Former Republican Senator John Danforth has done what very few Republican Party leaders are willing to do–take on the Christian Right and criticize their own party for allowing itself to be taken over by the Christian Right.
In a new book, Faith and Politics, Danforth recalls that when he joined the Senate in 1977 the Republican Party had a breadth of membership. That breadth of different viewpoints has narrowed as the party’s electoral status has improved with its identification with the Christian Right.
“Republican leaders gladly abandoned principles that for decades had bound their party together in order to meet the demands of Christian conservatives,” he writes.
Leaders justified the union of their party and Christianity on the grounds that it resulted in electoral victors, says Danforth, who served for eight years as Missouri’s attorney general and for 18 years as a U.S. Senator.
“But 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,” he laments.
What awakened Danforth to this reality and perhaps trigged his book was the case of Terri Schiavo, who doctors had determined was in a persistent vegetative state and who had no living will.
“The sad case of Terri Schiavo convinced me of the Christian Right’s dominance in the Republican Party,” he writes.
He reminds the reader how Congress passed legislation to prevent the withholding of nutrition and hydration from Schiavo and how “on Palm Sunday 2005, President George W. Bush flew from Texas to Washington on Air Force One to sign it into law.”
Criticizing Senate majority leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) and Republican politicians in general, Danforth writes, “They intervened to satisfy the demands of their political base: the Christian Right.”
He says, “They intervened not in the name of principle, but at the expense of principle.”
In a scathing paragraph, Danforth recounts traditional Republican principles abandoned in the Schiavo case—most related to limiting government power.
“The enactment of legislation intended to keep Terri Schiavo hooked up to a feeding tube was a stunning victory for the Christian Right in winning control of the Republican Party,” says Danforth.
Danforth argues his traditional Republican principles with passion and recounts personal stories with compassion, both of which affect his support for controversial issues such as stem cell research. His own brother’s death from ALS no doubt shapes his advocacy for stem cell research that could lead to cures for that disease and others.
“The Christian Right has championed a set of divisive issues that test the fealty of politicians. Often called wedge issues, their purpose is to split the country apart,” he says.
These issues include stem cell research, abortion, opposition to gay marriage and religious displays in public buildings.
Danforth writes, “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 American, 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.”
That commitment to division runs counter to what Danforth expects from good religion.
For him, the question is not whether people of faith in general or the Christian Right in particular should be involved in politics. The question is how.
“Christians have a choice between reconciliation and divisiveness,” he argues, spelling out a path for Christians to travel in politics as a reconciling force.
Danforth writes, “Today’s conservative Christians do not practice reconciliation. They are combative, and they are divisive.”
People of faith, who oppose the religious right and its approach, whether moderate Baptist Republicans or centrist Baptist Democrats, will find Danforth’s book a fresh word in the war of words between extremists. They will find useable moral language and some light for another way forward—together.
Church reading groups would benefit from studying Danforth’s book.
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.
Robert M. Parham (1953 – 2017) was the founder and executive director of Baptist Center for Ethics from 1991 to 2017. He served as executive editor of EthicsDaily.com, BCE’s website, from its launch in 2002 until 2017.