Priest and politician Jack Danforth ’58 takes on the religious right

A silver-haired priest and a politician who casts himself as a moderate in both fields, Jack Danforth ’58 hardly could contain his dismay last year when he saw leaders of the Republican Party — his Republican Party — making a spectacle of their quest to save Terri Schiavo, the brain-dead Florida woman whose husband finally had won permission from state courts to disconnect her from life support.

There was Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist ’74, a skilled heart surgeon, diagnosing Schiavo from a bedside video as not being in a persistent vegetative state and backing an extraordinary bill assigning jurisdiction to the federal courts. And there was President Bush breaking off a Texas vacation to jet back to the White House to sign the bill into law.

Danforth was appalled. To the former U.S. senator from Missouri, the Schiavo case represented the Republican leadership’s ultimate capitulation to Christian conservatives, a strategy that he believes has split the nation and divided the faith, damaging the GOP and the body politic.

Today, the 70-year-old Danforth — who also has served as the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations and as President Bush’s special envoy to Sudan — is on the airwaves and the speaking circuit, challenging the leadership of a party that consolidated its influence in all three branches of government with disciplined attention to its message and cultivation of its most loyal constituents. He contends the triumph will prove temporary, undone by the very certainty of its chief architects.

“The problem with many conservative Christians,” Danforth writes in a new book, “is that they claim that God’s truth is knowable, that they know it, and that they’re able to reduce it to legislative form.”

Coming from a Republican insider and an ordained Episcopal priest with impeccable mainstream credentials, the comments were intended to nudge the ongoing national debate over the role of faith and the definition of moral values. The book was released, as Danforth intended, as a polarized nation was focused on the midterm elections and looking ahead to the 2008 presidential campaign.

An array of potential presidential aspirants on the left, recognizing the potency of the issue, recently have delivered personal speeches on their religious views. Speaking more openly about faith than they did in the past, leading Democrats have argued that the Christian right has no monopoly on faith or morality. Because of his Republican credentials, however, Danforth stands apart. With public approval of the Republican-dominated Congress at less than 25 percent this autumn, he believes he is onto something. He told a Chicago audience recently that he aims to reach an increasingly disaffected centrist majority grown weary of the vocal minorities at the extremes.

“The rest of us,” he said, “have been too silent.”

By geography and temperament, in everything but economic status, John Claggett Danforth was born into the middle. He was raised as an heir to the Ralston Purina fortune in St. Louis, where he recalls only one time that his father, Donald Danforth ’20, tried to push him in a particular direction. The issue was Princeton, where the elder Danforth had been a trustee.

“It was at our house in St. Louis. I was standing in my brother’s room,” Danforth says. “And I said, ‘I’m thinking of going to Harvard.’ And he said, ‘Oh, if I were you, I’d think of a hundred good reasons before I went there.’ ”

Jack got the message. “I applied to Princeton. Period.”

His plan when he got to Princeton in 1954 was as plain as an epiphany he had experienced in Washington as a 10-year-old. Then, he watched the action on the Senate floor during a family trip and nothing had ever seemed so exciting. That settled his future, in his own mind, anyway. He would follow college with law school and then politics. By high school, some classmates were already calling him “Senator.”

Danforth always has had a starchy side in public. On Capitol Hill, he was called St. Jack, not always fondly, for a style his critics saw as sanctimonious. This may be traceable in part to the example of his grandfather, William H. Danforth, founder of Ralston Purina and author of a book called I Dare You!, a prescription for a life of achievement, duty, and decency.

Decades later, over a lunch of crab cakes and French fries in Chicago, Danforth remembers the book and a personal admonition that arrived in his grandfather’s birthday letters: “Cast no stigma on the Danforth escutcheon.” In other words, the Danforths, with deep roots in the Midwest, the Episcopal church, and St. Louis society, had a special obligation not to screw up.

In his early Princeton life, Danforth hardly lived up to the family standards, he writes in his current book, Faith and Politics: How the ‘Moral Values’ Debate Divides America and How to Move Forward Together. He offers no details, referring only elliptically to a period where “the loosening of home-front restraints coincided with the availability of alcohol.”

Jack McAtee ’58, Danforth’s college roommate and childhood St. Louis friend, puts it this way: “St. Jack certainly wasn’t around at Princeton. He was not a man of the cloth then. We smoked cigars and played hillbilly music. We’d go out drinking and go to New York.” McAtee remembers freshman year, when the roommates would climb from bed in the morning and sing the Ralston Purina fight song. “Fight, fight, fight for old Purina. There’s a chow for every need,” McAtee sings in a telephonic rendition from his home in Connecticut. “Never let the battle stop. Keep the checkerboard on top. Fight to keep good old Purina in the league.”

“One time, we tried to take over Whig-Clio,” says McAtee, who remains in close touch with Danforth. “We occupied Whig-Clio for a weekend because there was an election for president and we backed an outsider.” As McAtee recalls the protest, “We just took some beers in there and drank.”

Danforth says of his time at Princeton that he largely grew up there, but did not earn a ticket to heaven. “If you appear before the throne of God,” he says, “and there’s a prosecuting attorney making the case against me, I wouldn’t mind being in his shoes.”

Still, at Princeton Danforth discovered an abiding interest in religion that went deeper than the liberal Protestant experience of his upbringing, which he says had principally meant “an exhortation to live a good life and

be a good person.” The change started with a haphazardly chosen sophomore course taught by Paul Ramsey, who five years earlier had published Basic Christian Ethics. Ramsey held forth on topics from sex and marriage to the morality of war in what Danforth recalls as a tone of Southern-accented evangelical zeal.

Danforth became a religion major, eventually graduating with honors. His reading of Augustine, Aquinas, Kierkegaard, and Reinhold Niebuhr influenced his thinking and changed his direction. The summer after his junior year, he told his startled family that he was giving up on law and going to divinity school. The priesthood or a teaching job, he figured, was almost certainly next.

Among those he surprised was Sally Dobson, his fiancée, whom he married two months later. She had just turned 20, and he was two days past his 21st birthday. At all-male Princeton, permission from the University was required. The newlyweds lived in a small apartment off campus.

Danforth says he has no recollection of the most contentious debate of his senior year: At bicker, 23 sophomores were not offered bids; 13 of them were Jewish. The incident led to protests covered by the national media. One player in the debate was Ivy Club president Steve Rockefeller ’58. Like Danforth, he came from the monied elite; like Danforth, he majored in religion. They both went on to divinity school; Rockefeller, who became a Buddhist, remains an emeritus professor of religion at Middlebury College.

Van Henry, who was Danforth’s thesis adviser nearly 50 years ago, remembers a “very thoughtful” student who bore “the demeanor of judiciousness.” Danforth, he recalled, was more conservative than Rockefeller (who, as chairman of the Interclub Committee in his senior year had endeavored but failed to secure bids for all sophomores), and seemed disinclined to challenge the status quo.

After his first year at Yale Divinity School, Danforth realized he had made a mistake. He did not enjoy most of his classes. He also saw that he had neither the abstract reasoning skills to be a religion professor nor the disposition to be a parish priest. In short, he was missing a trait or two.

“Patience and empathy,” he says now. “I’m not proud of myself for saying this. I couldn’t have been a good pastor to anybody.”

With a “tremendous sense of relief,” Danforth decided to quit. But the deadline to apply to Yale Law School — resuming his earlier career track — had long passed. Danforth went through with his second year of divinity school while waiting to begin his law studies. Admitted to Yale Law, with two of three required years of religion studies behind him, he decided he might as well finish the job. He graduated in 1963 with both degrees.

For five years, Danforth worked as a lawyer and pastor until entering politics, where for 26 years, by necessity and conviction, he largely practiced the moderation he now preaches. His first race came in 1968, when he ran for attorney general and became the first Republican in more than two decades to win statewide office in heavily Democratic Missouri.

Reaching the Senate after the 1976 elections, he recalls both parties looking to coalitions to pass meaningful legislation. That typically meant playing to the middle on Capitol Hill and the campaign trail, with Republicans and Democrats competing to corral the center. Yet by the time he left, two winning elections and 18 years later, that strategy had the look of a relic. The year Danforth quit was the same year his Democratic colleague, Sen. Bill Bradley ’65, announced his own exit after three terms. Declaring “politics is broken,” Bradley criticized both parties for stale debate. “Neither party,” he said at the time, “speaks to people where they live their lives.”

A decade later, with Congress and the nation even more bitterly divided, Danforth is sounding similar themes: “People know that politics is too polarized. They know from what they see on the television newscasts that neither side represents them.”

While in Washington, Danforth had eased comfortably into the establishment. He led worship at St. Alban’s School, adjacent to the National Cathedral, where he would one day preside over funeral services for Ronald Reagan and Washington Post publisher Katharine Graham. His most difficult test, and the subject of his first book, Resurrection, was the bruising 1991 Supreme Court nomination of conservative jurist Clarence Thomas. As Missouri attorney general, Danforth had hired Thomas as a young lawyer and later brought him into his Senate office. He agreed to usher him through the process, only to fight with such abandon when Thomas got in trouble that members of his own staff threatened to quit.

“I fought for Clarence,” Danforth wrote in Resurrection. “I fought dirty in a fight without rules.”

Danforth portrayed Thomas as distraught, sobbing uncontrollably, amid charges from law professor Anita Hill that he had sexually harassed her at the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. Certain that Thomas could have done no such thing, Danforth concluded that Hill’s allegations were sexual fantasies. He never asked Thomas.

Nor did he read the most detailed subsequent account of the events, by respected reporters Jill Abramson and Jane Mayer, then at The Wall Street Journal, who concluded in their 1994 book Strange Justice that “the preponderance of the evidence suggests” Thomas lied under oath.

Danforth, who reckons ruefully that his backing of Thomas will be noted in the first two paragraphs of his obituary, calls the nomination battle a “terrible situation” and an “awful fight.” He says, “I stood up for my friend, and that’s all there was to it.”

Danforth makes an occasional reference to Democratic excesses, but his real target is the Republican right, which he attacks with equal gusto on religious and political grounds. He went public with his frustrations for the first time in March 2005, when he opened a New York Times op-ed piece by declaring that “Republicans have transformed our party into the political arm of conservative Christians.”

He then turned his thinking into Faith and Politics, released by Viking in September. An attack on the Republican right and a how-to guide that advises the Christian faithful to approach politics in a committed and tolerant way, the book draws equally on Scripture and personal and political experience.

Danforth, who considers the aggressive certainty of Christian conservatives a sin, draws the book’s epigraph from a biblical parable about righteousness in Luke 18: “... all who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted.” His last chapter is based on Paul’s Letter to the Romans, which Danforth takes as an admonition to be moral and decent, even to one’s enemies. He dismisses what he calls the Republican right’s “confidence that it is the mouthpiece for God.”

“The popular question ‘What would Jesus do?’ can be difficult to contemplate with respect to everyday interpersonal relations,” he writes in the book. “It is mind-boggling when applied to the complex world of politics.”

In the book, Danforth laments the exploitation of wedge issues by the Republican leadership. He points to battles over Terri Schiavo, the Pledge of Allegiance, stem cell research, and public displays of the Ten Commandments.

On gay rights, legislation purporting to defend marriage is “just cussedness,” he says in an interview, taking particular aim at a proposed constitutional amendment. He favors government recognition and antidiscrimination rules for committed same-sex couples, as well as ways for religious groups to bless such relationships. “The only purpose served by the campaign for the amendment is the humiliation of gay Americans, advocated by the Christian right and eagerly supported by its suitors in the Republican Party,” Danforth writes. “To call it a constitutional amendment designed to defend marriage makes it seem something loftier than gay-bashing. But in reality, it is gay-bashing.”

In Missouri this year, Danforth appeared on radio and television advertisements in favor of legalizing embryonic stem cell research in the state. Supporters of the research believe it holds considerable promise in treating an array of devastating illnesses and diseases, including Lou Gehrig’s disease, which killed Danforth’s older brother, Donald ’54, in 2001.

“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?”

In dedicating Faith and Politics to Donald, who spent two years at Princeton, Danforth challenges opponents of stem cell research to compare a blastocyst, days after conception, with a friend or parent who is enduring an irreversible decline. Although he opposes abortion, he contends that Christian tolerance and universal human compassion alike demand a search for cures.

“Yes, it is personal, but that’s just the point,” Danforth writes. “On one hand, we have the religious theory that life exists even before it is implanted in the uterus, that life in the laboratory is of such value that it demands the protection of the state. On the other, we have the personal experiences of all sorts of people who have watched their loved ones suffer and die.”

Bush used the first veto of his presidency in July to block a congressional effort to lift funding restrictions on embryonic stem cell research. When the House tried and failed to override the veto, it was overwhelmingly Republicans, Danforth notes, who voted with the president.

Leading Republican conservatives dismiss Danforth’s argument as sour grapes. They point out that Republicans were a feeble minority holding fewer than 40 seats in the Senate when Danforth reached Washington. The GOP was even weaker in the House. By the time he departed, an energized party inspired by the prospect of a Republican revolution controlled the House and Senate, with the White House soon to follow.

Danforth is “what was wrong with the Republican Party and why they were a minority party,” says Richard Land ’69, president of the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, and a confidant of presidential adviser Karl Rove. “Votes reflect moral values. The struggle for hearts and minds gets reflected in the ballot box. It just sounds to me like Danforth is sore that he lost the argument with a majority of the American people.”

It is the very enthusiasm and confidence of Christian conservatives that sparked the Republican triumph and will ensure the GOP’s long-lasting influence, contends Land. He says he considers “John Danforth a trial, but not more than most Episcopal ministers, which he is.

“We do believe God has a side, that he’s not a moderate or relativist on everything,” Land says. “I don’t see same-sex marriage as a wedge issue. I see it as a question of right and wrong.”

Danforth has been buoyed by more favorable words from supporters, including former president Jimmy Carter, who has called the former senator “one of my heroes.” Samuel T. Lloyd III, Episcopal dean of the National Cathedral, credits Danforth with an inspiring call for “tolerance, respect, and civility” as both the Christian community and the nation face testing times.

As he argues his case, Danforth feels certain that moderation will prevail and the Republican pendulum will swing back toward the middle, led by GOP centrists who feel their party no longer represents them. So far, Danforth says, politicians have been hearing only one voice — that of the Christian right.

“Anybody who says politicians don’t listen, that’s not right,” he says.

Danforth wants to change what they hear.