The use of “wedge issues” by the Christian right to create a politics of polarization may win elections but does nothing to solve the nation’s problems, says former U.S. Senator John Danforth. Danforth, an ordained Episcopal priest, also doesn’t view it as particularly Christian.
“I think it is not the mission of the church,” Danforth said in a phone interview with EthicsDaily.com. “I think the mission of the church is wholeness and reconciliation. I think that’s what St. Paul told us and that’s what Jesus prayed. It’s a ministry of reconciliation we have. The political use of religion in a very divisive way–it is not my understanding of Christianity.”
In his new book, Faith and Politics: How the “Moral Values” Debate Divides America and How to Move Forward Together, Danforth says the Christian right has gained dominance in the Republican Party. The GOP in turn has abandoned Republican principles to cater to its religious base on divisive issues like stem-cell research, gay marriage, public displays of the Ten Commandments, judicial appointments and end-of-life issues related to the Terri Schiavo tragedy.
Danforth doesn’t argue Christians–even conservative Christians–ought to stay out of politics, but he rejects an assumption by the Religious Right that faith leads inexorably to a particular set of public policies. Creation of a political agenda in the name of religion soon becomes divisive, he writes, and can easily slip into idolatry.
By focusing entirely on wedge issues, Danforth contends, the right has created an atmosphere of hostility that makes it harder to find agreement on more important issues. Further, he told EthicsDaily.com, much of the rhetoric appears aimed not at accomplishing anything constructive, but rather to divide for the sake of division.
“The question I raise is, ‘Is religion in general and Christianity in particular basically divisive or reconciling?'” Danforth said. “Are we basically a reconciling or divisive force in the world?”
“You can make the case we are divisive,” he continued, quoting Jesus’ words “I come not to bring peace, but to bring a sword.”
“Jesus was not talking about divisiveness for the sake of it,” Danforth said, but about opposing anything contrary to the will of God. “There is so much I see in the New Testament about the ministry of reconciliation,” he said.
One Southern Baptist Convention leader is quoted as saying Danforth is an example of “what was wrong with the Republican Party and why they were a minority party.”
Danforth, a 26-year veteran in the GOP, responded: “I am certainly loyal to my party and believe in its principles.”
“I understand that some people believe it’s a good political strategy to create a religious agenda for politics,” he said. “I think if it’s a good strategy, it’s not a good long-term strategy.”
Danforth said he believes most Americans think the country shouldn’t be divided by religion. Even if the politics of polarization work, he said, “I think there are some things that are just not worth doing.”
“I think the challenge of America from the outset has been to hold people together,” he said. “We are so blessed by being in a country that is made up of so many different kinds of people.”
Danforth said moderate pastors, in particular, can help provide an alternative Christian witness to strident voices of the left and right.
“To think about a transcendent God is to think God is greater than any of our presuppositions about God, and particularly greater than any of our thoughts about politics,” he said.
“I think it’s really important for the churches to think about the question of humility versus certainty and the question of God’s transcendence versus kind of a smaller version of God that we can fit into our political thoughts.”
Danforth urged churches and pastors to take seriously the verse in Isaiah that says, “My thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are my ways your ways, says the Lord.”
“If we think our politics are the same as God’s politics, of course we’re going to be very divisive,” he said. “We’re on God’s side, and you’re not.”
“If you think there’s really a difference between politics and religion,” he said, “the Love Commandment is going to trump any political ideas that we have.”
Danforth is a former three-term U.S. senator from Missouri and former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations. In 2001, President Bush appointed him as a special envoy to Sudan, where he worked to broker a peace agreement that ended a 20-year civil war.
While there, Danforth said, he saw firsthand that stereotypes of Christianity being a peaceful religion and Islam one of violence don’t always hold. Danforth said as a Christian, he would like to believe Christianity is a religion of peace, but that conclusion cannot be taken for granted.
“Christians in the past and in the present have shown themselves capable of bloodshed in the name of religion,” he wrote in the book, “so the assumption that Christianity is a religion of peace has not always been borne out in reality.”
In that light, Danforth told EthicsDaily.com, comments like those recently attributed to Franklin Graham, who said Islam teaches its followers to “persecute” Christians and has a goal of “world domination,” are not helpful.
“Religion can be the reason, the rationale, for people killing each other,” he said. “I think it’s better not to say things that are inflammatory.”
Bob Allen is managing editor of EthicsDaily.com.
Order Faith and Politics: How the “Moral Values” Debate Divides America and How to Move Forward Together from Amazon.com.
Suggested resource for group discussion:
Looking at Leadership
Managing editor at EthicsDaily.com from 2003-2009, Allen wrote more than 1,500 news stories during his tenure.