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.
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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."Skip to next paragraph
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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."
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."