Saturday, June 18, 2005

Seeking Peace in the Culture Wars

Yesterday, Paul Galstris at Washington Monthy ran an OP/Ed by retired Republican Senator John Danforth of Missouri that appeared in yesterday's New York Times. In his piece, Danforth makes the case that moderate Christians need to do more to assert themselves, to establish that they too are indeed Christians and not represented by the extremists on the right who insert themselves in the name of God into every political and cultural issue that arises. He also draws a causal link between the "inicreased activism of the Christian Right...and the collapse of bipartisan collegiality." Those who are driven by their moral certitude and superiority are not inclined to compromise.

Speaking for moderate Christians, Danforth, an Episcopal minister, concludes,
"For us, religion should be inclusive, and it should seek to bridge the differences that separate people. We do not exclude from worship those whose opinions differ from ours. Following a Lord who sat at the table with tax collectors and sinners, we welcome to the Lord's table all who would come. Following a Lord who cited love of God and love of neighbor as encompassing all the commandments, we reject a political agenda that displaces that love. Christians who hold these convictions ought to add their clear voice of moderation to the debate on religion in politics."

This is the kind of thing, coming from moderate Republicans (they do still exist, just not in positions of prominence in their party), that we need to see more of in public discourse. Since 9/11 in particular, the Republican Party and Christian political activism have come to be seen as twin pillars of non-inclusive extremisim. Both have embraced the philosophy that if you're not entirely in agreement with them then you are the enemy. Danforth rejects this,
"We reject the notion that religion should present a series of wedge issues useful at election time for energizing a political base. We believe it is God's work to practice humility, to wear tolerance on our sleeves, to reach out to those with whom we disagree, and to overcome the meanness we see in today's politics."

Interestingly, some of the comments at the Washington Monthly reflected the same kind of intoerance coming from the left that Danforth is decrying from the right. Because Danforth supports causes and people the commenters rejected, they reject his message. How can we hope to regain any sense of national identity and common purpose if we reject any who fail to agree with us on all issues? Men and women of goodwill can and will disagree with us much of the time. It is from the areas in which we find agreement that our political dialog and relationships should grow, not the areas in which we disagree. I'm not saying we should embrace those who have no regard for the truth or respect for democratic processes. We should not mistake those people, though, with those who sometimes find themselves in agreement with them on isolated issues.

This wasn't the first time Danforth weighed in against the current political activities of "Christian" extremists in this country and their relationship with the Republican Party. This piece (the link here is to - no regisration required) ran in the times on March 30, 2005:

St. Louis - By a series of recent initiatives, Republicans have transformed our party into the political arm of conservative Christians. 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.

Standing alone, each of these initiatives has its advocates, within the Republican Party and beyond. But the distinct elements do not stand alone. Rather they are parts of a larger package, an agenda of positions common to conservative Christians and the dominant wing of the Republican Party.

Christian activists, eager to take credit for recent electoral successes, would not be likely to concede that Republican adoption of their political agenda is merely the natural convergence of conservative religious and political values. Correctly, they would see a causal relationship between the activism of the churches and the responsiveness of Republican politicians. In turn, pragmatic Republicans would agree that motivating Christian conservatives has contributed to their successes.

High-profile Republican efforts to prolong the life of Ms. Schiavo, including departures from Republican principles like approving Congressional involvement in private decisions and empowering a federal court to overrule a state court, can rightfully be interpreted as yielding to the pressure of religious power blocs.

In my state, Missouri, Republicans in the General Assembly have advanced legislation to criminalize even stem cell research in which the cells are artificially produced in petri dishes and will never be transplanted into the human uterus. They argue that such cells are human life that must be protected, by threat of criminal prosecution, from promising research on diseases like Alzheimer's, Parkinson's and juvenile diabetes.

It is not evident to many of us that cells in a petri dish are equivalent to identifiable people suffering from terrible diseases. I am and have always been pro-life. But the only explanation for legislators comparing cells in a petri dish to babies in the womb is the extension of religious doctrine into statutory law.

I do not fault religious people for political action. Since Moses confronted the pharaoh, faithful people have heard God's call to political involvement. Nor has political action been unique to conservative Christians. Religious liberals have been politically active in support of gay rights and against nuclear weapons and the death penalty. In America, everyone has the right to try to influence political issues, regardless of his religious motivations.

The problem is not with people or churches that are politically active. It is with a party that has gone so far in adopting a sectarian agenda that it has become the political extension of a religious movement.

When government becomes the means of carrying out a religious program, it raises obvious questions under the First Amendment. But even in the absence of constitutional issues, a political party should resist identification with a religious movement. While religions are free to advocate for their own sectarian causes, the work of government and those who engage in it is to hold together as one people a very diverse country. At its best, religion can be a uniting influence, but in practice, nothing is more divisive. For politicians to advance the cause of one religious group is often to oppose the cause of another.

Take stem cell research. Criminalizing the work of scientists doing such research would give strong support to one religious doctrine, and it would punish people who believe it is their religious duty to use science to heal the sick.

During the 18 years I served in the Senate, Republicans often disagreed with each other. But there was much that held us together. We believed in limited government, in keeping light the burden of taxation and regulation. We encouraged the private sector, so that a free economy might thrive. We believed that judges should interpret the law, not legislate. We were internationalists who supported an engaged foreign policy, a strong national defense and free trade. These were principles shared by virtually all Republicans.

But in recent times, we Republicans have allowed this shared agenda to become secondary to the agenda of Christian conservatives. As a senator, I worried every day about the size of the federal deficit. I did not spend a single minute worrying about the effect of gays on the institution of marriage. Today it seems to be the other way around.

The historic principles of the Republican Party offer America its best hope for a prosperous and secure future. Our current fixation on a religious agenda has turned us in the wrong direction. It is time for Republicans to rediscover our roots.

Danforth is trying to assume a role as a moderator in the culture wars. Since these are wars that cannot be won, we need to encourage him.
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