John Danforth looks like a quintessential Republican insider but he is calling for a radical change in how his party operates.
During his appearance at Wednesday's Monitor-sponsored breakfast, the tall, silver-haired, deep-voiced, impeccably tailored Danforth looked and sounded like Hollywood's vision of a senator.
He comes with an impressive resume. Danforth's career includes two terms as Missouri's attorney general, three terms in the US Senate, heading the federal investigation into the Waco siege in 1999, serving as President Bush's special envoy to Sudan, and being named US ambassador to the UN. An ordained Episcopal priest, Danforth presided with eloquence and grace over memorial services for Katherine Graham, Ronald Reagan, and John Chafee.
But beneath the polished and calm exterior is a man upset with his party. Danforth is traveling the country promoting his new book, "Faith and Politics: How the Moral Values Debate Divides America and How to Move Forward Together." The book argues that Republicans have transformed their party into a political arm of conservative Christians.
"The name of the game has been not to compete for the center of American politics but to appeal to the base of each party and to attempt to energize the base," Danforth told reporters over breakfast. "For the Republican party, the base of our party now is the Christian conservatives.... The Republican party has done everything it can to appeal to that part of the base ... I think this is bad for the country and ultimately it is going to be bad for the Republican party because I think when the American people reflect on this they do not want a sectarian political party in this country. So what I am trying to do is encourage them to reflect on it."
Would his call for Christians to stress reconciliation and humility lead to a squishy version of Christianity with hard demands and radical stands removed? Danforth says it wouldn't.
"I think [Christianity] is basically reconciling. I don't think there is anything squishy about following the admonition of St. Paul to be ministers of reconciliation," he said. "I don't think there is anything squishy about believing in a God who is bigger than our political agendas and who is the judge of our political agendas.... What is weak is the notion that our faith is the servant of our politics."
Danforth, a graduate of Princeton, and both Yale's law and divinity schools, says he will not leave the party despite his unhappiness with its current course. "I am a Republican," he said. "I am a well-established Republican. I am not going to give up on my party. I just want it to get back to its moorings ... I just want them to disengage themselves from the Christian right."
A key issue for Christian conservatives recently was the Marriage Protection Amendment to the Constitution, which the Senate considered and rejected earlier this year. It would have defined marriage as the union between a man and a woman.
"The gay marriage issue is an issue that on its merits has no real substance," Danforth said. "That is an issue that is brought forward simply in order to make people angry.... If it is a political issue, it is an issue at the state legislative level. It is clearly not a constitutional issue. The constitution is about the structure of government and the relationship between government and the American people. The constitution is not about addressing social issues. We tried that with prohibition. That lasted 13 years. This is not a constitutional issue and to try to raise this as a constitutional issue is to be simply pandering and gay bashing."
With President Bush now in the final two years of his term, Danforth offered some observations on what direction the party should take next. "I would like to see our party debate whether or not we are a religious party ... I would like you in the media to raise that," he said. "Do we attempt to energize a base or reconstitute a center in American politics? Is there any possibility of creating a center on a bipartisan basis where we can help to resolve real issues?... The real questions do not concern whether there are crèches on public premises or whether gays in Massachusetts get married.... I would like to have a more centrist party and I would like to have a party that is less interested in making its election points than in trying to improve our way of dealing with very serious questions."