Danforth Says He is No Longer Obtuse about the Christian Right
Frederick Clarkson printable version print page     Bookmark and Share
Mon Sep 18, 2006 at 01:02:29 AM EST
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Former Senator John Danforth (R-MO),  has a book coming out on Tuesday: "Faith and Politics: How the 'Moral Values' Debate Divides America and How to Move Forward Together." This is not good news for the religious right, for which he has some strong criticisms consistent with his speaking and writing of the past few years. As a former GOP senator, U.S. Ambassador to the UN and an Episcopal priest, his words carry some weight. While I am glad that he is speaking out, and I have no doubt that he will add a thoughtfulf and helpful voice to the contemporary discussion of the role of religion and public life, my main criticism is that he should have and arguably could have done a lot more, a lot  sooner. Nevertheless, I say better late than never. Perhaps Danforth's high profile public criticisms of the religious right and the polititians that pander to it, will help others find find their voice. Who knows, maybe even some Democrats can be helped; particularly those who have not yet succumbed to the temptation to throw their principles overboard while attempting to appeal to conservative "values voters."  

Danforth offered this explanation to his home town newspaper, the St. Louis Post Dispatch, as to why he only recently has come to be speaking out: "Maybe I was obtuse," he said.

That, and Terry Schiavo.

Q: Religion and politics are two subjects themselves that are hard to reconcile. Have you been thinking about this your whole career?

A: For decades, I've been thinking about these two subjects, but not with the urgency of the past year and a half. This was triggered by the Terri Schiavo case; that was the specific tipping point in my own thinking. That was when I thought, "Something has gone very wrong here."

Q: But these signs have been around for at least a decade or so, haven't they?

A: Maybe I was obtuse. People like Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell have been involved in Republican politics for a long time. Of course, abortion has been a political issue since 1973. But in my own mind, it didn't have the urgency until the Schiavo case. In the past year or so, what was maybe a general interest of Robertson and others in politics and one particular issue, namely abortion, has been transformed into something much more detailed and much more a full-fledged political agenda.

You have Terri Schiavo, the stem-cell issue, the gay marriage issue, the Ten Commandments in courthouses - all occurring about the same time.

But, I thought, particularly with Schiavo, something different had happened: Namely, basic Republican principles had been tossed overboard at the bidding of Christian conservatives

Raw Story has some excerpts:

Some people have asked me whether America is a Christian country. The answer must be no, for to call this a Christian country is to say that non-Christians are of some lesser order, not full fledged citizens of one nation.

I believe that homosexuality is a matter of sexual orientation rather than preference," he writes. "Discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation is, in my view, comparable to discrimination on other civil rights grounds. It is wrong, and it should be prohibited by law.

I think that the only purpose served by the campaign for the amendment is the humiliation of gay Americans, advocated by the Christian right and eagerly supported by its suitors in the Republican Party," he adds. "In reality, it is gay bashing."

Here are some more quotes from the book being distributed by the Associated Press:  

This is not a coalition of traditional Republicans and the Christian Right in the nature of a merger of equals. This is the takeover of the Republican Party by the Christian Right. That is the significance of the Terri Schiavo case. It was the total victory of Christian conservative activism over broadly shared Republican principles, a victory won with no resistance from traditional Republicans.

There is a difference between being a Christian in politics and having a Christian agenda for politics. There were times when I believed that on a particular issue, I was doing God's will. My attempts to address the hunger crises in Cambodia and Africa were times of such belief, but such times were very rare. For the overwhelming majority of my time in public life, I had no certainty that my side was God's side.
God calls us to be faithful without handing us a political agenda. At least that's how I see faith and politics, but it is not how everyone sees faith and politics. Christian conservatives believe that God's will can be reduced to a political program and that they have done so. In their minds, there is indeed a Christian agenda for America and in recent years, they have succeeded in pressing it upon the Republican Party. It is an agenda comprised of wedge issues, which, when hammered relentlessly in political forums, divide the American people.

Again, while I welcome Senator Danforth to the conversation, I just want to say that it has been going on for a long time without him, that is, while he was still obtuse.

We are faced with a movement that is underming consitutional democracy in the United States. Elements of the movement are overtly theocratic; others are broadly dominionist, and they have been  gaining power -- and benefitted Danforth's political party during his years of silence.

Let's use great care to whom we listen about these things; or more accurately, how we listen to people about these things.  Danforth has an interesting perspective, but  he is not saying anything exceptional, and he waited until long after he retired before he started saying it.

Could it be that he was more than obtuse? But rather he was actually complicit in his silence? Had he, ahem, noticed that the Christian right was such a problem earlier and had taken a stand, it might have cost him his political career. Tough choice.

by Frederick Clarkson on Mon Sep 18, 2006 at 02:05:54 AM EST

It is good to see someone who is in government writing a book about this. It might open more eyes.

by Lorie Johnson on Mon Sep 18, 2006 at 11:25:57 AM EST
Danforth may help raise some awareness, but he has been out of government for a number of years.

by Frederick Clarkson on Mon Sep 18, 2006 at 01:06:46 PM EST

In the past year or so, what was maybe a general interest of Robertson and others in politics and one particular issue, namely abortion, has been transformed into something much more detailed and much more a full-fledged political agenda.

Danforth seems to have been asleep for three decades and appears to not yet be quite awake on this issue.

I don't understand how someone making statements like that, above, can be taken seriously. It is good that Danforth is "no longer obtuse", I suppose, except that the quote above seems to be the pinnacle of obtuseness.

My guess is that Danforth is trying - albeit rather clumsily - to claim that he's something other than absurdly late to the party.

But, Danforth's attempt to magically disappear three decades of political organizing and movement building, on the Christian right, is about as silly as trying to deny the Copernican Revolution and assert that the Sun still revolves arond the Earth : very silly, that is.

by Bruce Wilson on Mon Sep 18, 2006 at 11:28:10 AM EST

I think moderate conservatives like Danforth cynically believed they could use the Christian right to increase Republican power at minimal cost. And now they're realizing the price of that support is higher than they wanted to pay. Also, while it may have been obvious to many of the folks here at Talk2Action that the religious right has represented a serious threat for a good 30 years, that knowledge was not shared by most moderates or even liberals. In the 1980's, most Democrats seemed to consider the theocrats a temporary annoyance. When Clinton was elected, many were pronouncing the movement dead. It was not until the Bush years that most Democrats and moderate Republicans finally began to give this threat the respect it deserves. And even today, many Democrats seem less than eager to criticize the Christian right. So while I certainly wish Danforth had spoken out sooner, I find it hard to condemn him for his obtuseness, especially when so many Democrats have yet to speak out as strongly as he has.

by Dave on Mon Sep 18, 2006 at 08:48:23 PM EST
I thought I was being exceptionally kind.

by Frederick Clarkson on Mon Sep 18, 2006 at 09:20:36 PM EST
I was referring more to Bruce's comment above rather than your article.

by Dave on Tue Sep 19, 2006 at 03:37:20 AM EST
is to hit reply.

If you leave a "comment," then the assumption is that you are commenting on the post.

by Frederick Clarkson on Tue Sep 19, 2006 at 05:45:41 AM EST

You're correct that almost everyone in American society was blind to the rise of the Christian right over the last three decades. I was one of those too. And, the Democratic Party is still largely supine before the threat. Bleats of "we're faithful too!" simply play into the Christian right's long-term strategy.

It's good that Danforth is speaking out, but not so good that he is trying to rewrite history. The takeover of the Texas GOP was going on close to 2 decades ago ( Frederick Clarkson, Joe Conason, and a few others covered then )  and I find it hard to believe that Danforth was unaware of it at the time.

The claim that the Christian right movement simply popped into American political life last year is just absurd, and I think the claim undercuts Danforth's otherwise helpful message. The problem is that sort of claim muddies  - and mystifies - assessments of the Christian right. It places the movement in the realm of some sort of magical phenomenon : powerful political movements don't just "happen", and to the extent people think that they won't actually become reengaged enough to oppose the Christian nationalism.    

by Bruce Wilson on Tue Sep 19, 2006 at 08:36:01 AM EST

There's a great deal that's courageous in what Danforth is now saying.

by Bruce Wilson on Tue Sep 19, 2006 at 08:39:14 AM EST

especially on Fred's behalf, having spent his career shining a light on the rise of the religious right as an anti-democratic political movement.

And I feel that Danforth is at least being disingenuous in his implication that this is a recent phenomena, thereby suggesting that his own past and his own hands must therefore be clean. Dave is exactly right in his statement that the moderates cynicallywent along with it to solidify a base, but that does not excuse nor nullify Danforth's own complicity.

But more importantly, there is much to commend now that he claims to see the light and is speaking out.  He is highly respected by old fashion Republicans, and even by Missouri Democrats whom he served for many years, and his concerns will reach a lot of people.

Unlike Bruce, I am not too concerned that his sleight of hand "looky what happened all of a sudden like" will lessen the impact of his words, rather it ought to have the opposite effect and cause moderates, when they regain control of their party, to be more vigilant, fearing if they look away too long the party could again veer off course, all of a sudden like.

Let's temper our criticism awhile and see what happens. Danforth will take a lot of heat from the Christian conservatives. I'd hate to think that other potential critics would not speak out if they thought they'd come under fire would come from both sides.  

by Vesica on Tue Sep 19, 2006 at 09:14:56 AM EST

I look forward to reading his book, which seems to be more of a call to moderate faith than a critique of the religious right.  

It does not really takes much courage for a law school graduate and Episcopal priest and career politicitian to say that America was not founded as a Christian nation; and that the religious right is demagoging same sex marriage. We need to demand more of our leaders than that.  I think the content of his character will be judged less by the fact that he is speaking out a little bit, but on whether  his words and ideas begin to match the depth and breadth of the problem of the religios right. We need leaders of today, not the leaders we should have had 25 years ago. It will be wonderful to see if he rises to the ocasion.

But I think that people with a poor track record of leadership in these matters in the past, need to be scruitinized before we throw much in the way of trust or confidence in them.  That said, I am glad that John Danforth has something to say. Let'e hear it in its entirety.  I am guessing for a perspective on mainstream faith and a critique of the religious right, I will prefer Bob Edgar. But I promise to cast a wary eye on him too.

by Frederick Clarkson on Tue Sep 19, 2006 at 01:41:30 PM EST

soapbox and saying anything unpopular with conservative Christians takes a certain amount of courage these days...

I take it Bob Edgar is coming out with a book?

Wouldn't you expect that the readership of a book written by Edgar, percieved as a spokesperson for the religious left, (I know I know)  would be much diffferent than the type of reader that would be drawn to Danforth's book?

Danforth has the potential to alert and engage a segment of society... traditional economic republicans... that maybe aren't yet privy to the shift within the party.  I can see my neighbors, long time republicans, Christian, but not especially religiously oriented, and who hear only a small slice of this new religiosity and think somewhat dismissively, "a little bit of God is good for everybody", picking up Danforths book and being "reached"... but they would never pick up a book by a religious leader.

by Vesica on Wed Sep 20, 2006 at 04:27:53 PM EST

and that is fine... as far as it goes. I find Danforth's take to be very limited, and very limiting from what I have seen so far.  I hope there is more to it, but lets just say my expectations are low so perhaps I  am in for a pleasant surprise.  

And no, I find no unusual courage in his public stance. He is a major public figure who has lived his life in the roil of politics. By that standard,  I think his approach is pretty tepid. That does not change the fact that he will enjoy a certain persuasiveness with some who  would not necessarily listen to many of the rest of us.  And like I say, that's fine as far as it goes.

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