A Lion in Winter

Danforth to fellow Republicans: You can come home again

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.

Senator John Danforth thinks it's time to right the ship.
Andrew Gombert/EPA Photos
Senator John Danforth thinks it's time to right the ship.

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?

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