By Peter Slevin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, September 28, 2006
CHICAGO. Sept. 27 -- The potency of the Christian right in the Republican Party is limited, former senator John C. Danforth of Missouri is telling audiences this month. A lifelong Republican moderate disturbed by his party's direction, he contends that the political center has a future.
Describing himself as a "a Republican for the old reasons," Danforth, 70, is promoting a new book that describes religion as a divisive force in the United States today and accuses the religious right and its political supporters of creating a sectarian party.
The GOP leadership habitually strives to please its base at the expense of meaningful compromise, he maintains, proving to be neither humble Christians nor effective politicians. His reasoning holds that social conservatives cannot prevail because a majority of Americans do not share their views or appreciate their style.
"I'm trying to shed light on it," Danforth told a gathering of more than 100 people at Chicago's Union League Club on Tuesday, ". . . but I'm really encouraging people to get mad, to speak out on this and express themselves. That's when politics will change."
Danforth is an ordained Episcopal priest and onetime Bush administration ambassador to the United Nations. He is probably best known for ushering Clarence Thomas through the grueling nomination process to become a Supreme Court justice. Danforth served in the Senate when Republicans were outnumbered and outmaneuvered by Democrats, a point noted dismissively by opponents who dispute his argument.
Richard Land, a prominent conservative at the Southern Baptist Convention, said in an interview earlier this year that Danforth is "what was wrong with the Republican Party and why they were a minority party."
Danforth is getting some radio and television airtime since the Sept. 19 release of "Faith and Politics: How the 'Moral Values' Debate Divides America and How to Move Forward Together." He has spoken to audiences in Texas and New York and gave a lecture Wednesday night at the Washington National Cathedral, where he had presided over the funerals of former president Ronald Reagan in 2004 and longtime Washington Post publisher Katharine Graham three years earlier.
His book emerged by design in a political season in which the organizing strength of conservative Christians is expected to be tested by motivated Democrats and moderates dismayed by the country's direction.
This year, there have also been revealing speeches about personal faith and politics by Democratic politicians, notably Sen. John F. Kerry (Mass.), Sen. Barack Obama (Ill.) and Robert P. Casey Jr., who is seeking to unseat religious conservative Sen. Rick Santorum (R-Pa.).
"The problem with many conservative Christians is that they claim that God's truth is knowable, that they know it, and that they are able to reduce it to legislative form," Danforth writes. "The popular question, 'What would Jesus do?' can be difficult enough to contemplate with respect to everyday interpersonal relations. It is mind boggling when applied to the complex world of politics."
Although an opponent of abortion, Danforth has become an activist for a Missouri ballot initiative that would explicitly legalize embryonic stem cell research, an issue adopted increasingly by Democrats and some Republicans to show their differences with the Christian right.
He also favors government recognition of "committed same-sex partnerships." He believes the proposed constitutional amendment to outlaw same-sex marriage amounts to gay-bashing.
Criticizing Republicans and Democrats at extreme ends of the political spectrum, Danforth told his Chicago audience that "most people don't want it to be this way." In allowing it to happen, he said, "the rest of us have been too silent."
Thomas has a place in Danforth's book. A questioner asked if he has changed his view of one of the court's staunchest conservatives.
Danforth, who has said he never questioned Thomas about serious allegations of sexual harassment, replied: "I have exactly the same view of Clarence Thomas that I have had for 30-some years. . . . I know him, and I love him as a human being. I stood by him, and I am proud of that."