- The Washington Times - Monday, October 9, 2006

Former Sen. John Danforth is in many ways a political dinosaur. That is unfortunate because the world would be a better place if people like him were not nearly extinct.

Mr. Danforth, who served three terms as a Republican senator from Missouri before retiring in 1995, is a moderate conservative with strong religious beliefs who does not think compromise is a four-letter word. He longs for the days when those on both sides of the political aisle took a more centrist approach to problem solving and had greater respect for their adversaries.

He discusses his views, including a plea for the Republican Party to become less beholden to the demands of Christian conservatives, in his engaging memoir/political tract, “Faith and Politics: How the ‘Moral Values’ Debate Divides America and How to Move Forward Together.”

Mr. Danforth, an ordained Episcopal minister, does not equate centrism with political mushiness or an abandonment of core beliefs. Rather, he sees it as a way to create a fairer and more just world by including and respecting a variety of worldviews.

He contends that the best leaders are those without an inflated view of their own importance or the certitude that their views are the only right ones.

“[I]f we are less confident about our capacity to know and implement God’s will, and if our faith brings modesty about ourselves and our politics, our effectiveness is more likely. I believe that such modesty is, or at least should be, Christianity’s gift to American politics,” he writes.

He cites the Republican Party’s efforts to overturn court decisions allowing relatives to unplug the feeding tube of Terri Schiavo as evidence of an unhealthy mingling of religion and politics that betrays the party’s true conservative heritage.

“It was a threat to some of our most heartfelt values. It was Big Brotherism in the extreme, an exercise of the raw and awesome power of the federal government,’ he writes.

To avoid repeats of that approach, he calls for religious people in politics to practice a “ministry of reconciliation.” This would, he maintains, focus on increasing reasoned dialogue aimed at finding common ground on, among other things, applying religious values to politics. He is careful to note, however, that there is a difference between allowing religious beliefs to form one’s worldview and trying to write those ideas into public policy.

Mr. Danforth’s goals are well intentioned and achievable on a limited basis, but current political dynamics probably preclude long-term change in the direction he seeks.

For starters, those at the ideological extremes have an easier time boiling down their views into a sound bite, an all-too-frequent means of political discourse. Besides, the certitude with which those on the far left and far right express their views has a certain appeal for those who like their solutions in neatly wrapped packages. The adage that the “squeaky wheel gets the grease’ is an apt description of the current state of affairs, where noise and dogmatism often win out over reasoned discourse.

President Bush once famously said that “I don’t do nuance,” and that is a worldview shared by liberals and conservatives alike. The Danforth approach requires a great deal of nuance and splitting the difference.

Though current polls indicate that the public is displeased with both parties, that does not generally translate into electing more centrists who share Mr. Danforth’s commitment to bridging the ideological divide.

Mr. Danforth’s views on moral and social issues are neither strictly conservative nor liberal. He opposes abortion and gay marriage but is against a constitutional amendment banning the latter practice. At the same time, he favors expanding stem-cell research and opposes both the death penalty and mandatory school prayer.

Those positions make him hard to pigeonhole — not necessarily a bad thing — but also make him someone who is not completely comfortable in either political camp.

That is a good perspective from which to try to find a fresh approach to solving the nation’s problems. Mr. Danforth does an admirable job of that in “Faith and Politics.”

While it is not clear how effective the book will be in changing minds, those who care about improving the state of national affairs should welcome it as an important contribution to our political dialogue.

Claude R. Marx writes a political column for the Eagle-Tribune in North Andover, Mass. He is the author of a chapter on the presidential campaign of Howard Dean that appears in the book “The Divided States of America.”

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