Backstory: 'St. Jack' hits the religious right

Former Senator Jack Danforth, an ordained priest and GOP elder, wants religion to be less overt in politics.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

He still recalls vividly the moment that politics became his life ambition. On a trip east from their Missouri home, young Jack Danforth, just 10 years old, and his family visited the Senate gallery and watched the floor action below. It was instantly clear to him that he wanted to be a United States senator. He wasn't even put off by his father's departing comment: "What a bunch of windbags."

"How many people can say their childhood dream from age 10 became a reality?" chuckles the lifelong Republican, who served his state for 18 years in the Senate.

Now a senior statesman with a host of "formers" before his name – former presidential special envoy to Sudan, UN ambassador, investigator of the Branch Davidian disaster in Waco, Texas – you'd think he'd rest on his laurels.

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But Mr. Danforth has a new ambition: rescuing his beloved Republican Party and country from what he sees as a great danger – the too-intimate fusing of religion with politics. And his crusade is causing a stir within GOP circles because of who he is: Not just a party elder, but also a man of the cloth – an ordained Episcopal priest. "The question is not whether people of faith should engage in politics, but how we should go about doing so ... and whether we become a divisive or reconciling force in our country," says Danforth in a phone interview.

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Danforth is a lanky Midwesterner with a man-of-the-mountain visage and a thick shag of gray hair. While in college, though still harboring political ambitions, he was inspired by religion courses enough that he began questioning his long-held plans for law school.

He even stunned his fiancée, Sally Dobson, by announcing in her family's living room that he'd decided to go to seminary – a declaration not greeted with enthusiasm by a young woman who'd seen clergy life close up. Pulled in two directions, Danforth earned law and divinity degrees from Yale University in the same year. Though he opted for the law, he has stayed active in some aspect of ministry ever since – and even presided at President Reagan's funeral.

It's not discomfort with religious values in public life that's behind his new drive, the senator insists, but concern that religion is being used to deliberately divide Americans. Politics practiced rightly is the glue that keeps a diverse nation together and the catalyst that moves it forward, he believes. Yet today the political arena is plagued by rancor and incapable of resolving the most crucial issues confronting America. He sees a link between that unhappy state and the power of Christian conservatives within his own party. He's stirring a ruckus, he hopes, so that others will speak up.

He wrote two blunt op-eds in The New York Times last year decrying the "takeover" of the Republican Party by the Christian right and calling for recognition that people of faith can disagree on issues.

This week, as the US political campaign intensifies, he hopes to spur more discussion with the publication of "Faith and Politics." Both a memoir and a presentation of the issues posed by today's religio-political agenda, the book offers what he views as a desirable alternative. Describing bipartisan achievements by centrists in the Senate, it asserts that the center is where action beneficial to the nation occurs.

Danforth hasn't been averse to adopting a moral tone himself. During his senate career (1976-95), he put such a premium on taking the moral high road that he was dubbed "St. Jack" by his critics. He fell from that high horse in the eyes of some when he marshaled support for Clarence Thomas's nomination to the Supreme Court in 1991. Mr. Thomas was a close friend and a former aide, and the senator has acknowledged that he played tough in denigrating Anita Hill and her charge of sexual harassment.

But that didn't lose him friends among the more conservative Republicans. His latest move, however, stirs a bit of ire. "It's my understanding that in a democratic country it's up to the people to decide what's best for the country, not its self-appointed advisers like St. Jack," says Richard Land of the Southern Baptist Convention, a prominent White House adviser from the religious right. "I'd point out that when people like Jack Danforth were in control, it was a minority party. It's now a majority party, and one reason is the major element in its coalition of social conservatives, both Catholic and Protestant."

What ultimately drove Danforth to action was the Terri Schiavo case. To him, Republican leaders "abandoned with ease" the party's principles against government intervention in individual lives and federal intervention in state matters when they sought to block the removal of her feeding tube – just to please the Christian right.

Then there are the stances on stem-cell research and the federal marriage amendment, which he says are attempts to legislate a particular religious view. Republicans in Missouri are trying to make stem-cell research a criminal offense, and Danforth, an abortion opponent, has done a TV ad opposing the legislation.

Dr. Land questions his criticism of the Christian right's use of wedge issues: "Who was it that made same-sex marriage a political issue? Who made abortion on demand an issue? The activist courts. Most of the activity he's upset about is defending against attacks on the status quo."

Danforth isn't interested in exchanging one agenda for another, he says, but in seeing faith put its best foot forward in politics. "What religion should do is bring a degree of humility and a recognition that 'I'm not God's oracle, and others with whom I disagree are equally well motivated and trying to live faithful lives,' " he says.

Instead of a crusade of wedge issues, he proposes a Christian ministry of reconciliation to address unresolved problems: the budget deficit, a policy to make America energy-independent, the looming entitlement program shortfall, and "how we deal with a post-9/11 world."

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In 2001, President Bush sent Danforth to Sudan to work for an end to the decades-long civil war between the north and south, which revealed something about his principles and political style. He supported Africans in brokering a comprehensive peace agreement, which is fragile but has so far held.

Early on, he brought Christian and Muslim religious leaders in Khartoum together, hoping for mediation. The Christians rejected the idea. The one kindred spirit he found was a prominent Muslim clergyman. After several private meetings, Ahmed al-Mahdi hosted a dinner on the banks of the Nile, inviting many of his coreligionists. In a speech, he promoted the vision of Sudan in which everyone could live "together as equals."

"In my lifetime, I have met two people whose physical appearances have exuded their inner spirituality.... One was Pope John Paul II, the other was Ahmed al-Mahdi," Danforth says.

During his 2004-05 posting at the UN, Danforth got then-Secretary of State Colin Powell's approval to discuss setting up a mediation service with other countries to address the religious aspects of conflicts. To his disappointment, people responded that the problems were difficult enough without addressing religion.

What most moves him now is the divisive role of religion at home and abroad – and the need to think about it more seriously. "It's hard for the US to talk about religion as a reconciling or divisive force in the Middle East while it is being used in a political, wedge-issue fashion in the United States," he says. "We can't leave this debate to people who are the more militant or divisive."

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