Busted: Senator John Danforth

The former Missouri Senator (and ordained Episcopal priest) discusses how "moral values" have polarized America

When Missouri Republican John Danforth began his political career in 1968, he was already an ordained Episcopal priest. He was elected to the U.S. Senate in 1976, and re-elected in 1982 and 1988 before retiring in 1994. As priest and politician, Danforth says he is increasingly concerned about the state of American politics and its excessive polarization. His latest book, Faith and Politics: How the Moral Values Debate Divides America and How to Move Forward Together examines why he believes religion has been misused as a way to drive a wedge and erode the political center. Danforth recently sat down with BustedHalo not only to call his own party to task for pandering to the Christian Right, but also to challenge the American people to know the difference between a political agenda and genuine concern for tackling the real issues facing the country.

BustedHalo.com: Moderate seems to be a dirty word in politics these days.

John Danforth: But it’s where the American people are. They want us to hold together as one country; they don’t want us to be fractured along religious lines, that’s for sure. They believe we’re all in this together. They understand that the politicians who appeal to the base of their constituencies don’t usually represent most of the people. They’re concerned about the state of American politics.

BH: You’re obviously calling out your own party. What do you think happened that got the Republican Party to this point?

JD: The idea was to try to win elections by appealing to the base of each party. This isn’t just the Republican Party, it’s both parties. The notion was that instead of competing for people in the center of politics, they should appeal to the ‘true believers’ on the fringes of the two parties. Those are the people who would get out and vote, those are the people who would contribute the most resources and energy to political campaigns. For the Republican Party, that base is the Christian Right. They’ve made a very definite appeal to a religious group.

BH: At the beginning of your book, you mention attending the Senate’s weekly prayer breakfasts and how those gatherings demonstrated how religion is supposed to bring people together, not tear them apart.

JD: The meaning of the word religion connotes tying things together. It comes from the same root as the word ligament—that which ties the body together. That’s really the meaning of religion, what it can be. Religion can make it possible for people to live together and respect each other. Religion can call for the best in people and call for them to live beyond themselves, not be so self-centered. It can be very positive in government. It can provide motivation for people to be concerned about government and the big problems in the world, and their responsibilities as stewards of the world. So religion is, and should be, positive. On the other hand, historically, religion has been used very divisively. This has been the case for a long, long time and certainly the case in the world today. In Iraq, Muslims kill Muslims because some of them are Shiite Muslims, while others are Sunni Muslims. So religion can create in people’s mind the notion that they are God’s own agent—that they are people who have a special mission and that God has given them solutions and answers, as opposed to other people. It’s an ‘us against them’ way of viewing religion. Religion can be extremely divisive in politics. That’s why in the United States we have championed the separation of church and state. It’s not to say church people shouldn’t be involved in politics, it’s saying the state is different from faith and we have to keep it different.

BH: But there are people in this current political climate who insist that religion and politics must go hand in hand and a good chunk of the American people seem to buy it.

JD: I think that religion and politics do go hand in glove. A lot of people who are very religious believe that it is their responsibility to participate in the world around them and to participate in government and try to make things better. This has historically been the case. Alexis de Tocqueville talked about it—how Americans are so uniquely religious compared to people in other parts of the world. The problem isn’t religious people being involved in politics and carrying their religion into what they’re doing. The problem is that when people become certain that their political platform is God’s political platform; that God has a political agenda and that agenda just happens to be their agenda. They think therefore, because I agree with God, I’m on God’s side and everyone else who doesn’t agree must be the enemy. That sort of certainty—I’m right and you’re wrong—is how religion can be used to split us apart as a country.

BH: You mention Terry Schiavo case as one of the ‘wedge’ issues that divide the American people. Was it this one event, in your mind, that signaled the ultimate power of the Christian Right taking over the Republican Party?

“The problem isn’t religious people being involved in politics and carrying their religion into what they’re doing. The problem is that when people become certain that their political platform is God’s political platform.”

JD: The Terry Schiavo case was a great eye-opener for me but that’s not to say that my eyes shouldn’t have been open earlier, because I think they probably should have. Obviously I knew about the participation of conservative Christians in the Republican Party and that was fine with me. But the Schiavo case to me indicated an abandonment of what the Republican Party had stood for, in order to appeal to a very vocal group of activists calling for government intervention to keep Terry Schiavo hooked up to a feeding tube and a breathing tube. I thought it was contrary to what the Republican Party had been: no to big government, no to creating all kinds of new powers in the federal court and respecting individuals instead of big government. I thought that by passing special legislation to invest a federal judge with power to decide the Schiavo case was exactly contrary to what the party had stood for—the belief in individual liberty, states’ rights, in not in expanding the jurisdiction of federal courts—which is what the legislation did for Schiavo. I thought the Republican Party just stood on its head to appeal to a very vocal group of people who were holding vigils on courthouse steps and imploring politicians, particularly Republicans, to do something for Terry Schiavo.

BH: Another ‘wedge’ issue is stem cell research, of which you’re a very visible supporter.

JD: I lost my brother Don to Lou Gehrig’s disease, or ALS. That is one of the diseases which hopefully stem cell research can find the cause and eventually, the cure. It’s clearly some way down the road, but I’ve seen some of these terrible diseases, and I certainly saw that one up close over a two-year period of time. I think we have an obligation to try to cure people and try to relieve suffering. If scientists feel that this is a useful line to pursue, I think they should pursue it. Now, some very good people take a different view of this. They think that the cells, which exist in lab dishes, are persons; and if they’re persons, then clearly nobody wants to kill people to save people. But there are others like me who don’t think cells in a dish, pre-implantation in a uterus, are human beings. I just don’t think that. That’s a religious view that people have. My religious view is we should try to save lives and cure disease. So what happens when there are different religious views on this stem cell issue? I think in our state, at least, the government should be neutral. I don’t think it should criminalize scientists or doctors; and I don’t think it should subsidize either.

BH: Leaders of the Christian Right would say that agreeing with their ‘pro-life’ stance would be the ‘Christian’ thing to do. Do you feel that being Christian has taken on a whole new meaning?

JD: I think that’s true. If you read the Gospels, they really aren’t theological documents. They certainly speak of the Christ and His ministry, which have to do with curing the sick and caring for the poor, and loving your neighbor. That’s a big difference from saying, ‘My political program is God’s, even if he’s not a Republican or Democrat, at the very least, God has the following positions on the following issues a, b, c and d.’ I think what religion teaches is humility. Or, as Isaiah says, ‘My ways are not your ways, says the Lord. My thoughts are not your thoughts. Or as St. Paul said, ‘We see through a glass darkly.’ None of us are God. We don’t capture God. We are going to be surprised, that’s my view. I think that when we see our Maker face-to-face, we are going to be surprised. And one thing that’s going to surprise us is that God is bigger than we are, than our political platforms and our doctrines. If you believe in a transcendent God, in a big God, then you believe in a God who is large enough to encompass differing views of a lot of good people who just don’t happen to agree on things. I think that humility is important because it helps us to live together. I think it’s a gift that people of faith can bring to politics. A sense that we try to do the right thing, we try to be good people, to carry our values into our politics as we understand politics, but that we don’t quite have it right and we’re not going to have it right. But guess what? The person who disagrees with us on stem cell, abortion, name the issue—we’re going to be very surprised at the Kingdom of Heaven to find that person sitting next to us, they’re at the same banquet as we are. That’s what I think Christianity is all about. It’s big and it’s welcoming and embracing. It isn’t narrow and negative and off-putting.