By Peter Slevin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, February 2, 2006
Jack Danforth wishes the Republican right would step down from its pulpit. Instead, he sees a constant flow of religion into national politics. And not just any religion, either, but the us-versus-them, my-God-is-bigger-than-your-God, velvet-fist variety of Christian evangelism.
As a mainline Episcopal priest, retired U.S. senator and diplomat, Danforth worships a humbler God and considers the right's certainty a sin. Legislating against gay marriage, for instance? "It's just cussedness." As he sees it, many Republican leaders have lost their bearings and, if they don't change, will lose their grip on power. Not to mention make the United States a meaner place.
Danforth is no squalling liberal. He is a lifelong Republican. And his own political history shows he is no milquetoast.
A man of God and the GOP, he is speaking out for moderation -- in religion, politics, science and government. The lanky figure once dubbed "St. Jack," not always warmly, for the perch he seemed to occupy on Washington's moral high ground, expects people will sour on the assertive brand of Christianity so closely branded Republican.
"I'm counting on nausea," he says.
In a political year that promises a fresh battle for the national soul, religion is emerging as a tool and a test, with Danforth's words marking a fissure within the GOP. The conservative evangelical Christian movement that helped propel President Bush and congressional Republicans into power has become a big, fat target, even as Democrats and GOP moderates agonize about how to capture more votes from the faithful.
"The Republican Party has been taken over by something that it's not," Danforth says over a suitably austere lunch of steamed vegetables in a well-appointed 40th-floor St. Louis club overlooking the Mississippi. "How do traditional Republicans put up with this? They put up with this because it's a winning combination, for now. It won't last."
Why won't it last?
"It won't stand the light of day," Danforth says in one of several conversations. "The more people think about it, the more people will resist it. People do not want a sectarian political party, including a lot of people who are traditional Republicans."
Richard Land gets a big laugh out of that.
The combative voice of the Southern Baptist Convention and confidant of White House political guru Karl Rove has little use for Danforth, however grand his religious and political pedigrees. He describes the former senator as "what was wrong with the Republican Party and why they were a minority party."
"Votes reflect moral values. The struggle for hearts and minds gets reflected in the ballot box," Land says, setting up the twist of the knife. "It just sounds to me like Danforth's sore that he lost the argument with a majority of the American people."The Turning Point
It seems like another era when John Claggett Danforth was perceived as one of the most publicly pious players in Washington. He led weekly worship at St. Albans and served as the eulogist for former president Ronald Reagan and former Washington Post publisher Katharine Graham.
When asked in 1991 to respond to critics who used "St. Jack" as a pejorative to suggest sanctimony, he told a Post interviewer, "I think anyone who felt that he was, you know, Mr. Wonderful, with an agenda that is the God-given agenda for the country to be accomplished at all costs -- he would be both sick and ineffective."
Danforth was talking about himself. Little did he imagine that there was a battalion of evangelical Mr. Wonderfuls marching on the nation's capital, which they would soon rule. Now he wishes that part about ineffectiveness were only true.
Danforth, 69, is out of government after 18 years in the Senate, service as a peacemaker in Sudan and investigator in Waco, Tex., and a recent stint as U.S. ambassador to the United Nations. An heir to the Ralston Purina fortune, who received degrees in religion from Princeton and law and divinity from Yale, he largely focuses on good works in St. Louis while delivering the occasional sermon.
One morning last spring, as he walked with his wife, Sally, in Palm Springs, Calif., where they are building a house, his dismay with the Republican Party turned to dissent.
The trigger was the case of Terri Schiavo, the brain-dead Florida woman whose husband wanted to disconnect her from life support. Schiavo's parents fought to keep her alive, backed by prominent Christian conservatives, including Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.), Florida Gov. Jeb Bush and Sen. Rick Santorum (R-Pa.).
"If you turned on Fox News, you would hear relentless talking heads talking about, 'They're killing Terri!' and 'This is murder!' " Danforth says, recalling the campaign to remove the case from Florida courts that had ruled she should be allowed to die. "I thought, 'This is not what the Republican Party does. The only explanation for it was an effort to appease the Christian right.' "
Danforth saw the Schiavo case as meshing with the right's opposition to gay marriage and embryonic stem cell research.
"I think a marriage is between a man and a woman, but it's beyond me how the whole thing has become so politicized and people have become so energized by it. Because, what difference does it make? How does it constitute a defense of marriage to legislate in this area?"
In Missouri, where Danforth won five statewide elections, a constitutional amendment outlawing gay marriage passed overwhelmingly last year. Yet he believes most people would say no if asked, "Do you believe we should just be nasty and humiliate people and degrade them because of sexual orientation?"
"The Ten Commandments in the courthouse?" he says of another front in the culture wars. "Talk about much ado about nothing."
Danforth is appearing in television and radio advertisements on behalf of a state constitutional amendment that would legalize a type of embryonic stem cell research known as therapeutic cloning, in which the nucleus of an unfertilized egg is replaced with an ordinary body cell. In a few days, this develops into the beginnings of a human embryo that contains stem cells able to become any type of cell in the human body.
The goal of the research is therapy for some of the world's most devastating diseases and injuries. The goal of the proposed amendment, now being contested in a Missouri court, is to avoid the annual effort by conservative Republican legislators to criminalize research into a procedure that opponents consider tantamount to killing babies.
It is an issue that affects Danforth personally. One of his brothers, Donald, died in 1998 of Lou Gehrig's disease, a focus of stem cell work.
"What is the thinking behind saying that we should criminalize research that can prevent Parkinson's or juvenile diabetes?" Danforth asks. "We should criminalize research because we want to save cells in a petri dish that will never be implanted in a uterus and never become people?"
All of this and much of the paralyzing polarization on Capitol Hill he traces to "my fellow Christians."
"With confidence that it is the mouthpiece for God, it endorses candidates, supports constitutional amendments and mobilizes campaigns to keep poor souls hooked up to feeding tubes," Danforth says. "It calls its opponents 'enemies of the people of faith.' Today that is the style and, I think, the sin of the Christian right."Soldier for a Cause
Lest there be any doubt, Danforth's politics hardly come from the left. He opposes abortion and earned disdain in progressive circles as chief steward of conservative Judge Clarence Thomas's bitter 1991 Supreme Court nomination. By his own admission, he pushed so hard, and with so little regard for decency, that loyal members of his staff threatened to quit.
"I fought for Clarence. I fought dirty in a fight without rules," Danforth wrote in his 1994 memoir, "Resurrection," a remarkably intimate look at the nomination fight. His principal target was Anita Hill, the law professor whose allegations of sexual harassment he decided were sexual fantasies.
"People were just dumping stuff on Clarence," Danforth says in an interview. "So I was trying to tarnish the reputation of his accuser by dumping stuff in the record where she didn't have any chance to cross-examine or confront. The whole thing was a mess."
Wall Street Journal reporters Jill Abramson and Jane Mayer spent three years investigating the allegations against Thomas, concluding in their 1994 book "Strange Justice" that "the preponderance of the evidence suggests" Thomas lied under oath. The book sits on Danforth's shelf, unread.
Danforth says he never questioned the nominee, or doubted him. They did not talk details.
"I'm Clarence Thomas's friend. I'm not his critic," explains Danforth, who hired him onto his legal staff in Missouri and again in Washington. "There is no more kind or gentle person on Earth than Clarence Thomas. The idea that he would treat somebody meanly or try to humiliate someone or put someone in a humiliating situation is absolutely the opposite of who he is."
Religion and prayer infuse Danforth's telling of the Thomas story. It is largely a private faith, not a standing-before-the-microphones public declaration of righteousness, yet the calls for divine intervention are plenty impassioned. At one point, just as Thomas was to testify, Danforth herded Sally along with Clarence and Ginni Thomas into his Senate bathroom in search of quiet. He cued a tape recorder.
"Onward Christian soldiers, marching as to war," the Mormon Tabernacle Choir sang. "With the cross of Jesus, going on before."Going Public
Danforth draws no connections between the divisions bared in the Thomas debate and the polarization that bedevils Congress today. He recalls a more pleasant era of coalitions and compromises that gave way to ever fiercer partisanship starting in the early 1990s after Thomas was already on the bench. He dates the beginning of the downslide to the arrival in the Senate of sharp-tongued former House Republicans.
His sense that the legislative branch is unable to answer large questions -- the fate of Social Security, health care or the world order, for example -- crystallized in March when he wrote an opinion piece for the New York Times. It opened with the blunt assertion that "Republicans have transformed our party into the political arm of conservative Christians."
In that essay and another in June, Danforth argued publicly for the first time that the Republican right is a divisive force in the party and the nation. He traced a relationship between increased activism by Christian conservatives and the collapse of collegiality. He said occupants of the Christian middle are honorably uncertain about translating their beliefs into laws because they are mindful of their own fallibility.
Danforth urged GOP moderates to show that "we, too, have strongly held Christian convictions, that we speak from the depths of our beliefs, and that our approach to politics is at least as faithful as that of those who are more conservative."
The articles rocketed around the Internet. Liberals, along with a raft of lonely Republican moderates, loved them. One person wrote Danforth in relief, having worried "that the Republican Party was being taken over by crackpots." But Danforth has also heard derisive snipes from Republicans who consider him naive, at best. A stranger imposed a curse on him before signing a four-page screed, "Have a nice day. Bob."
"Have a nice day," Danforth muses, "but one hell of an eternity."
Commentator Z. Dwight Billingsly, writing in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, pointed out a cold calculus, that when Danforth took office in 1977, there were 143 Republicans in the House and 38 in the Senate, compared with 232 in the House and 55 in the Senate last year: "Danforth-style Republicans can forgive our own party anything except success, probably because they never knew it and didn't bring it about. In fact, it happened in spite of them."
Or, as a Texas correspondent warned in an e-mail to Danforth: "The Republicans never fail to take the Christian conservative vote for granted. Watch what happens when the Christians sit at home in the upcoming elections. I will let you get back to your cocktail party with all your fat cat clients who stand around and demean people that understand our country's problem is spiritual."Fronting the Center
Does it matter what Jack Danforth thinks? He commands no political army and rules no territory beyond his writing desk and the occasional pulpit. He is up against the most polished political operation of modern times, facing the likes of Rove and House Republican disciplinarians such as Tom DeLay.
Jim Wallis, the left-leaning author of "God's Politics," declares hopefully that "the monologue of the religious right is finally over and the new dialogue has just begun. The answer to bad religion isn't secularism, it's better religion. Moderate and centrist evangelicals and Catholics are going to shape the future."
Boston College professor Alan Wolfe thinks Danforth is a suitable messenger because "he just seems to embody an America that many Americans feel was lost and we ought to get back." Samuel T. Lloyd III, Episcopal dean of Washington National Cathedral, thinks Danforth's work "could not be more timely" for the church or the nation. Anger is running so high, he says, that even the cathedral leadership is accused of being a lackey of the Republicans or the Democrats, sometimes both in the same week.
"Through very careful calculation," Lloyd says, "people in politics have decided that tolerance doesn't mobilize a base for a campaign, and what does is making people angry. My hope and my guess is that there is a fair amount of revulsion and that the moment is right for one or more candidates who want to appeal to a more generous spirit in the American people."
That certainly dovetails with the argument of Baptist Sunday school teacher and certified Democrat Jimmy Carter, who pursues the theme in his hot-selling recent book, "Our Endangered Values," with 750,000 copies in print. He quotes Danforth and accuses the GOP of building an intolerant, uncivil agenda from "narrowly defined religious beliefs." Hardliners, he says, are deepening the social divide by "imposing their minority views on a more moderate majority."
In an interview, Carter praises Danforth as "one of my heroes" and says modern-day fundamentalism is identifiable by superiority, exclusivity and narrow-mindedness. The current alignment reminds him of Sen. Joseph McCarthy's red-baiting frenzy of 50 years ago. He says the country licked McCarthy and will beat the Christian conservatives, "once the American people realize accurately what is happening."
Yet conservative academic John J. Pitney Jr., author of a book on political warfare, simply does not buy the Danforth-Carter analysis. He also says religion has long been influential in politics and he questions whether moderates could power a movement.
"Moderation is no more an ideology than pastel is a color. It's just a muted version of something else," says Pitney, a politics professor at Claremont McKenna College. "The moderates need to learn that the conservatives have the upper hand. But the conservatives need to learn that the moderates are there, too, and that the Republican majority is not so large that they can do without the moderates' support."
Thus, the future influence of religion in politics -- and which shade of religion gains the greatest political traction -- likely comes down to an old-fashioned electoral equation. Just as Richard Land says, and he is betting on the influence of voters who like their lines clearly drawn. He thinks the very certainty that Danforth disdains is what will carry the Christian right to greater heights.
"We do believe God has a side, that he's not a moderate or relativist on everything," says Land, president of the Southern Baptist Convention's Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission. "I'm not a prophet. They may convince the American people they're right. We may continue to convince the American people we're right. I'd be happy to debate John or Jimmy anytime, anywhere."
The retired senator might prefer it otherwise, but he accepts the paradox that the hustings and the nave are where his fight must be waged if religion is to assume a less prominent place in the political arena. He is writing a book to be released during this year's political campaign, and he is counting on the anguished, the aggrieved and the annoyed to push back against the Christian right.
"What I hope is somebody runs for president on this theme," Danforth says. "I do hope it's a Republican."