Former Republican Senator John Danforth rejected the idea of a Christian political agenda in his new book. The proposition is advocated by the Christian Right.
“Christianity does not give us an agenda for American politics,” Danforth wrote in Faith and Politics. “It does not provide policy positions that we can identify with certainty as being Christian.”
“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,” wrote the former three-term senator, who also served for a number of months as President Bush’s ambassador to the United Nations.
“Politics can be a way of expressing our Christian values, but politics is not Christianity,” said Danforth, who made a distinction between being a Christian involved in politics and “having a Christian agenda for politics.”
Danforth said Christianity does offer its members “an approach, a way of thinking about and engaging in politics, that, while not issue-specific, is highly relevant to our ability to live together as one nation, despite our strongly held differences.”
Based on his many years as Missouri’s attorney general and senator, he observed that most of the time he had no certainty that he was doing God’s will. On rare occasion, he said he was certain that he was on God’s side, such as the hunger crisis in Cambodia and Africa.
“For the overwhelming majority of my time in public life, I had no certainty that my side was God’s side,” he confessed.
“The problem with many conservative Christians is that they claim that God’s truth is knowable, that they know it, and that they are able to reduce it to legislative form,” he said.
The Missourian acknowledged: “If there is a Christian agenda for politics, what should it be? I, for one, cannot be certain.”
While conservative Christians might criticize Danforth on grounds he is trying to shove them out of political action, he stated clearly that the Christian Right should rightfully practice their citizenship.
“Christian conservatives have every right to participate in politics, but in their emphasis on wedge issues, they have deliberately created such political hostility that agreement on other issues is even more difficult,” he wrote.
Danforth, an ordained Episcopal priest, said: “Christians can have a profound effort on politics without espousing the wedge issues that drive Americans apart. The alternative to the activism of the Christian Right is not passivity, but a different kind of activism, one that emphasizes the reconciling quality of religion as opposed to its divisive force. Such an approach does not preclude taking specific positions on controversial issues.”
Faith “brings a struggle to do God’s will that always falls short of the goal,” he wrote. “It leavens the competing self-interests of politics with the yeast of the Love Commandment, but it seldom fulfills the Love Commandment. It makes us better participants in politics, but not the custodians of God’s politics.”
The former senator concluded his book with a chapter titled “Paul’s Primer for Politics.” Using Romans 12:1-21, Danforth outlined, “How a Christian might approach politics.”
Danforth began with Paul’s admonition to Christians in first-century Rome: “Do not be conformed to this world.”
American Christians today have “a strong inclination to let our politics determine our faith rather than the other way around,” wrote Danforth. “By confusing faith and politics, we become conformed to this world.”
He wisely urged Christians to take responsibility for redressing the polarization in politics, for “substituting the ministry of reconciliation for the strategy of divisiveness.”
Christian Right leaders will ignore Danforth’s book, hoping their rank-and-file members never hear what he has to say about their leadership. The left will doubt Danforth’s pragmatism related to countering the right’s wedge issues.
Centrist Christians, pastors in particular, will gain an ally in Danforth to hold off the Religious Right, as well as a constructive sense of direction for addressing Christian citizenship.
Robert Parham is executive director of the Baptist Center for Ethics.
Order Faith and Politics: How the “Moral Values” Debate Divides America and How to Move Forward Together from Amazon.com.