JON MEACHAM: Welcome to today’s Council on Foreign Relations meeting and prayer lunch—(laughter)—with Father Danforth, who I’m going to insist on calling you that.
I should tell you, this is an ecumenical overture, because I am a parishioner of St. Thomas Church 5 th Avenue, which is barely at this point considered part of the Anglican communion because it’s sort of the Brigadoon of the Episcopal Church. The incense is so thick you can’t find it. And so for Senator Danforth and others, we are a mystery. But I’m delighted to be here.
I’d like to say the meeting is on the record, so we will watch ourselves. It is being teleconferenced to council members around the country and around the world. And if you all would turn off your cell phones and BlackBerrys so that we don’t have to make jokes about “Oh, that was St. Paul.” (Laughter.)
Very briefly, Senator John Danforth, a long-time distinguished lawmaker from Missouri, a priest of the Episcopal Church in the United States of America, a special envoy to the Sudan, one of those wonderful men, I think, who has become someone that we would think of as a wise man in the best sense of that term. When things are particularly sticky and unpleasant, his phone rings, which he may or may not embrace, but we are all lucky that he does.
The most interesting thing to me about Senator Danforth always has been his duel role, in many ways, being both a politician and a priest, which the only thing that would get him lower on a popularity poll would be a journalist. So we are—lawyer, true. (Laughter.) But you all are better paid, so you can afford to take the brickbats.
He has now written this really wonderful book—I was privileged to read it early on—as he tries to find what we sometimes refer to in the Anglican communion as a middle way, appealing to faith, tradition and Scripture, and chiefly to reason and the idea that there is a role for the appreciation of mystery in the world of faith and the world of politics, and we need to see more clearly through that glass, as St. Paul would say.
So I will start with the last cleric who attracted a great deal of attention talking about faith and reason, the pope—(laughter)—and ask your reaction to Benedict XVI’s comments last week in Germany and the reaction to them.
JOHN C. DANFORTH: Thanks. (Laughter.)
MEACHAM: One of the things—
DANFORTH: Next. (Laughter.)
DANFORTH: Jon, I am very happy to be here and I am very happy to at last see you face to face. I have admired Jon Meacham for—I mean, here’s a man who’s in his 30s, so I can’t say that I’ve admired him forever, but I’ve admired him for a long time. And we’ve spoken on the telephone and we’ve exchanged notes. He sent me a copy of his wonderful book, God’s Politics, which is really excellent. God’s Politics?
MEACHAM: American Gospel. That’s all right.
DANFORTH: Well, something. (Laughter.) He wrote something about something, and I read it. (Laughter.) But my memory is—
MEACHAM: We do try.
DANFORTH: My memory is shot.
MEACHAM: That’s all right. As an editor who writes headlines, I appreciate that. (Laughter.)
DANFORTH: But I’m just delighted to see Jon. He’s terrific. And he blurbed my book, so I really appreciate that.
Look, I think—first of all, I have not read the total statement that the pope made, so I’m not—you know, I’m not a student of what he said. I think that one of the lessons is that when we speak in an interfaith way or when we address people of other faiths, it’s very important to be careful and to be sensitive and to realize, just as the famous Danish cartoon had that terrific response, it’s very important to be aware of how people are feeling and to attempt to speak their language.
But insofar as the pope called for an interfaith dialogue, I think that is clearly correct. I mean, religion is obviously a big part of the problem in the world. You cannot pick up the newspaper without reading about sectarian violence in Iraq—sectarian violence; namely, religious violence—in that case, the Shi’ites versus the Sunnis.
And so I would hope that the reaction to the pope’s comment wouldn’t lead us to believe that, “Okay, therefore, let’s not even talk about the subject.” I think we have to talk about the subject. And if religion is the problem, then people, particularly people of faith, have to try to be part of the answer to the problem.
The point of my writing my book, which is largely domestic, not world religion, but the point of this is to generate talk. I think that the more we talk about these issues, the better off we’re going to be. But again, the lesson is, when you talk, be aware that what you are saying and what is being heard may be two very different things.
MEACHAM: One more global question. Do you think that we could look for, within any reasonable time frame, a reformation within Islam akin to the Protestant Reformation? And what, if anything, can Americans do to help that along?
DANFORTH: I’m no expert on Islam, so I don’t know. But I think that it’s worth putting the question to people of all faiths. And maybe the most comfortable way to put it is just a general question to people of all faiths is, “Do you believe that your religion calls for you to kill in the name of God?”
And it seems to me one useful subject of discussion has to do with a very old concept, going back to, I guess, at least St. Augustine, “What is your view of the whole concept of just war, and particularly noncombatant immunity? And is that still a live one?”
The United Nations has been attempting for a long time to define what is meant by terrorism. It’s not been able to do that. And the reason it hasn’t been able to do that is that there is no agreement of when civilians are immune. So how do we feel about it?
Now, you know, in our own history, World War II, Dresden, Nagasaki, Hiroshima, these were instances of obviously killing noncombatants. But to me it would be an interesting dialogue to rejuvenate.
MEACHAM: Tell us how you got here. How does one run for office in a cassock?
DANFORTH: (Laughs.) Don’t do it. (Laughter.) I don’t recommend it. Well, no, I’m an Episcopalian, as Jon told you. And I can tell you exactly the percentage of Episcopalians in the state of Missouri. It’s .47 percent; that is, it’s 47/100ths of 1 percent who are Episcopalian. So obviously I didn’t go around saying, “Fellow Episcopalians, arise!” (Laughter.) “Our day has come.” (Laughter.)
MEACHAM: If you had, it would have been in the men’s grill at the St. Louis country club. (Laughter.)
DANFORTH: Yeah. Yeah, or something.
MEACHAM: God’s frozen people.
DANFORTH: But, no, you know, I mean, look, I am what I am. And when you’re in politics, you bring to it your whole person, the totality of what you are, and you don’t say, “Okay, well, you know, I’m a religious person when I go to church, but the rest of the week I’m really not, and please understand that.” You don’t do that.
And the people of Missouri understood what I was. But they also understood that I tried to wear my tolerance on my sleeve, and they understood that I was not going to go to the United States Senate as the agent of the Episcopalian church in the U.S. Senate. That would not have worked.
I mean, I think, you know, it is—I had an interview with a reporter yesterday about this situation we’re in where religion seems to be so divisive in American politics and in world politics. And the reporter started asking questions as though, well, religion and politics, they really—this is a bad thing; not necessarily.
I said, you know, religion ain’t all bad. I mean, at its best, it provides a sense of humility and a sense of understanding and a sense of belief that we are not the sole possessors of God’s truth, and therefore an ability to deal with each other. That’s at its best. And so I think religion can bring a lot to the world of politics.
But when it becomes “My way is God’s way, and God’s way and my way or the highway,” which is how it’s presented today, I think, a lot in politics, then it becomes a very bad thing.
MEACHAM: Well, how do you combat that? Because you’re arguing, yes, religion at its best creates a sense of humility and of service and—(inaudible)—God’s work must truly be our own.
But in a proportional sense, there’s a lot less of that and a lot more of “I’m right, you’re wrong,” and I won’t say “To hell with you,” but there’s some of that.
MEACHAM: What do you say to the Falwells and the Robertsons, the Franklin Grahams, who make incendiary statements about other belief systems in the political arena?
DANFORTH: They are not my audience. I don’t know that I have much to say, although, you know, if I saw them, I’d try to be polite and so on. But that’s not really my audience.
What I’m trying to do—I’m certainly not trying to shut them up. I mean, Rush Limbaugh had a program; there was an article about me in The Washington Post, and Rush Limbaugh had this long segment on his program, and he was blasting away and saying, “Well, Danforth wants to shut people up—shut Christians up, shut conservatives up.”
No, I don’t. I don’t want to shut anybody up. And in this country, you don’t try to shut—anybody can speak. I’m trying to get a lot more people speaking. I think that the answer to the present state of American politics is greater participation by a lot more people. And that’s what I’m trying to do. That’s the point of the book.
The point of the book isn’t just to blab away. The point of the book is to hope that there’s going to be some discussion out there and some response. And that’s why it’s a good thing. It’s not just this book. It’s your book. It’s Kevin Phillips’s book. Madeleine Albright wrote a book. A lot of books are about to come out on this question of religion and politics.
And the more we think about it and the more we talk about it, the better off we’re going to be, because the average person out there, if the average person starts speaking and talking and not leaving it solely to the people on the fringes to talk, most people would say, “In this country, we’re all in it together, and we cannot allow religion to divide us.” That’s what most people would say. But you don’t really hear from most people.
The politicians in today’s world don’t appeal to the center. They appeal to the base. They try to energize their base. So what happened to the center, it fell silent. And the time has come for the center to speak.
MEACHAM: It’s been 40 years since you first ran for office, almost exactly; 38 years. Is the country more aggressively religious in the political arena than it was in 1968? And, if so, why?
DANFORTH: It clearly is, yes. And I think—I mean, first of all, I think probably the country is more religious now than it was then. I had dinner the night before last with Harold Shapiro, the former president of Princeton. And he still teaches there. And he was talking about how students now are more religious and how some of the best students are religious. But they are religious—the ones he sees, they’re religious, and yet they’re very welcoming and very open to one another, and it’s a very good situation. So I think, in general, yes.
Now, with respect to the political implications of this, there has been a trend in both political parties not to try to compete for the center. And when I was active in politics, that was the name of the game, because, you know, Republicans had about a third of the vote, more or less; Democrats, more or less a third. But about a third were up for grabs. So the notion was, “Okay, I want to grab them.”
But now, if you listen to the political strategists, they don’t talk about competing for the center. They talk about energizing the base. They want to get big turnout from their base supporters. And the base of the Republican Party is now the Christian right. So it turns out that Christianity, instead of being the ministry of reconciliation—Paul’s term—is the wedge. And I don’t think that’s the way it should be.
MEACHAM: Many people believe that President George W. Bush has exacerbated this sense of religion as a dividing factor as opposed to a uniting one. Do you agree with that?
DANFORTH: Well, I think that getting into that particular question would not exactly further my efforts. I think that would be the headline and I would be quickly off in the hinterlands.
Look, I served President Bush. I was his envoy with respect to Sudan. And I really admired him in that capacity. I mean, he was very focused on Sudan. And I think that was very good. And then I served him in the United Nations. So, you know, I like him and I respect him. And I’m not interested in sort of pointing the finger at one individual or another. I think what we’ve got is a phenomenon in American life right now and in American political life, and it’s kind of getting off into a little bit of a detour to try to, you know, point to one individual as being the heart of the problem.
MEACHAM: Let me try this another way. (Laughter.)
DANFORTH: That’s the problem with this format—
DANFORTH:—to have a journalist asking the questions. Okay, what other question can I evade? (Laughter.)
MEACHAM: That was very well done. And the truth shall make you free, Father. (Laughter.)
DANFORTH: Later. (Laughter.)
MEACHAM: Fair enough. Are there opportunities that we are currently missing in terms of dealing both with concerns overseas—HIV/AIDS in Africa, the broad question of relations with Islam, Darfur, a subject close to your heart—that could marshal the religious feeling you have described in the country in a positive way? And how would one do that without appearing to be the dread word “crusader”?
DANFORTH: No, that’s true. And I speak about this, you know, in part in the book, because some of the best cases of American engagement in the world have been religiously inspired. When the president asked me to be his special envoy for peace in Sudan, it was very clear when I appeared with him in the Rose Garden what the impetus was. It was religious people who are very concerned about Sudan. And they focused our attention on Sudan. They are today focusing our attention on Sudan. And that is constructive.
And it wasn’t just conservative Christians. It was all kinds of religious people who were and are intensely interested in Sudan and who keep us focused on it, even though it would be arguable that we don’t have much of a national interest in whatever happens in Sudan. We do, but it’s hardly central to America’s interests around the world. But it was something that the religious community took on, and in a very constructive and positive way.
Similarly—this is back in the 1970s when I went over to the border of Cambodia and Thailand and into Cambodia when the refugees were fleeing the invasion of the Vietnamese at the time. And here were all these people. Many of them had been part of the Khmer Rouge, just an awful political outfit, but they were starving. And a lot of the interest in the United States on helping these people came from the religious community that was very, very engaged in it. So religious engagement in the affairs of the world, I think, is—it can be a very positive thing.
MEACHAM: Just to circle around, then, isn’t that a role for leaders, particularly in the political arena? I think about the great civil rights speeches of President Kennedy and President Johnson; obviously the civil rights movement being the great example of the 20 th century, arguably, of a domestic instance of religiously inspired good works. John Lewis has said that if it were not for Christianity, the movement would not have happened, and if not for the churches.
So without asking you to comment on the president, in general aren’t those who are with the microphones and who put themselves forward to try to shape the policies by which we live required to hold themselves to a higher standard in terms of discussing these things on the biblical principle that to whom must is given, much is expected?
DANFORTH: You know, I think so, sure. You know, I mean, I think that there is a religious obligation to participate positively in the world and to be a force for good in the world. But I think where religion gets into problems is that when people who do that think, you know, “Not only am I engaged in the world, but I am so righteously engaged in the world that I am God’s true representative. I mean, I really understand this. And I’ve got the ability to translate God’s will into my political agenda. So my political agenda is God’s, and yours isn’t.” And that is not a healthy situation.
But, yeah, I think that there is a duty to speak and there is a duty to act in politics and there is a duty to engage in politics. And most people—you know, this isn’t some new phenomenon. This goes on since, you know, since Joseph served Pharaoh, I mean, that religious people have been engaged in politics. The question is the certainty with which you do it or the humility with which you do it.
MEACHAM: What are the lessons in the American experience with religious liberty and the tricky idea of the separation of church and state that we can usefully try to project around the world? Do we have a good story to tell, do you think?
DANFORTH: About the separation of church and state? I think we do, yeah. I mean, I think it’s a very important concept, because we recognized at the beginning—I mean, Madison recognized the divisive power of religion. And we had seen it. I mean, we’d seen this in Europe. And our framers of the Constitution, and Madison particularly, had fought this battle in Virginia and seen that, you know, religion can be just a total battleground. And he wanted to avoid it.
And yeah, I mean, it’s hard to say, you know, that therefore the U.S. should go out and proselytize the world to adopt exactly our system. But there’s a lot to be said for understanding the difference between religion and politics. Religion can and should inform politics, but religion is not politics. And the church is not the state, and it shouldn’t become the state.
MEACHAM: Is it appropriate for people who make their living in the way I make mine to ask presidential candidates about their personal faith, unless they volunteer it? Do they have to open the door to it, or can we walk in the front? In your view, ideally, given your thinking about the connection between faith and politics, is that something that we have a right to know?
DANFORTH: I generally felt, when I was in politics, that the media should never ask hard questions. (Laughter.) No, look, you decide what you want to ask. But, you know, I think that the point—
MEACHAM: And you obviously decide what you want to answer.
DANFORTH: Right. (Laughs.) There need not be a relationship between the two. (Laughter.) But, no, I think it’s a fine question to ask. And I think it’s fine for politicians to talk about their faith. But I think the thing to listen to is, you know, whether they have a degree of humility in expressing themselves or whether they are there to represent some particular sectarian position.
MEACHAM: I’ll ask you one more and then we’ll throw it open to questions. Looking back over the 40 years, if the country has, in fact, become more aggressively religious, if you had to point to two or three moments or events as to what exacerbated this or fueled this, what would they be?
DANFORTH: I think that the center of American politics began collapsing—I don’t know—shortly before I left the Senate. And one thing that happened was a bunch of people who had served in the House of Representatives had moved over to the Senate, and they had brought with them the confrontational style to the Senate, which—I mean, look, politics has always been combat, but they brought an entirely different style into politics.
There was less interest in trying to reach any kind of bipartisan consensus. It all became a matter of positioning and taking hard-edged positions so that you would have clarity for the next round of 30-second commercials and the next election. Then it became a matter of “Let’s not be squishy or wishy-washy or gray area; let’s be very bright-lined and energize our political base.”
And I think that that was the main change in politics, the decision made to energize the base rather than to compete for the center. And the Republicans saw this base as being the Christian conservatives, and they saw the Christian conservatives as adding something to traditional Republicans.
I mean, they would say that traditional Republicans are losers. You know, I mean, that’s our history. We lose. So they would say this has been great, because it works. My response would be, it works as of now. But once the American people get wise to this, it’s not going to work very much longer.
MEACHAM: I’d like to invite everyone to ask a question. Please wait for the microphone. Let’s start over here. Please identify yourself and your affiliation.
QUESTIONER: Karen Monaghan, the Council on Foreign Relations.
Reflecting on your role as the mediator in Sudan, what advice would you give to Andrew Natsios, who’s been named as the new special envoy, as he engages in this process?
DANFORTH: Andrew Natsios is—I think he’s terrific, and he’s very, very knowledgeable about Sudan. He spent a lot of time dealing with it. The advice is to engage the government of Sudan and to do your best to marshal the opinion of other countries to engage the government of Sudan in a way that really squeezes Sudan, squeezes the government.
The goal has to be to bring in peacekeepers in substantial number. And that’s not going to happen unless the government of Sudan at least tolerates it. So that’s the big question mark: Will they? And to put sufficient pressure on the government so that they know that they’re being squeezed is, I think, his goal.
MEACHAM: (Off mike)—the biblical reward for “The first shall be last.”
Q Hi. Roger Kubarych, Council on Foreign Relations and HPB America.
The issue of torture, the Geneva Convention—you were in the Senate a long time. There are some of your colleagues that are openly resisting the president. Where is the compromise solution to this? Could you—if you were still in the Senate, how would you proceed?
DANFORTH: Well, I’d sure be looking for the compromise solution, and I don’t know where it is. I’m not that into the specifics of the issue. But I think, you know, for the last five years we’ve been faced with something very, very different than we were ever faced with before.
I remember when George Shultz was secretary of State, one time asking him, “Do you think we’ll ever have a terrorist problem in the United States?” And his answer was no, he didn’t. Well, now we’ve got it. Now we’ve got a world in which people fly planes into buildings and have car bombs and so on. It’s just a very different world.
It’s a very different kind of threat from dealing with a nation-state where the nation has borders and when the nation has conventional military power and where the nation—the old Soviet Union, for whatever its threats and problems, was at least sane.
Now we’ve got something that is much, much scarier than that, and we don’t really know how to deal with it. And we haven’t yet defined where the appropriate lines are. Where is the balance between privacy and security, for example? How far do you go in questioning? What is the application, if any, of the Geneva Conventions to people who are just running loose as terrorists?
I don’t know the answer to that, but I do know that this is a further reason for trying to reconstitute the center of American politics to address just this kind of question with a degree of precision, because the quality of debate right now is awful. The quality of debate is purely creating set-ups for the next political campaign so that one party claims that the other party are essentially cowards, and the other says, “Well, the president’s a liar.” And it’s all the next 30-second commercial or the next 20-second sound bite.
So my answer to you is I really don’t know where that line is drawn, but I think it’s a very dangerous world and I think that the role of intelligence in combating terrorism is absolutely crucial. And we have learned that the problem with preemptive warfare is what are we to do to protect ourselves? And so I think, you know, you can’t say, “Well, you know, I mean, we are just into America’s standards.” Of course we are. But we also have to protect the country. I don’t know where that stands. But I am concerned about the nature of political discourse right now.
MEACHAM: In the corner.
QUESTIONER: Jim Dingman, INN World Report.
What sort of policy prescriptions would you have to try to ameliorate the sort of demonization that’s going on between the Islamic world and the West? Let’s assume the center is re-established. What would you do? What would you do if you could practically do something to change this?
DANFORTH: I thought, when I was at the United Nations, that there should be a standing mediation facility on the religious component of political disputes. And I think that there should be a direct dealing with religion and not pretend that this really isn’t religious or there’s no religious component or that it’s all political or they’re just insurgents, you know, as though insurgents don’t have any religious motivation.
So I think it’s important to face up to the fact that a good part of the problem in the world right now is a religious problem and that there should be some effort to try to bridge the differences. That doesn’t mean convert one another. It means try to create understanding. Try to see if there isn’t common agreement on questions such as noncombatant immunity.
Now, it’s not going to be 100 percent agreement, because there’s still going to be people out there who are going to believe in the car bombs and the bombs on planes. But where are the countervoices to this? Where is everybody else? Who else is going to be heard on this within Islam and without Islam?
So I think that, you know, while the pope made an unfortunate statement or expression in his speech, the notion of increased religious dialogue is important. I thought that it could be appropriately done under the auspices of the Security Council, that this really is Security Council stuff.
I got nowhere on that—I mean, nowhere. The only other country that agreed with me was the Philippines. So that’s a tough sell. But that’s what I would favor, some way to directly raise the issue of the religious aspect of all of this and try to mediate it. That doesn’t mean compromise it. It means mediate.
MEACHAM: Mr. Sorensen.
QUESTIONER: Ted Sorensen at Paul Weiss. Thanks, Senator, for all you’ve done.
I was in a European city not so long ago; by chance was at the Organization of Very Thoughtful Citizens. They asked me to speak. I said, “What do you want me to speak about?” They said, “Tell us about the good America.” They weren’t speaking in religious terms, but they were talking about a very different kind of America, when the president of the United States said, “The world knows America will never start a war,” when the religion that was separated from—at least church and state were separated and religion was flourishing here, and it underlay much of our bipartisan foreign policy, which was based, to a large extent, on our moral authority in the world.
Now our foreign policy is based largely on our military power, not our moral power. And now, as one questioner suggested, we’re known around the world for torture and indefinite detention. What’s happened to this country?
DANFORTH: I think what’s happened to this country is that post-9/11 we’ve got—we’re facing a threat that we never faced before, and we don’t understand how to deal with it. We haven’t really had the discussion internally to face up to it.
And, you know, I think the American people are fair and decent people, but I also think they’re scared. And they have every right to be scared. I mean, this is a different kind of world we’re living in now. So how do we restate, how do we clarify and stand for our principles, and do so in a way that’s aware and effective in dealing with real threats in the world? I think that’s the challenge for us.
MEACHAM: Ms. Hills.
QUESTIONER: Senator, I’m awfully glad you’re here. Carla Hills, Hills and Company.
How do we resuscitate the center? My perception is that since you left the Senate, that we have so redistricted ourselves that we’re either red or blue, and the 30-30-30 equation that you alluded to no longer exists. Your district is either red primarily or blue. So nobody’s in the back of the auditorium saying, “Mr. Senator, I have this view” that you feel you have to respond to. You know where the majority are. And the more extreme you are, the more you appeal to the majority in your district.
DANFORTH: I am—notwithstanding the gerrymandering problem, I am pretty hopeful. I mean, I think that the American people have come out about right. And the question is whether they’re going to be sufficiently outspoken and whether there are going to be enough people in the back of the room raising the questions, because every politician, every candidate, thinks that he or she is about to be run out of office. So they’re very concerned about what the public is saying and what the public is thinking.
If all they hear is their base supporters, and if the people in the center are mute, then they’re going to continue to appeal to the base. So what I’m trying to do in writing the book and in platforms like this, and wherever else I can speak, is to try to encourage the people in the center to reconstitute themselves. And the only way to do it is to do it. You know, I mean, the only way to do it is to weigh in. The only way to do it is to show up at the town meetings or write the e-mails or the letters or go up to the politicians and say, you know, “What about us?”
But I am convinced that this is where the American people are. I am convinced that most people, when they see political candidates at campaign time or when they go to the polling places, they don’t like either alternative, because they’re just getting the two alternatives.
I am convinced that when people turn on the news channels and see the talking heads representing poll A and opposite poll B, most people, I think, are saying, “We don’t agree with either of these characters.”
So the thing to do is to let people know that. And that’s what this whole book is about, to try to generate some push-back.
MEACHAM: (Off mike.)
QUESTIONER: Thanks, Jon.
Senator, I’m—(name inaudible)—a member of the council.
As you know, there has been such dramatic changes in ethnicities and demographics in Europe that there’s a new fashionable term, “Eurabia.” Are you concerned that with the equally dramatic changes in demographics and ethnicities in this country, a new kind of America is emerging where the conversation may be shifted toward perhaps more unsavory heights or depths? And how concerned are you? And how should America, as you see it, in the years ahead be governed, given this changing demographics? Thank you.
DANFORTH: I am not concerned about changing demographics. I know that it’s, I guess, politically popular now to be very concerned about changing demographics. I’m not. I think that the glory of America is in its ability to accommodate all kinds of people in this country. And I think that, notwithstanding the political juice that’s now in the immigration issue, most Americans would say we’ve got to stick together as one country.
And so, you know, I mean, I just think that forever this system and the Constitution—how do you hold together diverse interests in one country? And ever since, that’s been something—we’ve gone through this before, and we’ve managed to do it. And I think we will continue to.
I think if you asked most people—I may have said this before— “Do you think that religious differences should divide us? Do you think ethnic differences should divide us?” I think most people would say no, we don’t think so.
MEACHAM: (Off mike.)
QUESTIONER: James Sitrick, Baker McKenzie.
Senator, you’ve spoken admirably, as has Carla, of the center. The Financial Times reported in the last couple of weeks that shortly after the 2000 election, Karl Rove commissioned a study by, I think, a man called Matthew Dowd, although I don’t remember his name, who concluded that the center had reduced itself to about 6 percent of the population, no longer one-third, and that, therefore, from that point on, Rove and the president no longer felt constrained to talk about compassionate conservatism, or being humble as opposed to being arrogant, but started to appeal to the base, because all politicians want to be elected, and that’s how you get elected, if Dowd is correct.
First, do you agree with that? And second, if so, how do we combat that?
DANFORTH: I think that that is exactly what’s happened. I don’t know about the 6 percent, because, I mean, my view is most people out there say “None of the above” when they’re asked about their current political choices. But I’ve heard that same figure. And that’s the rationale for trying to energize the base. And I believe that the center is still there, but we’re not appealing to it.
So what do I think? And I’m kind of repeating myself, but I think that the more people who raise the issue and talk about it, write about it, and make their voices heard, the better off we’re going to be as a country. And I think this use of religion to divide us, maybe it’s a great strategy for the time being, but it cannot stand the light of day. It cannot stand the light of day.
If we focus attention on it, if we put light on it, if we make a big deal about it, it cannot stand the light of day. So I’m for making a big deal about it.
MEACHAM: (Off mike.)
QUESTIONER: Gary Rosen from Commentary magazine.
Senator, you talked about the center, the great center out there, which is your audience. And you’ve talked about those on the right who make these damaging religious claims. But what is the opposite end of the spectrum? Who are the extremists on the other side? And how might we begin to think about that aspect of the problem?
I ask this with particular reference to the Supreme Court, because over the years, if you look historically at the rise of the religious right, much of it has been in response to rulings on school prayer, on abortion, on claims that many people thought the Supreme Court shouldn’t be making.
So I ask this of you as, if I remember correctly, the man who sponsored Clarence Thomas’s nomination in the Senate.
DANFORTH: What’s the—I think you imported a second point into a first question. (Laughter.) But I’ll be happy to talk about both of them. What do the Democrats do when they appeal to the base? Well, the trial lawyers; that’s part of their base. That’s totally put the kibosh on any meaningful tort reform. The labor unions; that has totally put the kibosh on any meaningful effort to save programs, including Social Security and Medicare, in a responsible way.
So, I mean, I’m just speaking as a Republican. I don’t view the Democrats as an attractive alternative. They’ve got their own problems. It’s a different kind of base. It’s not a religious base.
Now Clarence Thomas. When Clarence Thomas was a third-year law student, I hired him to come to work for me in the attorney general’s office in Missouri. He came to work for me and he was an excellent assistant attorney general. When I went to the Senate, shortly after I went to the Senate, I asked him to come to my staff in the Senate, and he did an excellent job there.
And then when President Reagan was elected, he went to work for the administration. And as you know, he ended up being the first President Bush’s nominee for the Supreme Court.
Whatever your view on his jurisprudence—and I don’t pretend to be a scholar of his jurisprudence—Clarence Thomas is as kind and decent a human being as I have ever known. I love him. What was done to him was totally unconscionable, and it should never be done to any human being. It was the idea that the end justifies the means, and if the end is trying to defeat a Supreme Court justice’s nomination and the means is personal self-destruction, well, that’s quite all right. It isn’t quite all right.
This is not a monopoly. It’s not going to be a monopoly of liberals against conservative nominees. I guarantee you that sooner or later there’s going to be a Democratic president and it’s going to be in the minds of Republicans payback time for Bork, for Thomas, for Alito, and on and on. And it isn’t right. It isn’t right.
And one of the chapters in the book is about the politics of character assassination. I don’t care what you think about somebody’s jurisprudence or political views; you don’t try to destroy a human being for a political cause. And that is something that all religious people should be able to agree about—all of them—conservatives, liberals. And it would be a good thing for conservatives to take the lead on, because the liberals’ day is coming unless conservatives say, “We’re not going to do this.”
MEACHAM: (Off mike.)
QUESTIONER: I’m Jim Zirin (sp), Senator.
I wondered what your perception was of how a committed Christian such as yourself would engage in productive religious discourse, or even political dialogue, with people who think their creed authorizes them to kill others in the name of God, kill themselves in the name of God, or wipe a whole country off the face of the map in the name of God.
DANFORTH: If that’s what they believe, there’s no dialogue. I mean, that’s—the question is, is that the prevailing view, or can we isolate that view? And I think that the reason for trying to encourage religious dialogue is to try to isolate that point of view and to try to make it clear that people of various religious faiths do not agree that destroying civilians by planting bombs on your body is an appropriate use of religion.
QUESTIONER: Senator Danforth, my name is James Tunkey (sp). I would like to ask if you have some suggestions of less divisive family planning policies that we might advocate in the United Nations.
DANFORTH: I don’t know. I’d have to be a little bit closer to the issue than I am now. I’m too far away from it to be sharp on it. I’m sorry, I’m just really not prepared for the question. I should be, but I’m not.
QUESTIONER: Thank you, Senator. My name is Roland Paul. I’m a lawyer.
Returning to the question of the Sudan, on which you are an expert—and this is sincerely a question, not a declamation—what is it that the Sudan has that prevents us from insisting that a more substantial peacekeeping force be introduced in Darfur?
DANFORTH: Well, I don’t think there’s any possibility that the United States militarily is going to invade an Islamic country the size of Sudan for whatever reason. So I think that whatever is done in Sudan is going to be a multinational effort, not just an American effort.
And I think, given post-Iraq, during the Iraq war, the United States is more likely to act as a facilitator or catalyst working with other countries than as the leader of this parade.
The Security Council has taken the position that we need to have a robust multinational peacekeeping force replacing the African Union or supplementing the African Union. And I think that that’s correct. They’ve also taken the position that they’re not going to do that unless it’s approved by the government of Sudan.
So I don’t see any alternative to where we are now other than putting as much pressure as we can on the government of Sudan, and then making sure we get the troops to go on there. I mean, you can’t—let’s say that the government of Sudan said today, “Okay, let’s do it,” then you can’t have six months, nine months, 12 months of hemming and hawing and “What are we going to do about this?” They have to be able to move very quickly.
QUESTIONER: Tina Bennett from Janklow& Nesbit Associates
I’m wondering how you would account for the seeming passivity of mainstream Protestant denominations in their kind of allowing more evangelical or authoritarian Christians to redefine the message. Is there a failure of leadership?
DANFORTH: Yes, an incomprehensible failure of leadership and silence and delight in contemplating our own navels—delight in it. And certainly in the Episcopal Church, it’s ridiculous. I had the opportunity to speak to the general convention of our church last June, and that was exactly the point that I made.
Our church historically has been a reconciling church. We’ve been able to encompass a variety of points of view within—under the umbrella of one liturgy. That should be a good thing. And that should be our call. It should be a ministry of reconciliation. That should be a call of Christian churches, the ministry of reconciliation. It’s based on what St. Paul told the Corinthians. That’s what we should be doing.
And yet for most people, if you ask most people, “Tell me something about the Episcopal Church,” “Oh, well, they’re all about the gay bishop of New Hampshire.” And that’s what I said to the general convention. What conceivable difference does it make to anybody in the United States who the bishop of New Hampshire is? None. What difference does it make to anybody in the state of Missouri, where, as I said earlier, our Episcopal population is less than one-half of 1 percent, what conceivable difference does it make to anybody in my state whether the bishop of New Hampshire is gay or straight? And yet we are totally riveted as a denomination on this subject. It’s wacky.
And I think that the churches, mainstream churches, hopefully are going to see themselves as a reconciling force in the world, which means that they have to be, as your question indicates, more active, more outspoken, more articulate in what we’re for, and less fixated on our own internal inside baseball.
MEACHAM: I think the last question—oh, sorry, we’ll do two. Mother Breyer. (Laughter.) I’ll just add, one of the things that’s interesting to me about the New Hampshire question is it’s all about an adverb— “openly”—openly gay.
QUESTIONER: Chloe Breyer. I work as an associate minister at St. Mary’s Manhattanville uptown. And I’m curious, just following on your last question, because one of the other efforts of the Episcopal Church has been to be heavily involved in the promotion of the Millennium development goals, which I believe was also the main theme of that convention.
And I wonder if you could speak a little more about your work at the United Nations, where for some reason it seems that at least that has become another area where the religious force has become equated with the extreme right, and not for lack of effort, I would say, on the part of the mainstream denominations, who’ve tried endlessly to get the issue of global poverty in the forefront. So I would like your—
DANFORTH: No, I think it’s—
DANFORTH: Sure. No, I think it’s good, and I think that’s fine. I think that there’s a little bit of a write-your-congressman approach to focusing on the Millennium goals. I once spoke to a clergy friend of mine and he said he never attended a clergy conference that didn’t end with a commitment to go home and write your congressman, which is fine. I think it’s good. And as I indicated earlier, I think communicating with politicians is very good.
But I think that it’s important for religions to do something more than lean on governments. I think it’s fine to lean on governments, but I think it’s important not to stop with leaning on governments, because I think that religion is a good part of the problem in the world. And if religion is a problem, then people of faith better figure out what they’re going to do to solve the problem. And that to me means a greater effort at dialogue and mediation and trying to come to some common understanding among people of faith.
MEACHAM: Last question.
QUESTIONER: (Off mike.)
DANFORTH: Thanks, Phil. Phil was one of the smart guys in my college class.
QUESTIONER: (Laughs.) I wish I’d done as much good public service as you have, which I commend you for.
I’m a little pessimistic about your comment that these issues aren’t going to stand the light of day. Since Roe v. Wade, abortion has dominated American politics since 1972. Still every Supreme Court nomination, it dominates; stem cell research, gay marriage.
How can any political leader get the middle to emphasize some other issue?
DANFORTH: I think, on all of these issues, there are going to be strong opinions and strong differences of opinion. But what’s happened is it’s not just been isolated issues or even, you know, a group of issues. It’s become a full-fledged political agenda, with the view that, you know, here is God’s own agenda. And I think that most people—I mean, I’m hopeful that most people would say that America should not be divided on sectarian lines.
There are going to be—let’s take the issue of gay marriage. There are going to be different views on that, on whether that’s marriage. But is it the kind of thing that should be in the Constitution of the United States? Should we elevate it to that point? Are issues such as the appearance of the Ten Commandments on courthouse walls in Alabama, is that of sufficient import to warrant fracturing the country over something like that?
And I think most people would say no, it isn’t. You know, we’ve got other things that are more important than that. So I’m reasonably optimistic, really. I think that the American people are going to turn out okay, provided that we give a good airing to these things.
MEACHAM: Just one quick point of personal privilege. Senator Danforth, I think, represents with this book, and with really his record of public service, one of the last great hopes for the center. And there are a lot of us who applaud him and are cheering on and appreciate it.
So thank you for today. (Applause.)
DANFORTH: Thanks, Jon. Thank you. Thank you very much.
© COPYRIGHT 2006, FEDERAL NEWS SERVICE, INC., 1000 VERMONT AVE.
NW; 5 TH FLOOR; WASHINGTON, DC - 20005, USA. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED. ANY REPRODUCTION, REDISTRIBUTION OR RETRANSMISSION IS EXPRESSLY PROHIBITED.
UNAUTHORIZED REPRODUCTION, REDISTRIBUTION OR RETRANSMISSION CONSTITUTES A MISAPPROPRIATION UNDER APPLICABLE UNFAIR COMPETITION LAW, AND FEDERAL NEWS SERVICE, INC. RESERVES THE RIGHT TO PURSUE ALL REMEDIES AVAILABLE TO IT IN RESPECT TO SUCH MISAPPROPRIATION.
FEDERAL NEWS SERVICE, INC. IS A PRIVATE FIRM AND IS NOT AFFILIATED WITH THE FEDERAL GOVERNMENT. NO COPYRIGHT IS CLAIMED AS TO ANY PART OF THE ORIGINAL WORK PREPARED BY A UNITED STATES GOVERNMENT OFFICER OR EMPLOYEE AS PART OF THAT PERSON’S OFFICIAL DUTIES.
FOR INFORMATION ON SUBSCRIBING TO FNS, PLEASE CALL JACK GRAEME AT 202-347-1400.
THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT