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Ex-Senator Danforth Discusses “Faith in Politics”

October 5, 2006 at 6:45 PM EDT

RAY SUAREZ: And to our conversation on “Faith and Politics.” That’s the subject and the title of a new book by former Republican Senator John Danforth of Missouri. He recently talked with Gwen Ifill at the historic Metropolitan African Methodist Episcopal Church in Washington, D.C.

GWEN IFILL: Senator Danforth, thank you for joining us.

FORMER SEN. JOHN DANFORTH (R), Missouri: Thank you.

GWEN IFILL: You write in your new book that there’s a difference between being a Christian person and having a Christian agenda for politics. Explain what you mean.

JOHN DANFORTH: Well, people who are religious, a lot of them are interested in politics and feel that they have a commitment to be in politics. And that’s important, because we don’t check our religion at the church door; we want it to apply to the rest of our lives. But the question is: How do we do that? And the point that I’m trying to make is there’s a difference between trying to be a faithful person in your politics, on one hand, and having a full-blown political agenda on the other. The problem with having a political agenda is that we give the impression that we have God’s truth, that we can convert God’s truth into a particular platform, a set of political issues, and that there is God’s way in politics and there is the decide against God. And I think that that’s very destructive.

GWEN IFILL: In your years as a senator, as an attorney general in the state of Missouri, in your years as United Nations ambassador, you were also that whole time an ordained Episcopal priest…


GWEN IFILL: … something somebody in your book describes as like being a striptease saint, a lawyer and a religious person…


GWEN IFILL: … so was there symbolism that you were able to act on in being an ordained person who was doing secular work?

JOHN DANFORTH: Well, I thought there was some symbolism in it, and that is the idea of the church in the world, that religion is applicable to the world. And I thought that that was sort of the meaning of being an ordained person with a worldly kind of job, and not just politicians. Of course, I know physicians who are ordained and all kinds of people who are ordained, so I did think that there was some meaning in that.

God 'transcends' party sides

GWEN IFILL: Can I read a portion of your writing to you? You say, "If we believe that our political positions are implementations of God's will, then whatever stand we take becomes a matter of principle. Our political causes become religious crusades" -- and I guess you used that word on purpose -- "and reasonable accommodation becomes difficult, if not impossible, to achieve." Does that mean that God doesn't have a particular side in these fights?

JOHN DANFORTH: I don't think that God can be shrunk in and stuffed into a political agenda. I think that God transcends our political views and that religion and the Christian faith can accommodate a variety of positions. And if we say that there is a particular religious approach to issues, then that becomes very, very divisive. Where is the room for compromise, if you say, "I know God's truth, I can translate God's truth into my politics"? So how can I reach some reasonable compromise? And I think one of the big problems in American politics today is its polarization. Each party has gravitated toward its base, and the result of that is that the common ground has been cut out from underneath us and that it's harder and harder to reach accommodation on very serious issues, you know, how to deal with terrorism, how to deal with the budget, how to deal with energy dependence, and on and on.

GWEN IFILL: Is this...

JOHN DANFORTH: And politics is the art of compromise, so it's very hard to compromise if you think, "I've got a monopoly of God's truth, and you don't."

Christian right influence

GWEN IFILL: Is this a problem which affects mostly -- as you describe it in your book -- the Christian right, or the Christian left, or the non-Christian anything?

JOHN DANFORTH: It can be either way; it really can be either way. I think right now the problem is with my party, the Republican Party, and its willingness to identify itself with the Christian right. I think this has been a very conscious decision. It's been viewed as something of a political bonanza to get this whole new group of people energized for the Republican Party.

GWEN IFILL: Hasn't it been?

JOHN DANFORTH: I don't think it has been to this extent until fairly recently. I mean, for a long time, there have been people like, say, Pat Robertson who have been involved in the Republican Party, but I think what's happened in recent years with a series of wedge issues is that it's been a very conscious identification of the Republican Party with a particular segment of Christianity.

GWEN IFILL: Some people on the Christian right would say that this is a matter of principle. For instance, the Terri Schiavo case, this was a matter of principle, preserving a woman's life.

JOHN DANFORTH: They would say that, but I think the question is the degree of confidence that any of us can have that what our political principles are, are the same as God's political principles. I think that there is a difference. I think God transcends all of us.

GWEN IFILL: Did you have the same problem with the Christian right when they were on your side on matters like abortion, which you oppose?

JOHN DANFORTH: No, but I thought that, first, abortion was always a very divisive issue, I mean, ever since 1973. But it was possible to be on one side or another of abortion without making it a particularly political issue. The abortion issue, the prohibition on abortion had been around for, I don't know, probably a century or so, maybe more. And the basic issue, as I saw it, was more of an issue of: What's the role of the federal courts? But now that it's not just one issue, it's a whole series of them. I saw it first with Terri Schiavo, but it's the question of whether the Constitution should be amended to define marriage. It's the whole issue of putting the Ten Commandments on courthouse walls, that kind of thing. It's the issue of stem cell research. So it's the collection of issues and it's the increasing demand by the Christian right that Republican politicians toe the line, that Republican politicians do exactly what this particular group wants them to do.

When religion divides

GWEN IFILL: You mention the Ten Commandments. In your book, you say that "God is not portable," and that's why you thought this idea of to fight over a monument was a specious one.

JOHN DANFORTH: I think that the notion that we're evicting God from our national life is not -- to me, it doesn't seem like very good theology, because, I mean, it suggests that, you know, we can boot God, we can invite God, and that God is at our bidding, you know, and that he's carried around and put on courthouse walls and so on. And I don't see that as very good theology.

GWEN IFILL: When you were United Nations ambassador and the president's special envoy to Sudan, you got to see a different kind of religious conflict up close, and that was between the Christians and the Muslims in Sudan. And you write that you discovered in that case that Christianity is not necessarily a peaceful religion.

JOHN DANFORTH: Yes, Christianity certainly can and I think should be a religion of peace and a religion of reconciliation. This is what St. Paul says we're to be: ministers of reconciliation. And yet, religion in general -- and Christianity in particular -- can be divisive factors in the world. And part of the North-South conflict in that civil war in Sudan was religious. It wasn't all of it; it was Arabs versus black Africans. But part of it was a sense -- and it was correct -- that Christians in Sudan were being persecuted. And the reaction of a number of the Christian clergy, especially in Khartoum was, "Well, we just want out. I mean, we don't want any more of this country. We don't want to participate in any peace process." So there's a kind of a reaction and an equal reaction where it comes to religion in governmental affairs.

The political center collapses

GWEN IFILL: Is the United States doing all it can in Darfur right now?

JOHN DANFORTH: I think the United States is making a good effort in Darfur, and I think that the focus -- and I certainly saw this when I was at the United Nations -- the focus of our government on Darfur, I think, is very intense. And various officials -- Assistant Secretary Jendayi Frazer has been to Khartoum on this issue. Now the president's appointed Andrew Natsios as his special envoy. So I think we're very intently involved in the question of Darfur. The real issue is whether the government of Sudan will allow peacekeepers in substantial numbers to go in there, blue-helmeted people from the U.N. to go in there, and so far they say no. So what we have to do is to try to put as big a squeeze as we can on the government of Sudan, and that involves not only the United States, but particularly the African Union and the Arab League, the African countries and the Arab countries that surround Sudan.

GWEN IFILL: Final question for you. Now that you are out of the direct mix here in Washington and you're watching from somewhat of a distance, has the center collapsed in American politics? You used to be an example of what the center was in Washington. Does it still exist?

JOHN DANFORTH: I think the center has collapsed. And I think that this is the way both parties have gone. And it's not just the Republicans appealing to its base, which is the Christian right, but the Democrats are also appealing to a base, their own constituency. Witness what happened to Joe Lieberman in Connecticut. So each party is getting farther and farther away from the other and closer to its pole. And the result is that it's more and more difficult for us to deal, I think, constructively with very important issues, such as terrorism, such as the future of Social Security and Medicare.

GWEN IFILL: Senator John Danforth, thank you very much for joining us.