by James Hitchcock
October 15, 2006
Scarcely a day goes by without some new warning that religious fanatics are destroying American liberties. One of the most widely publicized is by former Senator John Danforth of Missouri, who is both a lawyer and an Episcopal clergyman and also speaks as a Republican who longs for the good old days when the party was interested in things like balancing the budget, before it was “captured” by religious fanatics.
He is correct that the kind of Republicans whom he now views with dismay would not have felt welcome in the days of Barry Goldwater or even Richard Nixon. (Goldwater spent his later years growling about them.) Involvement with ”the religious right” has brought many political advantages to the party (including electing Danforth to the Senate several times) , but in effect he seems to want to return to the days when, despite some success in winning the White House, Republicans were a permanent minority party. This older party is sometimes called the “country club Republicans,” and Danforth fears that the membership committee has gotten rather lax in its standards.
Danforth the clergyman and Danforth the politician are difficult to separate, because he proposes things that he claims are both right for the nation and good for the party, which he warns will ultimately suffer at the polls for its ”pandering” to believers. The latter claim may or may not be true, but where does principle end and political self-interest begin? It is the essence of politics, as Danforth knows, that politicians do what they think will get them elected, but he talks as though there is something uniquely calculating about those who espouse a conservative moral agenda.
Danforth is passionately in favor of embryonic stem-cell research and dismayed at people who object that it involves taking human life, and here the old image of the Republicans as merely the party of business comes back into view those who are pushing for this in Missouri claim that it will bring huge economic benefits to the state, so that voters are being asked in effect to choose between their wallets and their consciences.
Ironically for a man of the cloth, Danforth’s account of true Republican principles seems to confirm the old claim that his party does not care about people. The Terri Schiavo case woke him up to the dangers of the “religious right.” But whereas the most basic task of government is to protect life, and Terry Schiavo’s fate obviously raises questions that will trouble the nation more and more, Danforth appears to see no moral issue at all, only a violation his party’s supposed traditional commitment to limited government and state’s rights.
He professes also to believe that marriage is between a man and a woman but that government should stay out of the issue of homosexual “marriage.” (His Republican principles forbid that the US Constitution be amended to define marriage but require that the Missouri constitution be amended to insure tax subsidies for stem-cell research.) But Danforth the lawyer surely knows that the state has always determined who is or is not married - bigamy and polygamy are punishible by law and certain children are declared illegitimate. Marriage has become a political issue not because of a departure from solid Republican principles but precisely because a consensus thousands of years old is now under attack.
Danforth is simplistic in attributing such issues solely to religious belief. Pro-lifers do not oppose abortion or euthanasia simply on the grounds that their faith dictates it. Rather they respond to very concrete human situations a young woman being starved to death, a child being dismembered by a doctor shortly before birth. Even an atheist ought to recognize the seriousness of those issues.
In his warnings against conservative religious believers, Danforth inevitably falls into the trap that is built into the very idea of liberal “pluralism” - urging believers to be charitable and tolerant in their public utterances even while almost hysterically condemning the “religious right” as a threat to the Republic.
In the kind of sermon that has now become commonplace, a minister in St. Louis recently warned in a newspaper that the “religious right” is a distortion of true religion and hides all kinds of nefarious schemes behind idealistic rhetoric. In the name of tolerance her message was in effect, “Only people like me are real Christians.” Objectively, she is an ally of Danforth, but he has nothing to say about this kind of liberal intolerance, just as he has nothing to say about the often breathtakingly bigoted attacks on religious believers put forth daily in the mainstream media.
A standard criticism of conservative believers is that they “intrude” issues into the political process that are “divisive.” But once again, the critics offer their own view as the only correct one - favoring homosexual marriage is not divisive, opposing it is. One of Danforth’s critics has pointed out that “divisiveness” is in fact the very essence of the democratic process, but Danforth seems to think that conflict involving religion is alone objectionable, making religious believers guilty of “imposing” their views on others. Danforth reminds people that, when he was a senator, he consistently opposed abortion, a position he does not explicitly repudiate. But those who warn against the evils of the “religious right” mean primarily abortion, so Danforth himself was once guilty of “imposing” his beliefs on others.
It might seem possible to resolve this contradiction by proposing that, if people disagree about things like abortion, government should simply do nothing. But no one really believes this. Those who oppose the war in Iraq or capital punishment, for example, insist that there is a moral and religious obligation for the government to act on their judgment. In reality, rather than conservative believers “intruding” religion into politics, the battle is often between two rival theologies. Thus in St. Louis recently a rabbi and two ministers (one an Episcopalian colleague of Danforth) declared that they know what God thinks about stem-cell research and that there is a religious obligation to support it. Danforth praises his own church because it “holds within itself a variety of views. And I think that is good,” thereby implying that the remedy for religious divisiveness is for everyone to emulate the Episcopalians.
Danforth clearly seems to believe that, despite his own one-time pro-life position, conservative religion has no legitimate place in the public square. But the issue has quickly moved beyond questions of church and state and into the semi-public realm, so that some people now demand to be protected from Christmas symbolism in retail stores, for example.
Danforth reports that, when asked a few years ago to give a blessing at Yale University, he prayed in the name of the Trinity but later realized that he had made a mistake, offending people who did not share his faith. But he was made aware of his error by the Yale chaplain, William Sloane Coffin, a minister who had his own left-wing religious agenda that he never hesitated to push as hard as he could, everywhere and always. It is also likely that if, for example, the Dalai Lama came to Yale and chanted Buddhist prayers, it would be praised as an inspiring experience. Danforth seems not to realize that special restrictions have been imposed on traditional Christians and that he was required to make what used to be called a denial of one’s faith.
James Hitchcock, professor of history at St. Louis University, writes and lectures on contemporary Church matters. His column appears in the diocesan press. Dr. Hitchcock's The Supreme Court and Religion in American Life, Vol. 1 The Odyssey of the Religion Clauses and Vol. II From 'Higher Law' to 'Sectarian Scruples', were released by Princeton University Press September 2, 2004.
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