JTA (the Jewish Telegraph Agency) reports:
"This country is not a theocracy," Dean said. "There are fundamental differences between the Republican Party and the Democratic Party. The Democratic Party believes that everybody in this room ought to be comfortable being an American Jew, not just an American; that there are no bars to heaven for anybody; that we are not a one-religion nation; and that no child or member of a football team ought to be able to cringe at the last line of a prayer before going onto the field."
Now I think I understand the message Dean is trying to convey. Many American Jews (the audience here was the United Jewish Communities' general assembly) are uncomfortable with many traditionalist Christians' expressed views that only Christians can go to heaven. I can understand why they are uncomfortable with those views: They worry that people who think non-Christians are going to Hell will act badly towards non-Christians in this world as well, not a certain connection but a plausible one. Dean wants to tell Jews, and others, that the Democratic Party welcomes non-Christians.
Yet in fact I take it that many Democrats, who are traditionalist Christians, do believe (whether quietly or loudly) in salvation by faith alone. The Democratic Party has, to my knowledge, taken no votes on the subject, and the Party hasn't made this part of any platform.
Nor would it be proper for it to do so: Despite the possible secular implications of this theological question, it remains a quintessentially theological question. I am not wild about the modern American practice of acknowledging God in even an abstract way, precisely because that too is a theological question. But at least that's part of a longstanding tradition, drained by repetition of much theological meaning, and a pretty big tent (though of course not all-encompassing). The question of who gets to heaven is a much more contentious question, and if people thought the Democratic Party actually officially expressed the Party's belief about it, this would lead to the very sorts of denominational conflict that Dean seems to be trying to avoid.
So how then can Dean assure Jews, or anyone else, that "The Democratic Party believes ... that there are no bars to heaven for anybody"? He can assure people that he believes in this; he can surely declare his own theology even if the Democratic Party shouldn't declare one of its own. He can assure people that the Democratic Party stands for civil equality without regard to religion, or make similar secular commitments (assuming that is indeed the official position of the Democratic Party). But he can no more make assurances about the Democratic Party's stand on salvation through works than he can about its stand on transsubstantiation or Papal infallibility.
Thanks to James Taranto (OpinionJournal) for the pointer.