John Danforth On Faith, Evangelicals And Politics

Many know John Danforth as a former three-term U.S. Senator from Missouri, and former Ambassador to the United Nations. But the Midwestern Republican's interests stretch far beyond politics. Danforth is also an ordained Episcopal priest. The public servant talks openly about his faith and why he believes right-wing evangelicals have done more harm than good for the GOP.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

We're broadcasting live today from member station KWMU in St. Louis, Missouri. Coming up, St. Louis gets a shape up in the Barbershop. But first our regular Faith Matters conversation. That's where we talk about matters of faith and spirituality. Today, a conversation about the intersection of faith and politics with a man who has lived his adult life in both worlds.

I'm joined by former United States Senator, former United States Ambassador to the United Nations, the Reverend John Danforth. He is a Republican. He served Missouri as attorney general before serving three terms in the U.S. Senate. He served as special envoy to Sudan and ambassador to the U.N. in the George W. Bush administration. He is also an ordained Episcopal priest and author of "Faith And Politics: How the Moral Values Debate Divides America and How to Move Forward Together." He was kind enough to join us from his office. Welcome.

Reverend JOHN DANFORTH (Episcopal Priest): Thank you very much, good to be with you.

MARTIN: And I'm not quite sure how to address you, senator, ambassador, reverend - which do you prefer?

Rev. DANFORTH: Well, people have told me all kind's of terrible things, so take your pick.

MARTIN: I'll call you Reverend for this conversation, how would that be? All right.

Rev. DANFORTH: Fine.

MARTIN: And to that point, you got your degrees from Yale Law School and Yale Divinity School on the same day in 1963. Did you always plan to combine both vocations, as it were, or was that something you just figured out along the way?

Rev. DANFORTH: No. When I was young and until I was, I guess, a junior in college my intention was to go to law school and I was very interested in politics. I had no intention of going to divinity school or getting ordained. That all happened later and then once I was in divinity school, it didn't take too long for me to realize that the parish ministry wasn't for me. So by the time that I could unwind it I was pretty much finished with my degree. So I got both degrees at the same time and I was ordained and I was admitted to the bar.

MARTIN: But you have served at various points as - I know when you were in Washington, you served on occasion at the Cathedral, and I know that you've served, many people have seen you in occasions of state where you've assisted when public leaders were laid to rest. So do you see in a way your political work as part of ministry or do you see your ministry as part of politics, how does that work together?

Rev. DANFORTH: I've done them both, although most of my time has been spent in government work or in the practice of law. I always did the ministry work on just a volunteer basis. But I think that, you know, I am both but it's very important if you're in public life not to mix the two up. It's very important to not to be really a representative of a religious position in government. That's not the way the country's put together.

MARTIN: In fact you've talked about that in recent years. In 2005, in a piece in The New York Times, you created quite a stir when you said that - well, the opening line of the piece is that through a series of initiatives, Republicans have transformed our party into the political arm of Christian Conservatives. And you cited a number of things that were very big issues at the time, like the Terri Schiavo debate, and the whole question of stem cell research. Now, you know, after this last election where Republicans did not do particularly well the party seems to be bit of a crossroads. How would you like to see the party address these issues of faith now?

Rev. DANFORTH: Religious people are going to be involved in government and in politics, and that's good and I'm one of them. But I think when you do it, it's important to do it with a great degree of humility and recognize that your point of view is not necessarily God's point of view, it's just your political point of view. And that you have to be tolerant of people who don't agree with you and not just assume that, well, these are evil people. It's just a difference of opinion. So I think that humility is important for religious people who are involved in politics.

MARTIN: You think that's what's been lacking in recent years, a sense of humility about one's own correctness?

Rev. DANFORTH: I think so, I mean, I really think that the separation of church and state is important. And it's important not to create the impression that some people have a pipeline to God and the other people don't and to draw the distinction on the basis of political participation or positions on various issues.

MARTIN: How do you think that President Obama is doing in this area, I mean, he's been very - over the course of the campaign and even as he's been in office, he's been very vocal about what his faith means to him. And in fact, as you remember, during the campaign his home church became an issue in the campaign. Now that he's been in office, he's reached out to Conservative Christians in a manner which has not always been appreciated necessarily by his liberal supporters. So how do you think he is doing in managing this question of allowing his faith to animate his work but not being, I don't know, being humble in it, in your words?

Rev. DANFORTH: Well, I think that's the way to do it. I mean, I don't agree with President Obama on some policy issues but as far as the relationship between his religious faith and his public life, I think he's got it right. I don't have any objection to it all. He is a person who has been and is a practicing Christian. And I'm sure that that informs the kind of person he is and the kind of outlook he has, but he hasn't tried to create the impression that, you know, I'm on God's side in a particular political controversy and the people on the other side are against God. He hasn't done that at all.

MARTIN: He has talked some about the abortion issue and - but his pro-choice stance has triggered some controversy. In the upcoming week he's been invited to receive an honorary degree and present the commencement at the University of Notre Dame. And I don't know if you've followed this but it's caused a big stir. There are a number of conservative Catholics who criticize the university for extending this honor. They say it should never have happened. You know, since you've written about this whole question of how do you move forward on these issues, what would you say about that?

Rev. DANFORTH: The important thing to do is to just recognize that you're not God and your political positions aren't the same as God either. And it's idolatry to confuse the two. It's something that's talked about in the Bible a lot, the problem of idolatry, of confusing who you are and what you think with who God is and what God thinks. So it's really important, I think, to have a degree of humility. I think religious people are, a lot of them are very engaged in government, have very strong views of public policy. And hopefully those views are informed by the kind of people they are. But you have to really watch it when you're drawing a connection between the political position and a religion.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, you're listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News. For our special broadcast from St. Louis, I am speaking with former United States Senator from Missouri, John Danforth. He is also the Reverend John Danforth. And we are talking about the intersection of faith and politics. One of the other things that you've talked about since you left office is the increase in polarization, partisan polarization in our politics. Do you -what's your assessment now, I mean, do you feel that that's getting better, getting worse?

Rev. DANFORTH: It's certainly not getting better. I think that it's, it's too bad, we're too polarized politically. Politics has always been about differences of opinion and that's fine. And I think that there are clearly differences of opinion between most Republicans and most Democrats. But in the 14 plus years since I've been in the Senate, I think that there has been a major shift toward a more and more partisanship and that that's unfortunate. I served for 18 years on the Senate Finance Committee which is the committee that deals with taxation and international trade and Medicare and other issues. And the only way to get anything done was on a bi-partisan basis and we did accomplish a lot on that committee.

Well, I think that that bi-partisanship is largely gone and there is a great emphasis on each party positioning itself to put the other party in a bad light. And I think that that's unfortunate.

MARTIN: One of the tougher battles that you were involved in when you were in the Senate, which is something that I covered, the nomination to the Supreme Court of Justice Clarence Thomas. When you look back on that is there anything you would have done differently?

Rev. DANFORTH: It's very hard for me to say that there is anything I could have done differently because it was like walking down the street and getting in a fight in an alley. I mean, it was just awful. It was just an absolutely terrible situation. And for the people that wanted to defeat him, there was no limit, just anything goes. And I thought it was awful. And I hope that that doesn't happen to any other nominee. It's not worth it. It's not worth trying to destroy a human being to win a political point.

MARTIN: I think that there are people on both sides who feel that there was a lot of win-at-all-costs on both sides of that discussion. You don't think so?

Rev. DANFORTH: Well, we had - two days before the vote was scheduled, there was no doubt that Clarence Thomas was going to be confirmed by the Senate and then out of the blue came this, you know, terrible charge against him. And it was just dreadful to live though. And it's certainly not a fight I wanted to be in. It was absolutely the worst experience of my life. I mean, to see somebody you care about who was being just really dissolved into tears, and it's just awful to see that happen to somebody.

MARTIN: Is there something that would make that different, that would change things like that or could prevent things like that?

Rev. DANFORTH: Well, I think public revulsion. And I hope that, you know, now that we've got a Democrat president and a Republican minority in the Senate, I hope Republicans don't see this as payback time. I just hope they don't. I hope they don't say, well, you know, they did it to Bork, they did it Thomas, they did it to this guy and that guy, so this is our time at bat. I mean, it's not worth it. It shouldn't happen, and I hope that we can get beyond this kind of thing.

MARTIN: What do you think would get the country beyond these things? Because there have been a number of sort of ugly political fights since that time. I mean, that one is particularly - because it drew all the strains of, you know, race and gender, men and women and power, and all of the things that are difficult.

Rev. DANFORTH: I think that the antidote to all of that is public attention, focusing a lot of attention on it. And my hope is that if the public is focused on it, attentive to it, the public will react against it and just say, this is something that we can't do. We can't have this in our country.

MARTIN: What would you like your own legacy to be, which is not to say that you don't have yet more work to do, because you're certainly still doing a lot of things, but how - what would you like your legacy to be?

Rev. DANFORTH: Well, you know, in my book, I think one of the most important chapters was called "Family Values," and it had to do with how I valued my family, and to me that's important.

I mean, I'm sure that my wife and each of my five children, and they said it in the book, that they never doubted that they came before my job, and they didn't. And that's, I mean, the reason I left the Senate. It wasn't that I was upset with it. I loved being in the Senate. I just didn't want it to absolutely dominate who I was or what my life was. So I hope that my legacy is that I'm a - hopefully not a bad person and a reasonably good one and a good husband and a good father and now a good grandfather and a good friend to people and that I do more good than harm.

MARTIN: John Danforth, he is the former United States senator from Missouri, a Republican. He served as United States ambassador to the United Nations, an ordained Episcopal priest. He's the author of "Faith and Politics: How the Moral Values Debate Divides America and How to Move Forward Together." He was kind enough to join us from his office. Thank you so much for joining us.

Rev. DANFORTH: Thank you.

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