Another Impossible Dream

In The Relevance of Religion: How Faithful People Can Change Politics (2015), John Danforth, former senator from Missouri and an ordained Episcopal priest, argues that religion should unify and not divide us.  We are commanded to love God first and then our neighbors.  That perspective should guide our political life, but religion and politics remain discrete spheres of life.  Our Christian beliefs should affect how we relate to the people around us, including political opponents.

Danforth does not believe there are “causal connections” between religious beliefs and specific positions on political issues. (p. 6) Nor can politics be reduced to a contest of good versus evil.  When confronted with evil, it is better to find non-political ways to change the culture.  (p. 41) In Christ and Culture, H. Richard Niebuhr described several ways Christians relate to culture.  One way is “Christ the Transformer of Culture”, and Danforth fits comfortably under that description.

Once you recognize the distinction between religion and politics, it is then possible to seek political compromise.  Danforth notes that the founding fathers believed in “virtue”, defined as seeking the common good instead of private interest.  As a result, they compromised their strongly held beliefs because to achieve national unity, a public good.  All too often, politicians seek their own interests, such as their re-election.  All too often, politicians seek their own interests, such as their re-election.  The refusal to compromise and the seeking of private gain are two causes of the current political quagmire.

Religion also calls us to be concerned about the good of others.  Too many of us live, by choice or circumstance, isolated from others.  Danforth criticizes the liberal tendency to rely on government programs to assist people.  He prefers private actions and private organizations.  He gives several examples of such efforts in which he was involved but acknowledges that, with all the good intentions and hard work by dedicated people, they still failed.

Danforth uses numerous examples from his private life and his public life to support his views.  He makes a reasonable presentation, but will convince only people who already agree with him.  It is hard to see that it will have a significant impact on dedicated political partisans.  In the midst of the 2016 campaign, a return to civility in our political life seems the impossible dream.