Former U.S. Sen. John Danforth, a longtime Missouri Republican politician and Episcopal priest, urged those attending a Methodist church in Kansas to not make an idol out of politics. Danforth also warned of the dangers of “holy war” politics as he spoke virtually on Sunday (Oct. 23) at the Church of the Resurrection, a large United Methodist congregation that has multiple locations on both the Kansas and Missouri sides of the Kansas City metro area.
“There can only be one ultimate concern,” Danforth said. “For Christians, it’s the kingdom of God. When we make anything else ultimate, we violate the second commandment, we commit idolatry. In Old Testament times, people made idols of gold and silver. Today, we make idols of ideology and politics. Surely politics is important, but we should not make it our ultimate concern. It isn’t religion.”
Danforth spent more than a quarter-century in elected office, first as Missouri’s attorney general and then as a senator. Later, he briefly served as U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations for President George W. Bush. After the Jan. 6, 2021, insurrection, he denounced his former mentee Josh Hawley, who Danforth had helped propel into the U.S. Senate seat Danforth once held. He called supporting Hawley “the worst mistake I ever made in my life.”
Although Danforth didn’t mention the insurrection in his sermon on Sunday, he did talk about the danger of violent political rhetoric, especially among those refusing to accept election results.
“Consider how often the word fight and its derivatives appear in political messaging. In one recent solicitation, I found it three times in a single sentence,” Danforth said. “The pastor of a conservative megachurch told me that government is corrupt and that he supported a politician who would blow things up. He could overlook personal immorality. Blowing things up seems extreme, but not to the 30% of Americans who think that democratic elections are rigged. Nor to those who believe that the Department of Justice, the FBI, and the IRS are corrupt.”
Danforth lamented that “the center is gone” in Congress as “politicians target the extremes.” He argued that compromise, which politicians now rarely attempt to find, is what makes democracy work.
“By design, politics is how we coexist with conflicting interests and opinions. It’s not Armageddon, it’s not the way one side can achieve moral domination over another,” he explained. “But when, as now, politics consists of manufactured rage, when it is presented as a do-or-die competition between the just and the unjust, then it’s no longer a way to work things out. It’s a holy war where a compromise isn’t acceptable, only victory.”
Danforth shared stories from his time in the Senate when he made friends with people across the aisle, like Democratic Sen. Tom Eagleton of Missouri. Back then, Danforth recalled, they could not only find ways to compromise but, more importantly, they could also remain friends even when they disagreed on a policy or voted differently on a bill. In contrast, he shared stories of hearing from two different people who are estranged from their parents because of political differences.
“Politics was important, but friendship came first,” he said about his time in Congress. “That was then, this is now. Then in politics, friends could disagree. Now it’s a holy war between good and evil. Candidates win elections and news channels win viewers and social media wins consumers by stoking feelings of grievance, fear, and rage. They demonize opponents.”
“We have enshrined politics. So, we are breaking up as a nation. And we are breaking up in our personal lives,” he added. “We cannot allow our politics to be so dominant in our lives that it destroys our families. It’s a matter of priorities. We can’t let politics take precedence over people. We must keep it in its proper place.”
Danforth, who graduated from Yale Divinity School, is an ordained Episcopal priest. He presided over the funeral of Ronald Reagan and other political figures. He’s also written books in recent years criticizing the agenda of the Religious Right for corrupting politics and Christianity. Washington University in St. Louis has a center on religion and politics that’s named for him.
He spoke at the Church of the Resurrection, which was founded by Adam Hamilton, as part of the church’s “Be Just, Kind, and Humble” campaignurging civility in politics ahead of the 2022 midterm elections. As part of the effort, which is based on Micah 6:8, the church has even been giving out campaign-style yard signs that declare, “Just. Kind. Humble.”
As he preached on Sunday, Danforth focused not only on Micah 6:8 but also the passage in John 17 where Jesus prayed for unity among his followers. Danforth noted that Jesus didn’t call Christians to be “self-appointed holy warriors who have divided ourselves between the judges and the judged.” Instead, Danforth added, Jesus “asks that we may be one — one with him and one with each other.”
Thus, Danforth urged those in the congregation to “be agents of change” and “ambassadors of reconciliation.”
“We can change politics by changing how we treat one another,” he added. “The real arbiters of values aren’t in Washington or state capitals. They’re in us in the way we raise our children, the way we greet our neighbors. We create our culture, for better or worse. We can be coarse and angry. We can be just and kind.”
Earlier this year, Danforth funded a brief effort to back an independent candidate for an open U.S. Senate seat in Missouri. John Wood, who had served as legal counsel for the Jan. 6 House Select Committee, obtained enough signatures to get on the ballot, but he withdrew from the race amid signs his candidacy would receive little support. Danforth has criticized Republican nominee Eric Schmitt for adopting Trumpian politics, so when he voted already by absentee ballot he wrote in Wood’s name.