An unholy stew of politics and moral certitude convinced John Danforth last spring to pen in the New York Times a searing critique of the perilous direction he believes his own Republican Party has taken. In short, Danforth has grown increasingly embittered that the GOP has become captive to the Christian fundamentalists. And he thinks it's high time to, well, right the ship.
"Republicans have transformed our party into the political arm of conservative Christians," the three-term United States senator, former ambassador to the United Nations and Episcopalian minister wrote in a March 30 editorial, the first of two pieces in which he called for a cooling-down of religious influence in the Grand Ole Party. "The elements of this transformation have included advocacy of a constitutional amendment to ban gay marriage, opposition to stem cell research involving both frozen embryos and human cells in Petri dishes, and the extraordinary effort to keep Terri Schiavo hooked up to a feeding tube."
Overlooking the Mississippi River in the downtown conference room of his current employer, the Bryan Cave law firm, the 69-year-old Danforth recently spoke of his call for intra-party civil war, as well as his family foundation's $150 million pledge to inject some life into the Arch grounds below.
Riverfront Times: Why are you all of a sudden so openly critical of what's going on with certain elements of the Republican Party?
Senator John Danforth: I began reflecting not only on Terry Schiavo, but on unrelated examples of particular religious points of view that have come to dominate the Republican Party. A few people have expressed annoyance at what I've written, but the typical response I got was, "I absolutely agree with what you said, and I don't know what to do about it."
How do you create an activist center?
Somebody has to run for president, and do it for a few months understanding that it would be a suicide mission. To make this point forcefully would tend to bring the party back to its roots.
Did McCain do that in 2000, or was he too focused on campaign finance reform?
I'm not sure he hit this issue -- I mean really hitting this issue without getting into a lot of sub-issues. I wouldn't try to say, 'Their agenda's wrong; my agenda's right,' but the Republican Party has to watch it, and we cannot become identified with a religious group.
What was the presence of religious groups like at the beginning of your tenure in the Senate?
There was Pat Robertson, Jerry Falwell and so forth, but it was kind of out there rather than there with a full-fledged agenda and the kind of power it's achieved. Were the antecedents there? Sure they were. But as far as I'm concerned, it's a new phenomenon. It's a much more vigorous effort right now than when I was in politics. We've got this gay thing, the stem cells and Terry Schiavo.
Are Democrats in any way culpable for letting this kind of religious domination run amok?
They say every action has its reaction. The religious right is responding to something, and what they are saying deserves a hearing.
You don't think it's not more, "Oh boy, we've got control, and now let's really go for the jugular?"
Oh, no. I think it's a genuine, heartfelt response. I think it's important to understand that people who feel this way are good people. They are saying that there are greater divorce rates, out-of-wedlock births, that the institution of the family is not as strong. There is a coarsening of American culture, and I think they'd say that it's the mass media, what people see on TV -- the movies, pornography. All of this has degraded our cultural standards. Then they would say, from their standpoint, the greatest value of them all -- human life -- is being destroyed. Being a critic of American culture is very worthwhile. All of this should be heard. But their problem is they have such a degree of certainty and lack of humility in taking that position that it's accepted as: "Our agenda is God's agenda."
Is the president guilty of anything along those lines?
I'm a supporter of the president, I served in his administration, and I'm not going be critical of the president.
People have said the Christian right was a sleeping giant that's been awakened. Is there a sleeping giant toward the center that could be awakened now?
That's why I wrote this stuff: one, to try to encourage debate within the Republican Party, and two, to encourage debate and discussion among Christians. I think the natural inclination is to come back to the middle. There are people who think this is a great political strategy to form a coalition with these religious people, but I think that is not going to turn out to be a great political strategy.
Look at how people, over the years, have fled en masse to the suburbs and beyond: It used to be that people lived in cities and had to deal with all the problems and warts of the city and maybe were more sympathetic to different walks of life. So if I'm living out in O'Fallon, is my view of society inherently skewed?
Well, I haven't thought about it. I kind of doubt it, but I think what happens in O'Fallon is influenced by what happens here. I think people are watching soap operas on television and getting whatever excitement in their lives from trying to live soap operas. So I doubt it's that they're more isolated. I think maybe they're trying to be more isolated, trying to break away by moving to Sullivan or wherever. But I think in reality, it's become a much more homogenized culture.
What is the role of religion in policy-making or politics?
That's a big question, and a complex one. First of all, religious people who participate in politics do so out of a sense of obligation. In other words, if you're a religious person, then it isn't compartmentalized. It's not, "OK, I'll go to church on Sunday mornings and that's it." It has some effect on interpersonal relations, the values you bring to the workplace, how you think about the world around you and how you see the role of government and politics.
I think the meaning of religion has to do with holding things together, and in fact that's why American democracy is so compatible with the values of Christianity. It's a repeated theme in the New Testament that in Christ all things hold together. Instead of the fracturing of humanity, it's a sense of holding things together. But religion can also do exactly the opposite. Witness Iraq, Sudan and -- I'm afraid -- how religion is used in American politics. When it's done in a self-righteous way, it is fracturing. When it's "I'm on God's side and you're not," that's very divisive. But if people approach politics with a degree of humility, which I think comes from religious faith, then that humility makes it possible to hang together as a country. For instance, with this gay thing, I would think that most people would gravitate toward the middle. I think on the one hand, if you were to ask conservative people, "Look, do you believe that gay people should be treated with dignity and with humanity, and that we should recognize that people, whether they're gay or straight, want to have loving relationships and full lives -- do you believe in that?" I think most people would say, "Yes, I do believe that." I think, on the other hand, if you would say to an awful lot of gay people, "Do you believe that the traditional institution of marriage between a man and a woman is worthy of society's honor?" I think they would say yes. So I think that if people were just thoughtful about it, a lot of that issue would be diffused.
Let's segue to the Arch. What sort of critical mass do you envision there?
I'm not talking about the Great White Way of the state fair and corn dogs and so on, but couldn't we have something down there that is just fun and enjoyable and well-done, where people could go and have dinner or play something? Here, you've got the greatest, most beautiful landmark in America -- talk about civic pride and symbolism for a community. You've seen Riversplash and when they closed the Eads Bridge. People loved that. But look at it right now. Who'd want to go there? There's a park, and there's the Arch. But look to the east of it and what do you see? Some cars parked and that one little dock with one little boat in it. Then to the west of it is that recessed highway down there. That's ridiculous. That's grotesque.
What's your timetable to get things done down there?
We're supposed to report back to the mayor in a year with basically an assessment of if it's doable or not, and with the completed design for the river and the engineering work and the completed design competition for the lid [over I-70]. After that, you've got another ten years to do it, I guess.
Anytime you've got a national park and a waterway involved, though, aren't there a lot of cooks in the kitchen?
The park service person here is terrific, but look, it well could be that there's not the enthusiasm, or the resources aren't there. Or everybody could start fighting about what the lid is going to look like. I want to move forward and see how far we can push it, but it could be that we push it right into a wall.