Friday, January 19, 2007

John Danforth on the Episcopal Church, the Republican Party, and Values
Will Sullivan, US News

A man who was simultaneously a senator and an Episcopal priest seems an unlikely candidate to argue for disentangling the issues of church and state. But that's what former Missouri GOP Sen. John Danforth urges in his book Faith and Politics: How the "Moral Values" Debate Divides America and How to Move Forward Together. The debate isn't divisive only on Capitol Hill, however. Danforth, now 70, spoke to U.S. News as the Episcopal Church was shaken by the move by some of its oldest parishes to leave the church over its decision to consecrate a gay bishop.

Q: You say that the Terri Schiavo controversy inspired you to write Faith and Politics. Why?

A: I think two things got to me. One, that it was such an extraordinary government intervention into a particular individual's life-and-death issues. It horrified me. A lot of people are concerned that they or people that they love are going to be in positions where they linger for long periods of time on the brink of death, and the notion of being kept going artificially, I think, is abhorrent to a lot of people. Then the second thing that caught my attention was this was such an abandonment of what I thought were basic Republican principles. I did not think the Republican Party stood for the federal government and Congress getting into the business of taking matters beyond the state level and deciding them in Washington. I certainly didn't think the Republican Party stood for expanding the jurisdiction of the federal courts. So I thought that it was the throwing overboard of a number of basics at the bidding of religious activists.

Q: Did the GOP's ties to the Christian right play a role in the November elections?

A: I think people just decided that they didn't like Republicans, because we appear to be mean-spirited and angry and hard-edged. We've taken these very hard positions on wedge issues, and I think people have said, "This is not what we think. We don't think our country should be so divided." I think this is the appeal of [Illinois Sen. Barack] Obama right now. It's not that people have focused on his position on issues. I think they want a different tone in politics, and they see him as offering that.

Q: Are there still people in the GOP who are interested in moving back to the center, especially since many of the defeated Republicans were moderates?

A: It's certainly a much smaller group than when I was there. On the other hand, politicians are realists, and they want to be elected. They understand that if they continue unpopular approaches, they're not going to be elected.
Some of the same social issues have also proved problematic outside of politics, even in the Episcopal Church, which has a long tradition of tolerating a broad range of views. Why has the issue of a gay bishop been so divisive?
It's the wedge issue of all wedge issues. But I think what's remarkable is not that some people are terribly upset about this within the church, but how relatively few they are. I'm thinking of the one in San Joaquin [in California], which is a tiny, tiny diocese. Some of the other dioceses that are considering [breaking away] are also very small. So I think most people, when they go to church, they simply go to church. They're not thinking about gays all the time.

Q: What did you think about the decision to anoint a gay bishop?

A: Who the bishop of New Hampshire is is not something that's relevant to me, and I think that's the way most people see it.
Is there anything that the church should be doing to bring these people back?
I think to emphasize that we are traditionally a broad church and this has been our glory. I think a lot of people would say, well, the Episcopal Church is wishy-washy, that it doesn't really stand for anything. I think we stand for a lot. I think we stand for the idea that God cannot be encapsulated in our perceptions or in our views of political issues or social issues. It's saying that God is bigger than all these issues and bigger than any of our factions, and the church is big enough to include everything.

Q: What do you hope happens next with the message of your book?

A: My hope is that someone will run for president, as a Republican, hopefully, but that somebody will run for president and make a big issue of how in trouble we are if we become a wedge-issue, polarizing party and if we become identified with a particular religious perspective. Right now, it's just an idea. It's important for the idea to be embodied in somebody who's willing to carry it forward.

Q: Do you see any Republicans with that potential?

A: I don't have a favorite candidate yet, but one person who intrigues me is [Nebraska Sen.] Chuck Hagel. I don't know enough about him to know whether he would carry this banner, but I like his tone.

[Editor: I won't be voting for him, but I will be praying for the success of Republican moderates in turning their party around.]

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