Conservative Politics and Moderate Religion
John Danforth is an Episcopal priest and was an Ambassador to the United Nations. He served three terms as a Republican Senator and a special envoy to Sudan for President Bush. He's the author of Faith and Politics.
September 14, 2006
KRISTA TIPPETT, HOST: I’m Krista Tippett. A former U.S. senator and U.N. ambassador, a lawyer who is also an Episcopal priest, John Danforth describes himself as a traditional Republican and a moderate Christian. He’s just published a new book, Faith and Politics. This hour, we’ll hear excerpts from that and revisit my 2005 conversation with John Danforth. He speaks openly about his concern for the way religion is used in his party and in the world.
MR. JOHN DANFORTH: I have political positions. Hey, you know, I mean I’ve voted, what, 7,000 times or so on the floor of the Senate. But there’s a difference between having positions on one hand and saying my position is God’s position, because once you do that, you’re necessarily divisive, and I think that that divisiveness is not worth it for our country.
MS. TIPPETT: This is Speaking of Faith. Stay with us.
MS. TIPPETT: I’m Krista Tippett. John Danforth is a retired three-term senator from Missouri and former ambassador, and he’s also an Episcopal priest. Danforth has emerged as a cautionary religious voice in American political life. He describes himself as conservative, a traditional Republican, and also as a moderate Christian. And he’s just published a new book on faith and politics. This hour, we’ll revisit my 2005 conversation with John Danforth on his practices of faith and politics and the concerns he has about religion in his party and in the world.
From American Public Media, this is Speaking of Faith, public radio’s conversation about religion, meaning, ethics, and ideas. Today, “Conservative Politics and Moderate Religion,” a conversation with John Danforth.
In over three decades of public service, including 18 years as a U.S. senator from Missouri, John Danforth wore his dual identity as a politician and an Episcopal priest with discretion. He occasionally stepped into a pastoral role, presiding, for example, over the funerals of Washington Post publisher Katharine Graham and President Ronald Reagan. A lawyer by training, Danforth has been called as a special counsel in high-profile ethical investigations, including the 1999 review of FBI actions at the Branch Davidian compound in Waco.
MR. ROBERT SIEGEL (FROM NPR’S ALL THINGS CONSIDERED, SEPTEMBER 9, 1999): Danforth will try to determine whether the government blundered when it attacked the compound and whether it later tried to cover up its mistakes.
MR. KWAME HOLMAN (FROM PBS’ THE NEWSHOUR WITH JIM LEHRER, JUNE 11, 2004): Reverend Danforth delivered the homily, which included readings from the New Testament’s Sermon on the Mount, President Reagan’s favorite biblical theme.
MR. DANFORTH: (From sermon) May I speak in the name of one God who created us, who redeemed us, who comforts us. Amen.
PRESIDENT GEORGE W. BUSH (JULY 1, 2004): Today I am very proud to name this good man and superb public servant America’s next ambassador to the United Nations.
MS. GWEN IFILL (FROM THE NEWSHOUR WITH JIM LEHRER, NOVEMBER 9, 2004): …Security Council meets in Nairobi, Kenya, to tackle the problems in Sudan, including the ongoing civil war. John Danforth, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, has been in the middle of efforts to broker an end to that war.
MS. JACKIE LYDEN (FROM NPR’S ALL THINGS CONSIDERED, JANUARY 9, 2005): The government of Sudan signed a peace treaty today with rebels from the south. It puts a formal end to a civil war that’s raged for decades. Among those at today’s celebration was John Danforth, the outgoing U.S. ambassador to the United Nations.
MS. TIPPETT: In March 2005, two months after he stepped down from his brief tenure as George W. Bush’s ambassador to the United Nations, John Danforth declared in The New York Times that some of his fellow Republicans had turned their party into the political arm of conservative Christianity. Soon thereafter, he issued a kind of call to action on that same op-ed page, with the battle cry, “Onward, Moderate Christian Soldiers.” Danforth wrote, “It is important for those of us who are sometimes called moderates to make the case that we too have strongly held Christian convictions, that we speak from the depths of our beliefs, and that our approach to politics is at least as faithful as that of those who are more conservative. Our difference,” Danforth continued, “concerns the extent to which governments should or even can translate religious beliefs into the laws of state.”
I wanted to hear about the religious values that drive John Danforth’s current critique of his own party. I wondered how he’s integrated his deeply held private religious convictions into the sweep of his life as a lawyer, a senator, and a statesman. He received professional degrees in divinity and in law simultaneously at Yale in 1963. He’d become intrigued by Christian theology as an undergraduate at Princeton. Though, as far back as he remembers, John Danforth planned to go into politics.
MR. DANFORTH: All of my childhood, from the time I was 10 years old, my ambition was to be a United States senator. I wanted to go into politics, but I majored in religion at college. I became very interested in religion, and I believed between my junior and my senior year that I should go to divinity school. That same summer, my wife and I got married, and so I kind of sprang that on her, which was not great news to her, she being the grand…
MS. TIPPETT: She didn’t want to be a clergy wife?
MR. DANFORTH: Well, she was the granddaughter of a Presbyterian minister and she knew what it was all about, and she thought she was marrying a lawyer. And during the first year and at the end of the first year of divinity school it was very clear to me that that was not for me, that I should not be in the parish clergy, and so I asked the then-dean at Yale Divinity School, Liston Pope, if it would be possible for me to just spread the third year of divinity school over the three years in law school. And he said, ‘Well, I think that that’s interesting.’ He said, ‘I’m going to let you do it. Make an exception for you. Being a lawyer and a minister is a little bit like being a striptease saint.’ So that’s what I did, I went to the law school and then I took enough courses at the divinity school to get both degrees on the same day.
MS. TIPPETT: Now, you first ran for office and were elected to office in 1968, an important year, and you became attorney general of Missouri. I wonder how you understood the relationship between religion and politics when you began your career. And it does strike me that you came to adulthood in the years in which John F. Kennedy became president and that he negotiated that line in an interesting way as a Catholic.
MR. DANFORTH: Right.
MS. TIPPETT: Were you thinking much about the balance or the interaction of these things in your life that early in your career?
MR. DANFORTH: I wasn’t. I was doing it rather than thinking much about it. I was ordained, I was practicing my ministry, although I was doing it really on Sundays, and I always did that until I reached retirement age, but I always had some specific church duty even though it wasn’t a very burdensome church duty. But it was more something that I did and, in my own thinking about it, it was a representation of the incarnation, it was that God was present in the world and the church is present in the world and the ordained ministry is present in the world. I mean, that was how I was thinking about it. But I was not thinking about it in terms of any action as attorney general or as any particular policy that would derive from it. It wasn’t public office as a way of implementing religion, it was simply that I was there.
MS. TIPPETT: And it was that your faith was important to you as an individual, as a human being, and then you went into public service as that human being.
MR. DANFORTH: That’s right. That’s exactly right. That you, I mean, you don’t check it at the door. You bring to whatever your job, whatever you’re doing in life, whatever, you know, whatever role you have in life, the totality of what you are and what your life experiences have been, what your values are, what your makeup is. And I was and am a priest of the church and a believing Christian.
MS. TIPPETT: I mean, you then had 18 years in the United States Senate, your boyhood dream fulfilled, or ambition, and that would have been from 1976 to 1994, in those years in which a lot changed in the world and in this country, obviously. Now, did that dynamic change for you, this interplay between you as a person of faith, or your religious convictions and your work as a senator?
MR. DANFORTH: Again, it was that I was and still am an Episcopal priest, that I was a Christian, and that I was a United States senator. But it was always clear to me, as a United States senator I represented more than five million people in my state. And they were all kinds of people, they were of all kinds of religious beliefs and no religious belief at all, and it was my obligation to represent them. And it was not my obligation, and it would have been improper to try to be, you know, the church’s person somehow in the United States Senate. There were times when specifically I used it. I mean, I officiated at various funerals. When President Reagan was shot, I was asked to say a prayer from the president’s desk of the U.S. Senate.
MS. TIPPETT: So kind of to be present more as that priest in that moment.
MR. DANFORTH: So — yeah. But it wasn’t a matter of public policy. Now, there were some interests that I had that I think, you know, did flow from what I was.
MS. TIPPETT: I mean, I remember I had a conversation once with Mario Cuomo, you know, who can talk about an issue like the death penalty in which he was very influenced by his Catholic faith. I mean, were there issues like that for you that you could name?
MR. DANFORTH: Well, the death penalty was one of them. I mean, that was an issue that would come up from time to time. It didn’t come up all that often when I was in the Senate. But I would vote against the death penalty. And most people in my state support the death penalty. But that was one area where, you know, I just didn’t think it was justified. I thought that if you could show me that you could save a life by taking a life, well, then, OK, that would be a rationale for it. But I didn’t find that in the death penalty.
I was very interested in issues of world hunger. I went to Cambodia — well, to the border of Thailand and Cambodia in, I guess it was 1979, at the time that the Cambodian refugees were crossing the border, and had my first brush with world hunger and got involved in that and trying to get more food to the people of Cambodia. And then in the 1980s, I was involved again in hunger issues in Africa, and took a trip there and reported to President Reagan about the situation in Africa. So those would be two examples.
I was also very interested in the Holocaust and introduced a resolution in the Senate to create Days of Remembrance for the victims of the Holocaust.
MS. TIPPETT: Former Republican Senator John Danforth. I’m Krista Tippett, and this is Speaking of Faith from American Public Media, today with John Danforth on his experience and perspective as a traditional Republican with a moderate Christian faith.
Danforth says that in his own understanding of the Bible, the only absolute standard of Christian behavior is what he refers to as the love commandment, the commandment to love God and one’s neighbor as oneself. I spoke with him after he stated this publicly last year on the op-ed pages of The New York Times “on behalf,” he said, “of moderate Christians.” He added, “We struggle to follow that commandment as we face the realities of everyday living. And we do not agree that our responsibility to live as Christians can be codified by legislators.”
MR. DANFORTH: What I said in that column, which is that the love commandment trumps rules and that Christians can come to these various issues from the standpoint of the love commandment and come out with different results than conservative Christians have, I mean, that’s where I am and that’s what I believe.
But I also want to make it clear that I don’t want to sound as though I’m in any way demeaning the conservative Christians, because I do think that love without law can degenerate into, you know, ‘If it feels good, do it,’ and a lacking of real standards. So I think, you know, when Jesus said, you know, “I have not come to abolish the law, but to fulfill it,” I do think that there are requirements on us as human beings that the conservative Christians understand and that are important for Christianity as a whole to include in the mix rather than to just have sort of a conservative group saying, ‘We know God’s will, we are the people of faith, you are the enemies of faith.’ And then the liberals crop up, and they say, ‘Well, we are against the conservatives, we trash them, and we want to emphasize the love commandment.’ I mean, I think that both of them contain different sides of the same truth.
MS. TIPPETT: Well, I mean, what I hear you saying is that your understanding of Christianity is necessarily going to be working against, you know, not for positions as much as against the divisiveness.
MR. DANFORTH: Yeah. Now, look, I have political positions, you know? I mean, I voted, what, 7,000 times or so on the floor of the Senate, so I’ve got a whole host of political positions. I’ve got positions on all of these things, you know, all of the hot issues. But what I’m saying is there’s a difference between having positions on one hand and saying, ‘My position is God’s position, and I am God’s oracle and God’s representative in government, and I am here to implement God’s position.’ Because once you do that, you’re necessarily divisive. And it’s fine religiously to say, ‘OK, here’s my point of view.’ But once you’re engaged in the business of government in our country, in the public sector, in politics in our country, we have something that we have to do in addition to just taking all these specific positions, and that is to figure out a way to keep the country glued together. And it’s not going to stay glued together if there is kind of a religious crusade that takes political positions.
MS. TIPPETT: I mean, when I say that, I think you’re talking as much about how those positions are presented and debated and navigated as what they are. I mean, here’s something you wrote: “We believe it is God’s work to practice humility, to wear tolerance on our sleeves, to reach out to those with whom we disagree, and to overcome the meanness we see in today’s politics.” It’s sort of ethical stance as much as…
MR. DANFORTH: I mean, that’s what I wrote and that’s what I think. And I think that that is the key to it.
MS. TIPPETT: So it seems to me that there’s also a very interesting theological impulse in this, which I kind of want to tease out. You’re saying that moderate Christians like you, that you as a moderate Christian, you know, that part of your worldview that your faith encourages you in is to see the limits of human wisdom and even of politics at work in the world.
MR. DANFORTH: I think it’s essential. I mean, I really think it’s essential. I think it’s very important for religious people to be involved in politics, to come to politics with their values, to press their ideas, to be as vigorous as they want to be or can be in presenting what their views are. I’m all for that. I am all for doing that with a degree of humility. And I am also all for the concept of separation of church and state. Because once the certainty of religious zealotry gets mixed up in politics, then we have a real problem in our country.
MS. TIPPETT: You also write a lot these days about how you understand what it means to be Republican and the sort of core values of the Republican Party and Republican tradition. And I think that you also are suggesting that there’s a clash between the values that seem to have primacy right now that are being espoused especially by conservative Christian Republicans and the core values of the Republican Party that have to do with limited government and the importance of the private sector.
MR. DANFORTH: Yeah. Right. Now, I think that most Republicans right across what had been the spectrum of the Republican Party would have general agreement on basic values that they would say would be Republican values: limited government trying to keep the regulatory burden and the tax burden light; an engaged foreign policy; strong national defense; free trade; limited role of the judiciary, the judiciary should interpret the law, it shouldn’t make the law. You would get most Republicans to say that that is the Republican Party. That’s where I am, and that’s where I was throughout my political life.
Now comes the arrival of the conservative Christians and the Republican Party in a big way with a political agenda, and the embrace of that political right by Republican officeholders and by more traditional Republicans who see a coalition in the making. I mean, here is more political clout because now it’s not just sort of economic conservatives or strong national defense people, but it’s those plus the Christian agenda.
But, I mean, I would raise two questions about it from the standpoint of being a Republican. I mean, first of all, is it going to last? Because there are a lot of Republicans who are not conservative Christians who, I think, are beginning to say, ‘Hey, what’s going on here? I mean, we thought we knew what the Republican Party was. What’s this?’ And some people are really concerned about it, I mean particularly Jewish Republicans.
And then besides that, I mean, even if this coalition works, are there some things that a political party should not be willing to do even if it’s successful in getting votes? And I think that the combination of religion and politics in this sort of agenda form — I’m not talking about religious people being active in politics, but this wedding of a political party, marriage of a political party with the religious movement is inherently divisive. And I think that that divisiveness is not worth it for our country.
MS. TIPPETT: Former Senator and Episcopal priest John Danforth. Here’s a reading from his new book, Faith and Politics.
READER (KATE MOOS): “If in the divine plan there were sure answers to questions of public policy, God seldom gave them to me. If God gave the answers to anyone, a lot must have been lost in translation. For on religious issues — abortion, stem cell research, public display of religion, and the like — people who worship God are on opposing sides.
If there is a Christian agenda for politics, what should it be? I, for one, cannot be certain. Then one might ask, ‘What does faith bring to politics if not an agenda?’ For me, it brings a struggle to do God’s will that always falls short of the goal. It leavens the competing self-interests of politics with the yeast of the love commandment, but it seldom fulfils the love commandment. It makes us better participants in politics, but not the custodians of God’s politics.”
From Faith and Politics by John Danforth.
MS. TIPPETT: John Danforth says he was first motivated to speak out in such a way after he watched the politicization of the Terri Schiavo case. In the name of religious values, U.S. congressional leaders intervened to prolong the life of a Florida woman. Her parents and husband had been locked in a long battle over her fate.
MR. DANFORTH: Well, I thought it was terrible. I mean, is it really Christian to try to keep somebody who’s in a permanent vegetative state hooked up to a feeding tube when the court in Florida has found that she didn’t want to be on the feeding tube? Now, people are going to say, ‘Well, the court in Florida didn’t decide it in the right way,’ but that’s what courts are for, to decide such things, and that’s where we were. And then suddenly enters Congress and particularly Republicans getting into the act, doing two things: First of all, saying, ‘Well, we don’t care about what’s happening in the state of Florida, we’re moving the action to Washington.’ And secondly saying, ‘Not only that, but we’re moving it out of the state courts to the federal courts.’ Now, this embrace of Washington and the federal court system is not exactly where the Republican Party has been. So it was a very exceptional case, and I think it was done simply to answer the call of the Christian right.
MS. TIPPETT: You have said — we’ve talked about this — that the only absolute commandment, as you understand it, is to love your neighbor as yourself and that that commandment always takes precedence when it conflicts with the laws. I mean, when you think about where you see love of neighbor being embodied in law or policies, where that coincides with your understanding of these teachings, I mean, what would you think of, what would you name?
MR. DANFORTH: I don’t think that the love commandment can be embodied in law. In other words, I think that there’s always going to be a gulf between the two. But I think that, you know, the love commandment informs how you can look at the system in law. And with respect to stem cell research, it’s possible for a Christian to say, ‘We believe that helping cure terrible diseases, finding the cure for terrible diseases like cancer or like Alzheimer’s, is something that is of great value and that it has to do with our value of human beings and their lives and the quality of their lives, and that science should be available to try to find those cures. And that blastocysts that exist in petri dishes and that have never been and will never be implanted in the uterus do not have the same value as living, breathing people who are suffering from ALS, say.’ And that Christians can reach that conclusion. I mean, I reached that conclusion. So, I mean, Christians can reach that conclusion, which is not the conclusion that the conservatives reach.
MS. TIPPETT: So, you know, how do you think about how, in a perfect world, or let’s say in a perfect democracy, these two very different ways of looking at difficult issues, how those conversations would take place, how we would reach decisions in our public life?
MR. DANFORTH: Well, I think you, you know, I mean, it’s what like St. Paul says, work out your salvation with fear and trembling. I mean, you’re not going to know, and that’s the point, to bring to this humility, but to bring to it a good-faith effort to try to live a faithful life and to try to act in the realm of politics as a faithful person. Knowing, however, that you are not the grand oracle of God’s wisdom and that God’s truth is not your truth — there’s going to be a gap there — and a recognition that the other person who has come to very different conclusions also has made a good-faith effort to be a follower of the Lord. So, I mean, I think it’s a matter of good faith and trying your best, but bringing humility to bear.
MS. TIPPETT: But I wonder if you think that moderate voices would always be less effective because they would have this humility about what they were doing?
MR. DANFORTH: Well, moderates would be, yeah. Sure. No, moderates, I mean…
MS. TIPPETT: Whether they’re Republican or Democrat, I mean.
MR. DANFORTH: Yeah, sure. Moderates are, you know? I mean, we’re — moderates are generally viewed as sort of wishy-washy. But let me just say a couple of things. First of all, it is true that right now in American politics the Christian conservatives are the most effective and the most active people speaking from the standpoint of their religion in the realm of politics. It was not always that way. At the time that I was at Yale Divinity School, it was more the political liberals. In fact, a fellow student…
MS. TIPPETT: In the 1960s.
MR. DANFORTH: Yeah. A fellow student once told me that I was one of the three Republicans on the campus. So, I mean, that was the time of civil rights and it was the beginning — well, it was not yet the antiwar movement. But most politics in my lifetime that I have heard preached in pulpits has come from the left, not from the right.
But secondly, I think that there is a lot to be said for reconciliation as being a central theme of Christian churches, that that is what they’re in the business of doing, that this is what St. Paul was talking about, about being ambassadors of reconciliation. He was talking about between God and humankind. But reconciling differences and trying to hold the world together, I think that that is something that in itself is exciting and important, and not wimpy. And I think that if the churches took that up as their ministry, it would really resonate with people.
To me it’s not just an absolutely great solution for liberal Christians to say, ‘Well, we don’t agree with the conservative Christians because we don’t agree with their politics. And our political views are X and their political views are Y, and therefore we’re going to trash them.’ I mean, I don’t see that as just a great advance of Christianity. But if Christianity became a place, if the church became a place where people, faithful people doing their best in their own, you know, inadequate way to follow their Lord and to hear out and honor the views of people who are very different, if that’s what the church is, I think that that could be very, very exciting. And it sounds moderate, but, in fact, it’s really not wimpy at all.
MS. TIPPETT: Well, do you see churches now stepping into that role?
MR. DANFORTH: No. But I’m hopeful.
MS. TIPPETT: Former U.S. Senator from Missouri John Danforth. This is Speaking of Faith. After a short break, we’ll speak about his perspective on religion and politics in the world from his experiences as the U.S. special envoy to Sudan and as U.S. ambassador to the United Nations. Also, his surprise at being embraced by liberals for his moderate religiosity. John Danforth still considers himself a passionate Republican and as conservative politically as ever before.
At speakingoffaith.org, read Danforth’s political commentaries in The New York Times, listen to this program again, download an MP3 to your desktop, or subscribe to our free weekly podcast. Listen when you want, wherever you want. All this and more at speakingoffaith.org.
I’m Krista Tippett. Stay with us. Speaking of Faith comes to you from American Public Media.
MS. TIPPETT: Welcome back to Speaking of Faith, public radio’s conversation about religion, meaning, ethics, and ideas. I’m Krista Tippett. Today, “Conservative Politics and Moderate Religion.” We’re revisiting my conversation last year with former senator and statesman John Danforth. He’s the author of a new book, Faith and Politics. A lifelong Republican, he’s become increasingly concerned about the divisive role of religion in U.S. public life.
John Danforth is an ordained Episcopal priest and a lawyer who served three terms in the U.S. Senate from 1976 to 1994. He also served as U.S. ambassador to the United Nations for six months in 2004.
Shortly before the September 11th terrorist attacks, President George W. Bush appointed Danforth special envoy to Sudan to mediate peace in that region’s north/south civil war. Danforth helped broker a groundbreaking peace agreement between Sudan’s Arab Islamic government and rebels with ties to Christian and indigenous African religious traditions. That accomplishment has since been overshadowed by another crisis fueled by racially driven inter-Islamic violence in the Darfur region of western Sudan. Danforth negotiated many times with the Sudanese rebel-leader-turned-vice president John Garang, who was trying to negotiate peace in Darfur when he died in a plane crash.
MR. DANFORTH: I was formally appointed by the president, and it was announced on September 6th that I would be a special envoy for peace in Sudan. And then five days later came 9/11, so all of this was in the shadow of 9/11. But I think it’s become much more clear to all of us since 9/11 that we have a real problem in the world, and the problem is religion. I mean, the problem is people who believe that they are called upon to kill each other in the name of God, and I don’t think we realized that before. I mean, historically we’ve known it, you know, the Crusades and so forth, but this has really brought that home to the United States, and the need to find some way to try to allow people with vast differences — religious, racial, cultural differences to co-exist.
And it was very, very interesting, at one point when I was doing the Sudan work, I was the president’s special envoy, and at one point he said to me, “If Sudan can figure it out, anybody can.” And it meant how in one huge country, which is Sudan, straddling Arab Africa and black Africa with Arab Muslims and black Christians, animists, non-Muslims, all together historically at each other’s throats, fighting a civil war for years, if somehow we can figure out a way and they can figure out a way for that country to stick together and to be one integrated country, then the whole rest of Africa, northern Africa in particular, all the tribal conflicts, all of that, this can be a model.
MS. TIPPETT: Did you in your experiences there, I mean, I guess I could ask this question also about your experiences as ambassador to the United Nations. Did you see — begin to imagine different models or different ways that religious voices or religious actors could, you know, transcend this specter that we have in so many places, of religious passions inflaming conflict?
MR. DANFORTH: Well, I think that religion can be, you know, can be the problem or it can be at least part of the answer. I thought there should be some effort to try to mediate religious differences or the religious component of political conflict. I thought that the United Nations should take the lead in putting that together, that it should be under the auspices of the United Nations, a kind of putting together of a standing committee of mediators on religious subjects that could deal with things like what’s the application of sharia law in a place like Sudan to non-Muslims? Or, you know, what would happen to Jerusalem in the case of peace? I mean, that kind of thing, which religious people would have some expertise in, and they could serve as mediators. Well, that got nowhere in the U.N. Some people were very interested in it — the Philippines were very interested in it — but there was generally a kind of a concern about why should we get the U.N. involved in matters of religion. So it didn’t get anywhere there. But I continue to think that religious leaders could put together a kind of a mediation service.
MS. TIPPETT: I mean, you did, as ambassador, criticize clergy and other religious leaders for not being more of a force, not condemning terrorism more strongly. I mean, you know, tell me how that might look or sound, who these voices would be and what role you would like to see them playing in conflict.
MR. DANFORTH: Well, first, who would they be? And that’s a very difficult question because the Roman Catholic church is hierarchical. Then when you move beyond the Roman Catholic church, generally the hierarchies fade pretty quickly. So in Judaism and Islam and Protestantism, there isn’t a person you can go to and say, ‘OK, do it,’ or who can say to a denomination, ‘Do it. Put this in place.’
So somehow somebody would have to identify, you know, a handful of people — it couldn’t just be anybody who walked through the door, but a handful of people who had some standing, like the pope. I mean, obviously — maybe the Archbishop of Canterbury, maybe the Sheikh of Alazar, I don’t know, but you could identify some people who have real standing within religious communities. And then add to that some people who have some expertise in conflict resolution and say, ‘OK, do your best to try to mediate.’ But that kind of service is what I’m thinking about, and I think that it could not be done without the leadership of the Roman Catholic church.
MS. TIPPETT: So if not the United Nations, then the Vatican might be able to convene that kind of group of religious authorities? Is that what you’re saying?
MR. DANFORTH: I think they could start. I think they could send out the invitation and see what happened. But yeah, I mean, I think, first of all, without them, nothing’s going to happen. But they’ve got that centrality to them that I think would be important.
MS. TIPPETT: And, you know, I think just even that fact that the Roman Catholic church in our world is the only religious tradition with such a supreme authority, I mean, it’s not something that Americans think about very often, but it really does matter. It matters that the other traditions don’t have those centralized authoritative voices that people can turn to.
MR. DANFORTH: Yeah.
MS. TIPPETT: I do want to ask you, I mean, when you look at something like the Sudan, which you also care deeply about, obviously, and gave a lot of time and energy to, and all of the professional skills that you developed, and that is still a place that is in great turmoil. How do you watch something like that, I mean, as a religious person, also, as much as a statesman?
MR. DANFORTH: Well, Sudan has been — really, there were, I mean, maybe a lot of problems, but there were two big ones, and one was the longstanding civil war, the north/south civil war, and the second one was Darfur. And most of the time that I was doing Sudan, Darfur was just — it was an emerging issue, but it really wasn’t there. And I was focused on north/south. And when that peace agreement was signed, it was just one of the great things that I’ve ever been involved in. I mean, it was just amazing. Now, will it last? I don’t know. But for what it was, it was just terrific.
But it’s been so overtaken by Darfur that it’s almost an eclipse. Then John Garang was killed in a helicopter crash, and my heart sank when that happened. But the people in his movement recognize that it’s a movement and it wasn’t just John Garang, and they are saying all of the right things, and so I’m still reasonably hopeful about that. But they’ve got to fix Darfur. If they can fix Darfur, then the world is waiting for Sudan. The U.S. is, the rest of the world community is, they’re waiting for Sudan, they’re waiting to help Sudan, they’re waiting with all kinds of assistance that will depend on fixing Darfur.
MS. TIPPETT: Former ambassador and Episcopal priest John Danforth. Since this 2005 interview, conditions in Darfur have worsened. Fighting has intensified, particularly in the last several months. In response, the United Nations Security Council last month approved a plan to deploy 20,000 peacekeeping troops, but the government of Sudan vigorously opposed the U.N. resolution, and soon after launched a major offensive in the region.
I’m Krista Tippett, and this is Speaking of Faith from American Public Media. Today, a conversation with John Danforth on his experience and perspective as a traditional Republican with a moderate Christian faith.
I asked him to reflect broadly on how religion in American public life has changed since his entry into electoral politics in 1968.
MR. DANFORTH: I don’t know, it could be that I’m going to be repeating myself, but the emergence of the religious right with a political agenda is different. I mean, when I was around, when I was in politics, you know, there were people like Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson, but it wasn’t this full-fledged agenda that was then just assumed by a political party, namely the Republican Party. It was something that was, you know, kind of out there, but it wasn’t quite so real, it wasn’t as tangible as it became.
And it’s become very tangible and it’s permeated everything, it seems. It’s just part of everything. I mean, pick up the paper almost any day and you read about teaching evolution in school, so that’s, you know, and the intelligent design idea of education and all of that. So it’s one thing after another. It’s just every place in American political life and public life right now, and it tends to be, I mean, it’s something that people have very strong feelings about, and it’s something that does divide us as a country. And, therefore, I think it’s of greater concern now than it ever was before, at least than it was during my lifetime.
MS. TIPPETT: You know, you have lots of fans these days among liberals and Democrats. I mean, I wonder if it strikes you as ironic that once upon a time you were conservative and now you are known as a moderate. And…
MR. DANFORTH: Well, I am conservative. I know, I know.
MS. TIPPETT: I know. Right.
MR. DANFORTH: I know, it’s crazy.
MS. TIPPETT: But your popular image has shifted. I mean, you haven’t changed, but…
MR. DANFORTH: I know. I’ve been the toast of the liberals, and they want me to speak to groups, and so on.
MS. TIPPETT: Well, how do you feel about it? How is that?
MR. DANFORTH: Well, I think I’ve got to explain to them that I’m really, hey, I’m a Republican, you know? I mean, I’m a traditional Republican. I mean, I’m not wildly conservative, but I am pretty conservative. And please understand that I am not embracing some — I’m not trying to replace the conservative religious political agenda with a liberal religious political agenda. I’m not doing that.
I mean, it’s not — and I think that the conservatives have a lot to tell us about trying to keep some sense of morality in our country, and they’re concerned about all kinds of things, about promiscuity and about drugs, about the breakup of families. I mean, all of these are very real concerns, and I’m glad they’re raising them. I just wish that they would raise them with a little more humility.
MS. TIPPETT: Mm-hmm.
MR. DANFORTH: And I hope, first of all, from the standpoint of the churches, especially the mainline churches, that they would see a real role here of trying to be ambassadors of reconciliation, that they would see this as an opportunity to define themselves.
And then from the standpoint of American politics and particularly the Republican Party, I do hope that people will emerge in the Republican Party who will say that we don’t want to be a theocracy, we don’t want to have a political party identified with a particular religious point of view, and we’ve gone too far, and we do have to wear our tolerance on our sleeves.
MS. TIPPETT: John Danforth is a partner at the St. Louis office of the Bryan Cave law firm. In closing, here’s a reading from his new book, Faith and Politics.
READER (KATE MOOS): “So it seems we live in a godless age and we feel deeply that we must reverse this. We must restore God. And we seize upon public religion as a way to do this. School prayer, the Ten Commandments, the teaching of creationism or intelligent design, and crèches in front of public buildings all become parts of an effort to reverse our moral course and return our country to a time of public decency.
It is a worthy objective. The problem is that public religion is not up to the task. An innocuous prayer has no power to make us more godly. A display of the Ten Commandments will not make us obey the commandments. What public religion can do is create an appearance that faith is a formality contrived to impress people more than God. The practice of religion is an effective antidote to the disease so apparent in our society.
People who practice their beliefs will live according to moral and ethical standards their religion teaches them. They will be witnesses against the tawdriness of the culture around them. They will be examples of the people God expects us to be. They will be that because they understand and live by the tenets of their traditions. That is the practice of religion. It is different altogether from the public display of religion.”
From Faith and Politics by John Danforth.
MS. TIPPETT: Contact us and share your thoughts at speakingoffaith.org. There you’ll find the full text of John Danforth’s commentaries on religion and politics. Listen to this program again and hear others in our Archives. Subscribe to our podcast. Listen when you want, wherever you want. All that and more at speakingoffaith.org.
The senior producer of Speaking of Faith is Mitch Hanley, with producers Colleen Scheck and Jody Abramson and editor Ken Hom. Our Web producer is Trent Gilliss, with assistance from Jennifer Krause. Kate Moos is the managing producer of Speaking of Faith, the executive editor is Bill Buzenberg, and I’m Krista Tippett.