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'The Relevance of Religion' reconciles faith to politics – and Americans to each other

John Danforth reflects on more than half a century of Christian faith, American government, and how knowing the difference can make our country work. 

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    The Relevance of Religion:
    How Faithful People Can Change Politics
    By John Danforth
    Random House
    288 pp.
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In 1994, nearly one quarter of Republicans were more liberal than your average Democrat, and 17 percent of Democrats were to the right of Republicans. Today, according to Pew, those numbers stand at 4 and 5 percent.

The distance across the aisle has grown by impassioned leaps and bounds, and to three-time Missouri Senator John Danforth, there’s little mystery to its chief byproduct: remarkably less and less governing, and more partisan politicking, in a shameful race to the bottom – of productivity, of civility, of genuine debate.

It’s hard to find a public servant – or party servant, more like it – who doesn’t claim to hanker after the bygone days of bipartisan civility: when Edward Kennedy and Orrin Hatch buddied up to pass an AIDS bill, or Senator Chuck Grassley, D-Iowa, sat down in the Senate Dining Room with Ted Stevens and Strom Thurmond. 

Those bemoaners, however, aren’t John Danforth, and "The Relevance of Religion" is more than complaint, or good-old-day reminiscence. But whether Danforth's serious argument for compromise, Christian love, and religiously-infused rift-healing can uplift a Trumpified national discourse is an uncertain proposition, with dangerously high stakes.

Danforth is a member of a disappearing political species, both on the page and off. Although it may be the least of his attributes, the three-time Senator from Missouri’s straightforward tone, at times risking patriotic platitude, seems to come from a place of sincerity and genuine desire to communicate. He’s a 79-year-old Republican politician and Episcopal priest who wants to say things that matter about his faith, his government, and how the one can help the other.

Torn between church and state as an increasingly reluctant theologian in seminary, Danforth found himself graduating from Yale University with a law degree and a divinity degree on the same day in 1963. It was an era before supposed "culture wars" had turned "Republican" and "Christian" into frequent synonyms, and the young graduate was unsure how he could serve two sometimes-separate realms.

Rather than treat that convergence as heaven-sent, Danforth has become one of the party’s strongest prophets against what he considers an unholy marriage of public faith and public policy, one that he feels turns faith into spectacle, and confuses the merely debatable with the sacrosanct. Most unforgivably, to Danforth, tying specific policies to religious convictions frames the human speaker as a divine mouthpiece, rather than a humble servant who aims to make life bearable for fellow-creatures, no matter how righteous (or unrighteous) they appear.

“My life shouldn’t be neatly compartmentalized between what I believe and what I do,” writes the former Missouri’s Attorney General and Ambassador to the United Nations: the man who led the Waco investigation, served as George W’s envoy to Sudan, and was also his second pick for VP (a fact that can’t help but prompt bittersweet what-ifs for readers). “So for nearly sixty years I have been trying to work out in my mind the relevance of my religion to my politics.”

The "Relevance of Religion: How Faithful People Can Change Politics" is, perhaps, the Cliffs Notes version of how Danforth has wrestled with that question throughout his career: two decades of policy-making, in which the devout Missourian mentioned religion on the Senate floor just once. (It was a debate on school prayer, which he opposed.)

Since then, his most frequent job seems to be reminding his party what "moderate" means – or by-the-book "conservative," pricking the side of an increasingly right-leaning Republican party that he finds vehemently opposed to compromise: a fault of Democratic politicians, too, but less frequently played out in the name of God. 

Those are themes he took up, very critically, his 2006 book "Faith and Politics: How the 'Moral Values' Debate Divides America and How to Move Forward Together." But Danforth’s solution for the country’s broken politics was hardly “take out the Christians,” as he makes clear in the aptly-titled "The Relevance of Religion." Faithful people, he says – a category which aims to embrace all religions but, to the book’s partial detriment, doesn’t step far outside Protestantism – do indeed have a mission in America: reconciliation.

A traditional conservative who eyes political gridlock, national debt, and overblown entitlement programs as the enemies of progress, as well as a man who affirms that “Christ of the Cross is the way, the truth, and the life,” Danforth believes Christians should channel their faith towards a humble, but insistent, call towards compromise, compassion, and the common good.

That means focusing on tone, and results, not particular policies, he emphasizes: "This healing ministry, not issue advocacy, can and should be the special gift of religion to America." It's not that religious values shouldn't come into play; it's just that deciding how exactly God-given ideals translate into legislation is a different business entirely, one where no one has a monopoly on truth. 

And we might not forget that if we just spent more time together, a seemingly simple proposition he argues at great length. The fundamental self-interest of politics only works when balanced by virtue, Danforth says, and virtue is noticeably absent in a "Bowling Alone," atomized culture. Entertainment centers have replaced family rooms or parlors, he notes, and even Capitol Hill culture now crams policymaking into 2.5-day sprints between fundraising. That leaves little room for getting to know colleagues, especially on the other side of the aisle — relationships that he believes are key to making "debates" more than grandstanding. 

Central to Danforth’s argument is the conviction that politics is one thing, and religion another – a far greater one, the “realm of absolute truth” and “battleground of good and evil,” for which we so often mistake politics. To deify a particular opinion — and the people who hold them, including ourselves — would be idolatry, says Danforth.

"The essence of religion is that the self is not the center of the universe," he writes, a nod to his attitude that "with regard to religion, I strongly believe, as Jesus taught, that there are many rooms in my Father’s house." But gestures towards faiths apart from Christianity appear only in similarly sweeping notions, scattered between scripturally-based conclusions.  

Lest the charge of idolatry not be enough of a deterrent, Danforth also outlines how holier-than-thou politics can backfire, worsening what he says is unprecedented political polarization. But politicians themselves aren't fully to blame: the guilt is shared with inflexible voters, especially single-issue ones, whose votes tell Congress that federal shutdowns are preferable to compromise. 

Some readers may feel that Danforth's words are particularly essential in the age of Trump. The faith-bound stubbornness Danforth has spent years pushing against seems nearly quaint, compared to its post-religious extreme: campaign rhetoric that spews naked hatred without the faintest cover of compassion towards anyone. Nor do short-sighted election instincts show the patient simmering of Danforth's sincere reflections, honed over a lifelong career. 

But the same qualities that make Danforth a moral opposite to Trump may go too far, creating the book's Achilles Heel. At times, "The Relevance of Religion"'s model of love, reason, and compromise can seem jarringly inadequate to the problems at hand. 

“Where evil exists – slavery and Nazism being historic examples – prophets must speak out against government,” Danforth asserts. “But suppose a situation far short of evil. Suppose merely competing interests and differing opinions. That is America today: a good country with a lot of good people who disagree with each other on a lot of issues.”

More than once, Nazism and slavery are brought out as examples of absolute "evil." “Every sentient person in Germany participated in or knew about the Holocaust. The claim that they didn’t know and therefore were not responsible is simply false,” Danforth states – a highly controversial claim. Perhaps what makes evil so insidious, after all, is the way it gradually takes hold, that one thing leads to another and only hindsight can provide the clarity that what’s just occurred was something different than "unfortunate" or "messy."

There are other, smaller problems with "The Relevance of Religion." We’re hungry for someone of Danforth’s authority to say the things he does, precisely because they’ve lost currency today. But the book can stretch into attempts to stringently argue its points with extended treks through game theory, or the Founding Fathers’ brand of virtue, sections that perhaps feel like attempts at the philosophical girding of someone like Reinhold Niebuhr, one of Danforth's heroes.

But for someone who hesitates to use the "prophetic voice," Danforth has sounded a much-needed clarion call for those who want to live their faith, but are also concerned with "getting on with the show" on this Earth, too. That's how Danforth once identified the goal of politics: a business that calls for compromise, community, and a good deal of faith in something. And that’s an increasingly lofty goal.

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