Friday, October 14, 2005

Danforth on the religious left

Danforth holds mirror to religious-political right, left
By Dana Wilkie (Episcopal News Service)

[WASHINGTON] While underscoring the importance of keeping the Episcopal Church an “inclusive” body of believers, former Sen. John Danforth on Thursday cautioned National Cathedral conference-goers against becoming a “mirror image” of the Religious Right.

Danforth, an ordained minister, a former United Nations ambassador and a Republican, spoke at the opening plenary session of the “Values, Vision and the Via Media” conference, a three-day event designed to explore how moderate and progressive people of faith can make their voices heard in a national values debate that many believe has been usurped by conservative Christian groups.

“While the real problem has come from the Religious Right… it’s not impossible that the Religious Left becomes the mirror image of the Religious Right,” said Danforth, who addressed an audience of about 150 in the cathedral Nave. “It’s possible that people on the left can become as equally sure of themselves as people on the right.”

The conference, which is being held Oct. 13-15, explores how Anglicans have historically articulated the progressive Christian values held by moderate Americans.

Conferees include theologians, activists, journalists and lay people, and the agenda features case studies, panel discussions and plenary sessions to explore how people can make a difference in the areas of economic justice, the environment, family values, peacemaking, racism and social oppression.

Saying the Episcopal Church has long been a beacon of inclusiveness, Danforth said it must map a bolder strategy for addressing conservatives in the political arena who claim to know God’s mind -- to the exclusion of other believers. The church, he said, must model the ability to marry honest, vigorous debate with inclusiveness.

“The thrust of what the (Old Testament) prophets were talking about was to rail against idolatry… against the false gods, against Baal, against the worship of something other than the holy… God,” said Danforth. “And when we create a political system that we represent as being ‘God’s’ political system, we are Baal worshipers.”

Several times, Danforth’s audience interrupted his comments with applause, and conference goers gave him a standing ovation after his 30-minute remarks.

The Rev. Howard Anderson, director of Cathedral College, introduced Danforth by noting that “you never know quite what to call him.”

“Is it ambassador?” Anderson joked. “Is it senator?”

With that, Anderson introduced Danforth as “Senator, Father, Ambassador John Danforth.”

The idea for the conference took root after last year’s presidential election, when progressive Christians organized to protest attempts by the Religious Right to co-opt the name of the church in America. Exit polls indicated that voters associated “moral values” with narrow and divisive issues -- such as abortion and gay marriage -- instead of a broader Christian agenda. This, experts agree, focused public attention on the church as guardian of personal morality rather than the church as defender against racism, poverty and war.

Conservative groups have countered that liberal Christians do have a voice in the values debate, but that more Americans support conservative Christians on many values.

Danforth cautioned, however, that “you have to be a little… humble about claiming to know what’s God’s will.”

“When people believe that they’re fighting a religious battle, nothing is more energizing then ‘I’m on God’s side,’ ” he said. “But there’s also nothing more divisive than that. Because once you believe that you’re on God’s side, therefore people who disagree with you are not on God’s side, or are even enemies of God. Then there’s no room for the… stuff of politics. And there’s a lot of room for real hatred and animosity and bitterness.”

Recapturing the values debate from the Religious Right was among the subjects conference goers discussed during Thursday seminars, and it continued to be a popular topic of conversation among those seated in the cathedral as they waited for Danforth to speak.

Cindy Marcillas, who was visiting from San Francisco to attend the conference, said she hoped Danforth’s remarks would encourage conference-goers to “take back the values debate” from the Religious Right.

“It’s appalling how far right this administration has gone,” said Marcillas. “It’s downright frightening.”

Danforth, however, urged his listeners to recognize the worth of arguments being made by those who identify with the Religious Right.

“One of the points they have to make is what they believe is the loss of our moral compass as a country, and they’re right,” Danforth said. “They’re concerned about the coarsening of America, and all you have to do is turn on the TV or go to the movies.

“They’re concerned with respect to the institutions of marriage and the family -- that we have lost our bearings. And when you look at the divorce rate and the out-of-wedlock births, they’ve got a point.

“You may disagree with everything they say and every position they take and every candidate they support, but they are our brothers and sisters in Christ, and they too read the Bible, and they too try to be faithful.”

The question of whether religion in politics should be divisive, Danforth said, is itself debatable. He noted that some people use Scripture to support the notion that religious beliefs should divide, while others use the Bible to support the view that it shouldn’t.

“I believe that the heart of the New Testament is the message of reconciliation and inclusiveness,” said Danforth, who represented Missouri in the U.S. Senate for 18 years before retiring in 1994. He is ordained to the clergy of the Episcopal Church and serves as honorary associate at St. Alban’s.

Danforth referred to the presidential-election controversy that erupted last year when the Catholic archbishop of St. Louis – Danforth’s hometown – said that politicians who profess to be Catholic but don’t adhere to Catholic teachings should not take Holy Communion.

Many believed the remarks by Archbishop Raymond Burke were aimed at Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry of Massachusetts because of his stands on abortion, stem-cell research and gay marriage.

“How do we respond?” Danforth asked. “We should do a much better job of making it clear that communion (in the Episcopal Church) is open… and then let God sort it out.”


At 10:51 PM, Blogger J said...

What really happened October 13.

Making its way across the Blogosphere is Senator Danforth's hesitant suggestion that the Religious Right, and the Religious Left, are equally enemies of the American polis.

October 13, 2005, at the National Cathedral in Washington, Senator Danforth preached a brief homily about "reconciliation." Christians, he said, are called to "reconciliation." He made a few jokes, and answered a few questions, and then he left.

What the Episcopalian News Service did *not* convey in their much-quoted article was the firm the rebuttal that the Senator received. As a panelist at the table that replied, and as the organizer of the conference panel to which the Senator was invited, I am appalled by the Episcopal News Service's "tweaking" of the evening's story to its own ends.

So the panelists who replied to Danforth had to answer the question: what does the Christian do about poverty? Does the Christian lobby for political reconciliation at all costs? Does the Christian tell both Christian right and Christian left to sit down?

Richard Parker of the Kennedy School for Government at Harvard spoke first. Reconciliation, he argued, has been used to tell the liberals to pipe down. The Episcopalian church, he reminded us, has already passed numerous calls for justice towards the poor: when we call upon the church to take its own resolutions seriously, and when we call upon the nation to take human life seriously, we take the merest steps towards fulfilling our duty as Christians.

David Hollinger, head of the History Department at UC Berkeley, then argued that American Protestants have always believed in reconciliation: which has caused them to take strong, liberal-leaning political stands on behalf of affirmative action, inclusion for Jews and Catholics. He reminded us that for half a century, conservative policies of exclusion of the Other have flown in the face of Christian reconciliation. Christian liberals have to act in the public realm in order to bring about those very values of "reconciliation" with those excluded from our society.

I argued that theological reconciliation -- the duty of one Christian to speak to another, much neglected in these days of polarization -- differed greatly from political reconciliation. Christ called us to stand up "right now" for what we believe, and he made clear that defense of the poor and vulnerable was an area that called for our immediate intervention. The gospel requires us to take hard stands, in order to act on the values of the Kingdom of Heaven -- values of compassion and responsibility that are abandoned everywhere by contemporary government policies.

Michael Kazin of Georgetown and Amy Sullivan of the Washington Monthly then spoke on political change, the work of Christian progressives, and the necessity for political involvement in order to effect the changes in policy and the media that we want to see.

"Reconciliation" is a funny word, and a funny thing to tell the Christian progressives who had assembled at the Cathedral to call America to further action for the poor, the disenfranchised, the outcast, and the vulnerable, whom this country has left behind. Danforth seemed uncomfortable that night. He had cut his speaking time from 90 minutes to thirty. He gave a plaintive plea for "reconciliation," and disappeared.

What had made the senator so uneasy? I think I can answer. Several weeks before the conference had sent out a press release: "Religious Leaders Condemn Bush Government for Abandonment of Duty Towards the Poor." I co-authored that press release with a monk friend. After Katrina, we argued, it'd be hard for America to still claim that it was being a Christian nation.

Such a claim made Senator Danforth understandably uneasy. He's always had an easy relationship with the Bush regime, and our political statement seemed to indicate that Danforth, by showing at the Cathedral, supported our challenge.

The Episcopal News Service has a duty towards the church to report conversations fairly. Certainly, on such a sensitive topic, it has the duty to progressive Christians who argue that the church should take a political stand on the side of poverty in accordance with Christ's message. Silencing the voice of dissent in the church is about as far from "reconciliation" as one can get.


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