An absolutist, no-compromise approach to legislation has fundamentally changed the American political landscape over the past two decades, retired statesman Jack Danforth told a Prairie Village crowd on Sunday, but some of the same forces that have caused the shift could be reemployed to to restore functionality.
Danforth, the three-term U.S. Senator from Missouri who served briefly as Ambassador to the United Nations under President George W. Bush, was in town to promote his new book, The Relevance of Religion: How Faithful People Can Change Politics. Before a packed room at Village Presbyterian Church, Danforth and moderator Brian Ellison discussed Danforth’s vision for the proper role of religion in public and political life — and how people of faith could help swing the political process back to one that sought solutions to the nation’s problems.
A devout Episcopalian, Danforth earned both his Doctor of Divinity and his law degree from Yale, and relied on his training in both fields to seek the best path forward during his political career. But, Danforth said, the political environment has shifted from one in which opponents engaged in heated debate and maneuvering with the goal of getting a deal done to one in which obstructionism seems to be the desired outcome.
“It was always combative, but right now there’s nothing there, and that really is a change,” he said. ”
Part of the problem, he said, is the tendency of today’s elected officials to eschew compromise and deal-cutting in favor of rigid ideological positions. Such an approach removes politics from its proper sphere, and puts it into the realm of religion.
“If you make politics like religions, or if you turn politics into religious principles, then politics can’t function,” Danforth said. “Instead of working things out, which is how politics has to function, then it’s ‘My side is God’s side.’ And that’s not true. It is very presumptuous to assume that my side is God’s side.”
Danforth said religious politicians — and their constituents — need to reexamine the role of the government and be honest with themselves about the state of the nation. Democrats stress the benefits the government will provide them. Republicans stress the tax money they’ll save. But neither group seems willing to come to the table to address the trajectory of the country.
“The result is we’ve got a national debt that’s nearly $20 trillion,” Danforth said. “Religious people should be the ones to stand up and say, ‘We don’t just expect you to give us more stuff.'”