Former United States senator and U.N. ambassador John Danforth claims his Republican Party is being held hostage by the religious right.

“By a series of recent initiatives, Republicans have transformed our party into the political arm of conservative Christians,” Danforth wrote in a Wednesday op-ed piece in the New York Times.

“The elements of this transformation have included advocacy of a constitutional amendment to ban gay marriage, opposition to stem-cell research involving both frozen embryos and human cells in petri dishes and the extraordinary effort to keep Terri Schiavo hooked up to a feeding tube.”

“Standing alone, each of these initiatives has its advocates, within the Republican Party and beyond,” Danforth wrote. “But the distinct elements do not stand alone. Rather they are parts of a larger package, an agenda of positions common to conservative Christians and the dominant wing of the Republican Party.”

Danforth is an ordained clergyman in the Episcopal Church. He represented Missouri in the U.S. Senate 18 years and resigned as U.S. ambassador to the United Nations in December. A respected figure in the Republican Party establishment, Danforth said congressional involvement in the Schiavo case “can rightfully be interpreted as yielding to the pressure of religious power blocs.”

“I do not fault religious people for political action,” Danforth continued. “Since Moses confronted the pharaoh, faithful people have heard God’s call to political involvement. Nor has political action been unique to conservative Christians. Religious liberals have been politically active in support of gay rights and against nuclear weapons and the death penalty. In America, everyone has the right to try to influence political issues, regardless of his religious motivations.

“The problem is not with people or churches that are politically active. It is with a party that has gone so far in adopting a sectarian agenda that it has become the political extension of a religious movement.

“When government becomes the means of carrying out a religious program, it raises obvious questions under the First Amendment. But even in the absence of constitutional issues, a political party should resist identification with a religious movement. While religions are free to advocate for their own sectarian causes, the work of government and those who engage in it is to hold together as one people a very diverse country. At its best, religion can be a uniting influence, but in practice, nothing is more divisive. For politicians to advance the cause of one religious group is often to oppose the cause of another.”

Danforth isn’t the only Republican questioning whether the party has moved too far in seeking to unite and mobilize religiously motivated voters.

“This Republican Party of Lincoln has become a party of theocracy,” Representative Christopher Shays of Connecticut said recently. “There are a number of people who feel that the government is getting involved in their personal lives in a way that scares them.”

Religious leaders including Richard Land of the Southern Baptist Convention and James Dobson of Focus on the Family are given much credit for mobilizing their constituents to re-elect President Bush. Since the election, they have been vocal about holding Republican leaders accountable on issues like a federal marriage amendment and abortion.

In recent weeks, however, the conservative Christian voice has united around the cause of Terri Schiavo, a 41-year-old, brain-damaged woman who died Thursday in a Florida hospice, 13 days after a court-ordered removal of her feeding tube.

“Terri Schiavo has become the poster girl for whether or not our people are going to force the legal system to give us the society we want,” Land, president of the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, said recently on his radio show.

“We are seeing this in case after case after case with homosexual marriage, with abortion, with the Terri Schiavo case,” Land said. “Are we going to have a government of the people, by the people and for the people, or government of the judges, by the judges and for the judges?”

Land isn’t alone on the religious right in thinking the Schiavo case shows their agenda is more realistic than ever. “When I heard that Senate minority leader Harry Reid was with us, I thought I had died and gone to heaven,” CNN quoted Louis Sheldon, chairman of the Traditional Values Coalition, as saying. “[This] says that being pro-life is respectable and has political credibility. The issue is broadening; it isn’t just abortion.”

Opponents to the religious right, meanwhile, hoped that backlash to the Schiavo case would serve as a wake-up call for moderate Republicans to reclaim the party’s center.

A March 23 CBS News Poll found that 82 percent of Americans believed Congress and the president should stay out of the Schiavo matter. Three out of four (75 percent) said the government should avoid life-support decisions altogether, and 74 percent said they believed Congress got involved in the case to advance a political agenda rather than because they cared for Terri Schiavo.

“Religious Right leaders are determined to run all of our lives, from the moment of conception through the end of life,” warned Barry Lynn of Americans United for Separation of Church and State.

A conservative commentator, meanwhile, described Danforth’s essay as “really a poorly camouflaged complaint that his positions on stem-cell research, gay marriage and Terri Schiavo are not the positions of the Republican Party.”

“It is fair for him to try and persuade people to endorse his positions, but it is wrong and demagogic to attempt to question the right of people of faith to participate in politics,” radio commentator Hugh Hewitt wrote in the Weekly Standard.

“[A]lthough Danforth asserts that ‘I do not fault religious people for political action,’ the intention of his essay is to encourage the Republican Party to reject the efforts of religious people to influence the party’s agenda,” Hewitt wrote.

Danforth discussed his intent in writing the column in an interview with the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.

“It becomes extraordinarily divisive, and legislatures get themselves entangled with writing religious documents into legislative form,” Danforth said. “It’s exactly what the Constitution says we can’t do, and it’s exactly what we can’t do if we want to keep the country glued together.”

“I’m surprised people have been so mute about this,” he said. “I thought if nobody was saying this, I should.”

Bob Allen is managing editor of

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