John Danforth, who served three terms as the Republican senator from Missouri and until January served as US ambassador to the UN, has joined Republican Congressman Chris Shays and Virginia senator John Warner in bemoaning their party’s sharp sectarian turn.
Danforth, an Episcopal minister who is regarded as among the senior statesmen of his party, spoke out Wednesday in a New York Times op-ed piece addressing the Terri Schiavo case and other recent religious right muscle flexing, saying that “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.
“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.”
It’s been overlong in coming, but it appears as though former Reagan and Bush I official Bruce Bartlett may have been right when he told Ron Suskind last October that if Bush won the election, “there will be a civil war in the Republican Party starting on Nov. 3.” Hostilities may have been declared then, but not until now did any shooting break out. (Suskind’s NY Times Magazine story, “Without a Doubt,” is well worth reading again.)
Encouraging though it is to see a few blossoms of sanity blooming in the scorched earth where Republicans now live, one can’t help but think, “Where in the hell have you been?” It isn’t as though Tom DeLay has made a secret of his belief that his job in Congress is to promote a biblical worldview (while making a mockery of ethical guidelines), or as though Bill Frist and Rick Santorum and other GOP senators have tried to disguise their assaults on secular America, or as though anyone to the left of those people failed to recognize that the party has adopted thuggery and bile, cloaked in Christianity, as its principal tools of persuasion.
It’s possible these nascent GOP freedom fighters have waited too long to rally the troops; we’ll see how many others hie to the flag during the next few weeks.
But if Danforth and Shays do turn out to be the leading edge of a fledgling rebellion, it could mean that the Roundhead wing of the party has finally overreached and salvation is at hand. If Democrats can capitalize on a Republican schism to capture one chamber of Congress in 2006, that would be sufficient to begin investigations that could pop the Bush Administration like an infected cyst.
Danforth closes his piece thusly: “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.”
I turn to Mark Twain to close mine:
Hain’t we got all the fools in town on our side? And ain’t that a big enough majority in any town?
—The King to the Duke, Adventures of Huckleberry Finn