Faith and Politics–Views of a Statesman and a Preacher: John Danforth

John Danforth: U.S. Senator, Ambassador, Special Envoy to Syria, attorney and Episcopal Priest.  His preparation for public office was as unique as the man.  He received his undergraduate degree at Princeton. In 1963 he received graduate degrees from Yale Law School and Yale Divinity School.  He is an Episcopal priest and has been so for almost 50 years.  He is recognized as a true statesman and a person of integrity.  A lifelong Republican, he remains widely respected by “both sides of the aisle.”

In a 2009 interview with Michel Martin, host of NPR’s TELL ME MORE, he described his view of the role of religion in public life:  Religious people are going to be involved in government and in politics, and that’s good and I’m one of them.  But I think when you  do it, it’s important to do it with a great degree of humility and recognize that your point of view is not necessarily God’s point of view, it’s just your political point of view.  And that you have to be tolerant of people who don’t agree with you and not just assume that, well these are evil people.  It’s just a difference in opinion.  

In 2006 he authored Faith and Politics-How the “Moral Debate” is Dividing  America and How to Move Forward Together. I first read his book to understand his opinions on such issues as stem cell research, the Terri Schiavo “right to die” case, school prayer, and  Justice Clarence Thomas’ confirmation proceedings. When I returned to his book, my focus changed to his views on the role of religion in politics.

While Senator Danforth identifies himself as a devout Christian, he rejects the notion that his political positions are God’s positions, and considers the concept very divisive.  He expresses concerns throughout his book about the “takeover” of the Republican Party by the religious right, while supporting the participation of  conservative and liberal Christians in politics.  He continues on to say that the problem is not that Christians are conservative or liberal, but that some are so confident that their position is God’s position that they become dismissive and intolerant toward others and divisive forces in our national life.

He believes that Christianity is supposed to be a ministry of reconciliation, but has become, instead, a divisive force in American political life…something is terribly wrong and we should correct it.  I think there are two aspects to what is wrong: first, our certainty that our political agenda must be God’s agenda, and second, our ineffectiveness in proclaiming the message of reconciliation.   He further states: our attempts to be God’s people in our politics are, at best, good efforts, subject to all the misjudgments and mixed motives that characterize human behavior. We are seekers of the truth, but we do not embody the truth.  And in humility, we should recognize that the same can be said of our most ardent foes.    

Much of Senator Danforth’s focus is general, but he is specific about one element of political life, the character attacks on candidates for governmental positions:  We may never agree on the issues, but we should all agree that in America, the pursuit of a political cause does not warrant the intentional destruction of a fellow human.  

While a primary focus of his book is directed toward Christianity in the political process he rejects the concept that the United States is a “Christian country”.  He  believes that term indicates non-Christians are of some lesser order, not full-fledged citizens of our nation.  He expresses regret about incidents in his life which he considers insensitive to non-Christians participating in two events;  the first at his non-sectarian high school when students, including non-Christians, were expected to sing the hymn “Onward Christian Soldiers”, which concludes “God in three persons, blessed trinity”.  The second a prayer he gave at Yale University which he ended with a reference to the Trinity (God the Father, the Son and Holy Spirit).

Senator Danforth does not minimize the risks arising from the polarization of politics. He writes eloquently of why our political dialogue should move to the middle through compromise of extreme conservative and liberal political and religious beliefs.  He condemns what he considers to be the intentional perpetuation of wedge issues, which he says are harmful to the national interest.  He describes the risks of divisive politics based on religion this way: ...religion has the capacity to draw people together.  But it can also be a powerful force that drives people apart. In the Middle East, Iraq, Sudan, the former Yugoslavia and Northern Ireland, and many other places in the world, religion has been so divisive that people have killed one another, believing they were doing the work of God.

If Danforth is right, if no one has a pipeline to God, doesn’t it mean that he is also right that people of good will should seek to respect our differences as we work together for a better world.  If he is wrong, if there are political leaders who understand perfectly the one ultimate truth, how is that truth to be known and accepted?  The ballot box? The battlefield?  Do we try to force each other to adhere to our separate versions of the truth? What if the wrong “truth” wins?

I’m now ready to move on to retired Secretary of State, Madeleine Albright’s book:  The Mighty and the Almighty. Let’s see what she has to say.