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Week of 9.29.06

Faith and Politics

Below is an excerpt of John Danforth's new book, "Faith and Politics: How the 'Moral Values' Debate Divides America and How to Move Forward Together."

Faith and Politics by John Danforth book cover In recent years, the wisdom of our founding fathers has been challenged as the Republican Party has identified itself with the political agenda of Christian conservatives. For several decades, Christian conservatives such as the Reverend Pat Robertson, the Reverend Jerry Falwell, Ralph Reed and, more recently, Dr. James Dobson have been active participants in American, and particularly Republican, politics, focusing their attention mainly on the issue of abortion. But in recent years, they have moved beyond a single issue to endorse an expanded political agenda.

Followers of the Reverend Jerry Falwell have distributed a bumper sticker bearing the slogan "Vote Christian," thereby conveying the clear message that there is a Christian way to vote as opposed to a non-Christian or anti-Christian way to vote. There is no need for the bumper sticker to spell out the details. The agenda of the Christian Right is well known. It is to oppose abortion, early stage stem cell research and gay marriage, and to advocate the display of the Ten Commandments in courthouses and the teaching of intelligent design in public schools.

When I arrived in Washington in January 1977, I was in the philosophical center of a broad range of Republican senators. To my left were people many Republicans today would call liberals: Jacob Javits of New York, Clifford Case of New Jersey, Edward Brooke of Massachusetts and Lowell Weicker of Connecticut. To my right were conservative stalwarts, including Barry Goldwater of Arizona, Strom Thurmond of South Carolina, Jesse Helms of North Carolina and John Tower of Texas. Then there were the senators who, with me, were somewhere in the center of our party, people like Howard Baker of Tennessee, Bob Dole and his Kansas colleague Jim Pearson. Of course, such diverse Republicans had differences of opinion on various issues, but we respected each other and we respected our differences. A set of core beliefs that nearly all Republicans shared held us together. We were internationalists who believed that America had a responsibility to be a force of strength and leadership in a world then threatened by the Soviet Union. We supported an engaged foreign policy, a strong national defense and free trade. We thought that legislators should create the law and that judges should interpret it. We believed in limited government, in keeping taxes low and the burden of regulation light, and we thought that many of government's decisions should be made close to the people, at the state or local levels, not in Washington. I recall Jacob Javits, one of our most liberal Republicans, saying that ours was the pro-business party. I think that was a fair statement. We thought that more economic growth would occur, more jobs would be created and more opportunity would exist if the private sector thrived than if the federal government grew. These were, and I think still are, the beliefs Republicans hold in common.

Throughout my time in the Senate, abortion was an issue on which Republicans did not agree. And I remember one brief period of time when we heatedly debated the subject of prayer in public schools. But by and large, religion was not a political subject in those years. Certainly, our party had no religious agenda. In those years, we would have found the notion that people should "vote Christian" at least strange and probably offensive.

Since that time, the breadth of the Republican Party has narrowed. Gone are Javits, Case and Brooke; gone are Baker, Dole and Danforth. The band of Republican senators most people would call moderate now numbers a half dozen or so, and many would say good riddance, for as our party has narrowed its breadth, it has increased its strength. In 1977, I was one of only thirty-nine Republicans in the Senate, and our party was an insignificant minority in the House of Representatives. Now we have a majority in both houses of Congress.

This improved electoral status has occurred as the Republican Party has identified itself with the Christian Right, a development starkly exemplified by the government's extraordinary intervention in the case of Terri Schiavo. Responding to the demands of prominent Christian conservatives, Republican leaders rushed legislation through Congress in a frantic effort to keep a woman hooked up to a feeding tube, despite the findings of Florida courts that she was in a persistent vegetative state and had previously evinced a will not to be kept alive artificially. President George W. Bush flew from his Texas ranch to Washington on Air Force One to sign special legislation transferring jurisdiction of the Schiavo case to the federal courts. By intervening in the life and death decision of a specific individual, by transferring government power from the state level to the federal level and by conferring on a -federal court jurisdiction to overrule a state court, Republican leaders gladly abandoned principles that for decades had bound......

The Christian Right has championed a set of divisive issues that test the fealty of politicians. Often called wedge issues, their purpose is to split the country apart. Politicians who vote for the wedge issues know that they will win the support of the Christian Right. Politicians who vote against them can expect the opposition of the Christian Right. One of the wedge issues, outlawing early stage stem cell research, is currently of great importance in that, if successful, it would block the search for cures of terrible diseases. Another, abortion, has retained its function as a wedge, even though the passage of more than three decades since Roe v. Wade has largely settled the matter, both in the courts and in public opinion. Other issues-opposition to gay marriage and the use of religious displays and observances on government property-are of little intrinsic importance except as wedges. In each case, the issue energizes the base by pitting the "people of faith" against their enemies. The Christian Right's strategy of splitting apart the American people has worked.

Reprinted by arrangement with Viking, a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc., from FAITH AND POLITICS by Senator John Danforth Copyright © John Danforth, 2006.