John Danforth, Churchman For a State Occasion
Friday, June 11, 2004
Former senator John Danforth telephoned a constituent and his son answered. A former aide recounts the conversation that followed: "Dad, it's God on the phone," he yelled, testimony not to any overbearing piety but to the sonorous voice that makes Danforth ideal for a day of solemn, semi-religious pageantry.
Perhaps Nancy Reagan had this voice in mind 10 years ago when she asked Danforth to officiate at her husband's funeral, to be held at Washington National Cathedral today. True to her meticulous character, she has been planning the details with Danforth by phone ever since, down to the last anthem ("Battle Hymn of the Republic," Reagan's favorite).
Danforth, 67, is an obvious choice for such an outsize occasion. As an ordained Episcopal priest and a three-term senator, Danforth has evolved into homilist to the mighty, shepherding Washington society over to the other side. He has officiated at funerals for former senators John Heinz and John Chafee, former secretary of commerce Malcolm Baldrige and, more recently, Katharine Graham.
Danforth has stepped into this role partly because he's a clergyman but also because he's not too overtly religious. In the late '80s, an era when the religious right was blooming, Danforth took great pains to keep his day job separate. One of his chief aides, Susan Schwab, recalls him mentioning faith only once on the Senate floor, during a debate over a constitutional amendment to allow school prayer. He was against it.
"He's not a holier-than-thou type," Schwab says. "He's always been called upon to do this sophisticated juxtaposition of faith and politics." She recalls once picking him up on Easter morning at St. Alban's Episcopal Church, where he was a volunteer rector, and waiting for him to take off his robes so he could get to the Sunday talk shows.
If he sticks to his usual form today, Danforth, who declined to be interviewed for this article, will mention God once or twice near the end of his homily. But he can be counted on not to cause a stir by freelancing an impolitic mention of Jesus, as Franklin Graham did at George W. Bush's inauguration. He will likely perfectly embody Washington National Cathedral's other role, not as an Episcopal chapel but as the closest thing we have to a national church, a place where faith is present but muted, as on the dollar bill or in the Pledge of Allegiance.
"Jack will deliver a little homily," says Alex Netchvolodoff, his former chief of staff and close friend. "It's not deep theology. He knows that funerals are for the living; they are gatherings of people to celebrate a life, that they should be upbeat, full of hope."
Official Washington likes its religion beige, interfaith, tastefully alluded to rather than shouted from a mountaintop. Danforth will oblige: "He won't step on any toes," says Michael Cromartie of the Ethics and Public Policy Center. "People who don't have any religious sensibilities will feel comfortable with him."
Reagan had a long history with Jerry Falwell, founder of the Moral Majority. But Falwell would be too polarizing for such an occasion. Reagan's other favorite minister, the Rev. Donn Moomaw at Bel Air Presbyterian, who read the prayers at both of Reagan's inaugurations, resigned in a sex scandal in 1993.
Danforth and Reagan knew each other while they were both in office (Danforth left the Senate in 1995), but they were not particularly close. Netchvolodoff recalls one successful visit: Danforth and Reagan talked about riding horses, about their ranches. Danforth showed the president photos from a recent trip to starving pockets of Mozambique and Somalia.
"What can we do?" Netchvolodoff recalls Reagan asking, and soon a $250 million supplemental aid bill was approved.
Reagan was baptized in the Disciples of Christ, his mother's denomination, but he and Danforth shared the same style of faith. Reagan called himself born again, but like Danforth, he predated the confessional style of faith common to Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton and George W. Bush. Reagan rarely mentioned his alcoholic father, for instance. Culturally, though, the two represent opposite strains in the church-state divide. Reagan lived his religion onstage, in broad strokes rather than details. He spoke of the national interest in terms of good or evil but seldom went to church. In his autobiography, he spends more time discussing ghosts in the White House than his baptism. His wife preferred spiritual guides who lived by the zodiac.