Busted: Senator John Danforth

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

BustedHalo: So how did you find a balance as a public servant? Was it difficult for you to reconcile your responsibilities of being a religious and upholding the Constitution?

John Danforth: There was never a time when I thought the people of my state elected me to try to impose a religious view on them. Obviously the people of Missouri understood that I came from a faith tradition. It wasn’t hard for them to conclude that. They knew I had gone to Divinity School, that I was ordained and went to church. I never hid that from people. But they also knew I was elected to represent all kinds of people. There were 5 to 6 million people in the state at the time, with all kinds of religions, and very few of them Episcopalian like me. They didn’t elect me to be their pastor. I think they knew what I was all about. They sure knew how I stood on various issues. Did I think there was a great conflict between serving in public office and in my faith? No. I believe that I brought to politics all that I was, the total makeup of myself. Did I bring my religion to politics? Sure, that’s who I am. But did I boil that down to a political platform and try to force that on people because I was somehow God’s agent? No, I never did that.

BH: Let’s say you were to run for office today as a Republican. Given how you feel about certain issues the party is associated with these days, do you think you’d win the election?

JD: I don’t know (laughs). It was probably a big surprise when I won elections that I won them. A lot of people ask me whether I miss politics, and I really don’t. I enjoyed it when I was in it and I enjoyed being in the Senate, but I don’t miss it. I’ve turned the page. It’s very hard for me to speculate whether I’d ever win anything. Politics is different now than it was. It’s much meaner now.

BH: Would you say you’re still proud to be a Republican?

JD: Sure, I’m a Republican. But I’m a Republican for all the old reasons for being a Republican. I’m a Republican because I believe in limited government and in trying to keep the burden of government light; I believe in free trade, in strong foreign policy and national defense—all the old reasons. The bread and butter Republican issues—states’ rights, judges who interpret the law instead of creating them, etc. I never, ever signed on to the notion that we had a sectarian party, or that we represented a particular religious point of view.

BH: How do you explain the shift of political strategy from economic issues to moral issues?

JD: I think when you think about the questions that are before the country right now, they are very difficult questions. For example, what’s the responsibility of the U.S. going forward in Iraq? What’s the responsibility of the U.S. in a world of chaos when other countries don’t seem to show much leadership? What do we do about the future of Social Security and Medicare? How much discussion of these issues do you hear in political campaigns? None. Zero. But what do we do about it if Social Security is going to go broke in a dozen years or so? And what about the environment and the energy policy? Are we going to continue to be dependent on very, very shaky parts of the world on the future our economy for our sources of energy? All these are very big issues and they require some sort of coming together by the American people. We need to get beyond Republicans and Democrats taking extreme positions, and there has to be some effort to find a middle ground. I think what’s happened with the injection of religion into politics is that the middle ground has been cut out from under us and we’ve gravitated toward the poles. It’s always been hard to deal with Social Security and Medicare, but it makes it even harder if you think that you can’t deal with someone because they’re ‘not on God’s side.’

"I hope that we can avoid being a religious party and I hope we can deal seriously with serious matters facing the country. I think that our party has a lot to offer America."

BH: But isn’t that the case with the current presidential campaign, especially when it comes to the Republican candidates like Rudy Giuliani?

JD: I hope that we can avoid being a religious party and I hope we can deal seriously with serious matters facing the country. I think that our party has a lot to offer America. I’m concerned that we’re really going to take in on the chin, partly because of Iraq. But more than that, I think people view the Republican Party as hard-edged and mean; and I think that we have to become more appealing to the average citizen. I don’t know who can win the Republican nomination and I don’t know that winning the nomination is going to be a great prize, because it looks like it’s going to be a terrible year for Republicans. That said, I think if we were to stick to the basics such as what is America’s responsibility in the world? Do we really want to go to the left in our economics? If we really stick to the fundamentals of the Republican Party, a lot of people in our country would say we have a sounder view of America than the Democrats do.

BH: Do you see the Republican Party returning to its roots anytime soon?

JD: I do believe it’s going to return to its roots. I wrote this book because I believe the more people talk about the current state of American politics, the polarization and the role of religion, the better off we’re going to be. When I was on my book tour, the one applause line that I had was, ‘In this country, we are not going to divide ourselves on the basis of religion. People know that, they really know that in their hearts. We cannot be divided on the basis of religion.’ If the American people keep talking about it—show up at town hall meetings and candidates’ forums and ask the candidates, ‘Do you really believe that we’re a religious party? Do you really believe that we should take sides in religious disputes? I think that the candidates would have to end up saying no. If they said yes, I don’t see how they could win on that.

Danforth’s book, Faith and Politics: How the Moral Values Debate Divides America and How to Move Forward Together (Viking) will be available on paperback in September.