In politics as much as in any other realm of life, there's a difference between talking about religion and being a thoughtful religious person. There's been a great deal of religious rhetoric in American political life of late. I'm interested in finding people who can reflect theologically — who can reflect, that is to say, on the meaning and implications of their words about God and of the import of these things to the world. Of course, many of the people who are steeped in the nitty-gritty work of politics feel they can't speak frankly about personal faith precisely because they are in public office.
Prior to the last presidential election, I had a fascinating interview with Joseph Califano, a veteran Democratic political operative of the 1960s and the President Carter era. At that time, as a complement to the Califano program, we requested an interview with John Danforth, who is an Episcopal priest as well as a Republican politician and statesman. He had just been appointed by President Bush to be the United States Ambassador to the United Nations. He declined our initial request, citing the demands of his new post.
John Danforth, like Joseph Califano, came to maturity in the America of John Kennedy. That era's dynamic between politics and religion has turned inside out in our time. Kennedy became president after he convinced the American electorate that he would not let his Catholic convictions override his policies as a public servant. In the election of 2004, by contrast, Catholic presidential candidate John Kerry struggled to convince American voters that religious convictions would inform his presidency.
But the American tension between religion and politics continues to evolve. In 2004, John Danforth was still considered a dyed-in-the-wool conservative by most Democrats. If they knew him as a religious person, it was as the Episcopal priest who presided over the funeral of Ronald Reagan. By the time he accepted Speaking of Faith's long-standing request for an interview, he had unwittingly become a darling of the liberal establishment — a turn of events that provokes both his consternation and surprise.
Danforth's public image changed when he published a series of Op-Ed pieces in The New York Times shortly after stepping down after six months as America's U.N. Ambassador. He decried what he called a transformation of the Republican Party into the political arm of conservative Christians. And he "came out" as "a moderate Christian." He was interviewed widely at that time, including on National Public Radio. But little attention was paid to how he had navigated his own dual callings as Episcopal priest and Republican politician in the first place. He graduated with degrees in law and divinity from Yale on the same day in 1963. Across his years of public service, he continued to worship and to preach regularly.
For John Danforth, the "love commandment" — the biblical injunction to love one's neighbor as oneself — is the only absolute commandment given to Christians. And his theology itself tells him that laws and politics can only incorporate the love commandment, or any of the deepest tenets of faith, in a limited and imperfect way. He finds this wisdom mirrored, in fact, in what he considers the traditional values of the Republican Party.
He was driven to make public his concern about religious dynamics in his party by the case of Terri Schiavo, the Florida woman who was taken off life support after a bitter legal struggle between her parents and her husband. There he saw Republicans ignoring the rulings of state courts, circumventing local authorities and people, and moving the action to Washington. That, he says, is not how Republicans traditionally behave. But his corresponding religious point on this issue is equally provocative. He points out that the Christian edict to love one's neighbor compelled people on both sides of the Schiavo debate and led them to different conclusions.
In other hot-button issues of our day, such as stem cell research, Christians, like people of other faiths, can and do reach a range of positions while seeking to honor the same virtues and values. He is quick to defend the right and even the duty of faithful people to bring their deepest values with them into public life. But he would like to see religious people of all stripes, including his conservative Christian colleagues, wear their religious principles with humility. He believes that the highest duty of churches in our culture is to become places where virtues like humility and reconciliation are manifest and modeled.
John Danforth is clearly a man with a mission within his own party. But I am most compelled precisely by the humility he would bring to our entire culture's analysis of the complex intersection of Christianity and politics. He provides sophisticated reflection — from a lifetime in both realms — on the complex way in which religious virtues and political processes can both benefit from and limit one another. Here, in closing, is a passage from his new book:
"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 fulfills the Love Commandment. It makes us better participants in politics, but not the custodians of God's politics."