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Faith and Politics

February 20th, 2009 by jimm wetherbee in Reading EKScursions

Faith and PoliticsFaith and Politics: How the “Moral Values” Debate Divides America and How to Move Forward Together by John C. Danforth (Viking 2006).

For those who do not not follow such things, the three-term former senator from Missouri is a conservative Republican of the Old School. That is to say, he of the live-and-let-live variety who believes folks are at their best when left alone, that political power should be distributed and held closest to citizenry rather at the federal level, that encouraging business is generally a good thing in that it empowers individuals, that federal budget deficits are generally bad things, and each branch of three branches of government should uphold its own integrity without imposing itself on the other two. For those who follow politics only to a slight degree, one might remember John Danforth as the senator who sponsored Clarence Thomas’ appointment by George H. W. Bush to the Supreme Court—and so earning praise from the very people he would now criticize and scorn from those whom he would now enlist. After the Clarence Thomas affair, Mr. Danforth set down his recollections of the events in his book The Resurrection of Clarence Thomas. That he should have so titled the book is not entirely surprising since Senator Danforth is also an Episcopalian priest and is generally seen as a religious moderate. One might presume by “moderate” that Mr. Danforth is an orthodox Nicene Christian (as he himself declares) without being a biblicist. As one might expect then, Faith and Politics is part memoir and part sermon fused into a tame manifesto.

The over-arching theme of Faith and Politics is that of the relationship between religious belief and political discourse and how one informs the other. Against the one hand that would see all political programs as derived from divine revelation (e.g., the Bible in the case of Christians) and on the other those would relegate religion to the sphere of private morals (which–like prohibition–cannot be successfully legislated, or so it is said), Danforth advocates that faith should teach us to be humble when it comes the exact nature of our summum bonum and that loving God is demonstrated on how we love our fellow human beings. These two are related by various stories Mr. Danforth tells (often at his own expense). What the stories attempt to illustrate is his conviction that faith does not provide an exact road map of how governments or economies should be structured, what powers a government should have, or what their foreign or domestic policies should be. Rather, the Christian faith (and the Bible) teach people as a society are to relate to one another for their own best good. Danforth goes on to say that he is the sort of traditional conservative he is because those ideas appear to him to best fulfill what the Church and scripture teach that we ought to be doing—but that he could be wrong. In doing so, he is taking a gentle swipe at both liberals—Jim Wallis gets special mention here—and conservatives who justify their programs as the fulfillment of some biblical imperative. Closely tied to this is his exploration of the Love Commandment (See: Matthew 22:37-40, Mark 12:29-31, and Luke 10:27) stating that we should love God with our all our heart mind and strength and likewise our neighbors as ourselves. Beyond saying that loving our fellow human beings entails working for their best good, the Love Commandment is a bit short on specifics. Here is where Danforth would say that Bible is filled with illustrations but not programs on how individuals are to act and what societies can do to promote that highest good. Such fuzziness requires a return to his previous point of humility. This is not a weak or passive humility, however. Mr. Danforth has no problem urging all sides to vigorously advocate and work for their causes, but do to so with the recognition that one’s interlocutors—while diametrically opposed—may well also be persons of integrity and also acting, with as much insight, for the good of all. The problem with such a stance is—as one reviewer observed—if Republicans had taken the road Mr. Danforth advocates, they would likely still be the minority party instead of being the dominate political force in American society since the Reagan Administration. Such an observation does lead to the question of how it is that the Republican Party, once identified with business executives, northeastern elites, Episcopalians, and the closest thing America has ever had to an aristocracy, could now be dominated by what is often called the Religious Right and Evangelicals. Mr.  Danforth does not so much examine what he sees as the takeover of the Republican Party by the Religious Right as testify to its effects both to his party and to the polarizing effect that it has had. The Democratic Party is now mostly identified not only with liberalism but as throughly secular, being either hostile toward or at least curiously ashamed of religious faith and heritage. What little explanation he does provide is more on the level of speculative pop psychology. What is heartening is that Mr. Danforth does not display any rancor or betray any sense that the party he loves has left him. Throughout Faith and Politics he remains hopeful.

What is very refreshing about Faith and Politics is the various positive stories of how faith and politics (within the framework Mr. Danforth provide) can work and when the framework is ignored do not. These include the Terri Schiavo case, abortion, the stem cell controversy, and gay marriage among others.

In the end there is a call for what Mr. Danforth terms “Moderate Christian Soldiers” to become more engaged in what he hopes to be a more rational discussion. The problem here is that like the Republican Party before Reagan, such a coalition is bound to be a minority force unless the Religious Right collapses of its own accord in much the same way that the Secular Left appears to have. To an extent, Mr. Danforth has aggravated this not simply by his insistence that each party respect the common dignity of the other and hold their convictions with a certain amount of humility, but he often advocates positions that run counter to the Religious Right (up including positions on gay marriage opposed by a fair number of more conservative Episcopalians, who none the less would not be considered part of the Religious Right). Reviews of Faith and Politics in more conservative organs clearly show that the Right has no interest in talking to Moderates and would just assume lump them with Liberals. After all, if one is absolutely sure in one’s own mind, what argument can be made with someone else whose views are more tentative? What are we left with? Moderates talking and engaging each other? A perpetual minority discussing what they would do—should they ever agree—should power swing the other way? I suppose if one is such a Militant Moderate, one can only hope. I should hope that you read Faith and Politics and feel free to disagree with John Danforth, provided that you can admit that he intends for your best good and that he might be right—at least some of the time.

Jimm Wetherbee

Faith and Politics is no longer held, but if it looks good, you can still get it on InterLibrary Loan.