Priest & GOP Senator, Danforth Blasts Party for Using Religion To Divide

Donning Clerical Collar, Danforth Slams GOP's Religious Rhetoric

from Religion News Service

Cambridge, Mass. - As a three-term U.S. senator and a former ambassador to the United Nations, Missouri Republican John Danforth has all the right credentials and connections to savor the spoils of his party's dominance in Washington.

Instead, at age 69, Danforth is combining his status as an elder statesman with his lesser-known role as an ordained Episcopal priest to raise uncomfortable questions about what he sees as the hefty costs paid for using religious rhetoric to fuel a political agenda. Since publishing two confrontational op-ed pieces in The New York Times earlier this year, Danforth has accepted a series of invitations to take his provocative questions on the road. This fall, he's a panelist at Notre Dame, a guest preacher at Harvard and Yale, and a featured speaker for Roman Catholic and Episcopal groups in Washington.

In late September, he ascended the ornately carved oak pulpit at Harvard's Memorial Church and let it fly before a rapt crowd of about 300.

"I've been away from (the Senate) for more than 10 years, and I see politics from a distance. And I'm appalled by what I see," said Danforth, who uses the nickname Jack.

"Right there in the midst of all the partisanship, in the midst of all the nastiness, right there with their wedge issues and litmus tests and extreme rhetoric, right there as the most divisive force in American life, are my fellow Christians."

For examples, Danforth notes how the Rev. Jerry Falwell urges voters to "Vote Christian" and Dr. James Dobson compares stem cell "research at Harvard to Dr. Mengele's experiments on Jews." (Though Dobson has likened the idea of embryonic stem cell research to experiments performed in Nazi Germany, his spokesperson said, he has not singled out research at Harvard.) In an interview, Danforth took religious liberals to task as well for sometimes being "snide" and "dismissive" of religious conservatives who make points "worth talking about, (such as) the coarsening of our culture and the collapse of standards."

In framing his central question - "Is religion essentially divisive or uniting?" - Danforth said his goal is to generate response and stir an overdue national discussion. When asked what's at stake, Danforth answered: "One of the biggest issues of our time is the role of religion in creating divisiveness to the point of bloodshed. And so what's the future?"

In terms of eliciting response, he seems to be succeeding. He said "scores" of Republicans - including top fundraisers, ambassadors, senators and Cabinet secretaries - have privately encouraged him with such comments as, "It's about time somebody said this."

Yet the chord Danforth is striking isn't music to everybody's ears. Carrie Gordon Earll, a spokeswoman for Dobson's Colorado-based group, Focus on the Family, accuses Danforth of being a "liberal" who is merely "criticizing those he disagrees with as being divisive." What's more, she said, he's not right about the purpose of religion.

"The purpose of religion is to speak truth," Earll said. "And in pointing truth to people and people to truth, there will be division because there are different ideas within these world religions of what truth is."

That religion has often played a divisive role through history Danforth acknowledges. Yet he argues from the pulpit that the Apostle Paul envisions a higher, attainable ideal when he advises in Philippians 2:2: "Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves."

Responses at Harvard were cautiously optimistic. One hearer said it's a good reminder to "not think you know what God is thinking," although a posture of humility might have limited value.

"It's absolutely a prescription for bringing the conflict down," said Robert Carney of Cambridge. "I'm not sure how good it is for advocating the position you think is right."

As for the man stirring the discussion, Danforth has until now never worn his vestments prominently. Ordained since 1964, he has always held low-key, part-time church duties, even when he served in the Senate from 1976 to 1994.

Still, Danforth's clout on his chosen topic may come largely from his persona as a "respected Republican" who has dared to denounce tactics that have unarguably helped his party secure the White House and both houses of Congress, according to David Gutterman, author of Prophetic Politics: Christian Social Movements and American Democracy.

"There are other people who are raising similar questions but don't have the credentials to speak across the political spectrum," said Gutterman, a political scientist at Linfield College in McMinnville, Ore. "He's able to speak as someone who's been well respected within Republican circles, to speak as a person with some degree of gravitas."

Over the coming months, Danforth said he intends to keep speaking and writing on the topic as opportunities emerge. He especially aims to reach people of faith.

"If they believe that the purpose of religion is to hold us together, then the second step is to then think of what we're doing now that works in the other direction, and what we can do to create a sense of greater inclusiveness and tolerance," said Danforth.

One suggestion he offers: Do away with church policies that restrict Communion to certain people. A second suggestion: "to say, quite consciously, that they do honor and respect what other people are saying."

In the end, Danforth said he is convinced the idea that religion should be a divisive force in America will prove to be "a short-term winning formula but a long-term losing formula."

"It can't stand the light of day," Danforth said. "Because the more widely people think about it and talk about it, the more it creates a negative reaction."


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