neighboring Missouri will come out the winner.

I don't know that for sure, of course, just as I don't know what will follow a few days later in New Hampshire, South Carolina, and all the other primary contests.

I would like to think, though, that the Democratic Party at large, and especially the Democrats in my home state of Iowa, have not bounded off into total silliness. I know some of these people personally, and even though we may disagree on some important political and social issues, I really want to give them the benefit of the doubt. I hate to think they have taken leave of their senses. For the good of our country, and for the good of political discourse, I hope the few days between now and Jan. 19 are enough for them to turn around.

Few things better demonstrate the foolishness of the Howard Dean gambit than his remark a couple of weeks ago that he would, when he ultimately got around to campaigning in South Carolina, talk somewhat more about Jesus than he has while talking to voters in the secular Northeast.

If that was a calculated comment, it has to go on record as one of the most cynical political statements in American history. It is an open insult to both believers and nonbelievers in both New England and South Carolina. How can you interpret it as anything other than a high-octane candidate's blatantly saying that he intends deliberately to exploit a religious veneer?

If, on the other hand, this was just Howard Dean saying something that had at the last minute popped into his unusual mind, we're not much better off. It just raises too many questions. Everybody already knew Howard Dean makes no pretense of being a particularly religious man-so where was this strange comment coming from anyway? If it wasn't calculated, it was loose, and the last thing Howard Dean needs is to add to his reputation for loose, unguarded statements.

Franklin Fore, writing perceptively in the Dec. 29-Jan. 12 issue of The New Republic, calls Howard Dean "one of the most secular candidates to run for president in modern history." Mr. Dean makes that an easy charge to document: "My religion," he says, "doesn't inform my public policy."

Yet, such a disclaimer should be taken in context. For even those who have come across as most genuinely pious (including our current president) have often struggled hard to make clear to us what the vital linkage is between their faith and their day-to-day policy formation. In that sense, Mr. Dean's secularism isn't so much different from the spirit of the age.

What is profoundly different is Howard Dean's open trivialization, his arrogant condescension.

Almost 50 years ago, when I was 13 and the Christian school my parents had established in rural Iowa was just finishing its fourth year, county educational officials uncharacteristically invited private and parochial schools to join with the public schools for eighth-grade graduation exercises at the Buchanan County courthouse. It was heady stuff for us, getting all dressed up to go get our diplomas. But what I remember most vividly is that the speaker that day, an education professor from the nearby University of Northern Iowa, included three jokes in his address-and all three made light of prayer. My dad didn't think it was funny at all. He walked out steaming, explaining to me how much more serious it is to trivialize something than it is even to mount an earnest argument against it.

Maybe I'm arguing against myself. If most Iowans 50 years ago thought it was just fine to joke about prayer at a graduation exercise, maybe they'll easily accept a candidate for president now who cynically plays games with them on equally crucial issues. But I doubt it. I'm still a little more optimistic about the presence of common grace and common sense among my fellow Iowans and among Democrats at large.

If I'm wrong, and Howard Dean lives up to the pollsters' expectations in the Iowa caucuses next week, the joke is likely to be on the Democratic Party itself. And if I'm also wrong about that, and Mr. Dean proves to be a strong candidate in spite of all the remarkable things he's said-well, that will be no joking matter at all.