American politics is not working very well today, but religion can play a role in helping to move it away from partisanship and back to a spirit of compromise.
That was the view of former Sens. John Danforth, R-Mo., and Joe Lieberman, who served in the Senate from Connecticut as a Democrat and an independent. Addressing the topic “The role of religion in American’s broken politics,” they told an audience at Washington University’s Graham Chapel Tuesday night that the religious ideals of respect and civility can go a long way toward raising the public’s current low image of the people they elect to represent them in Washington and elsewhere.
Danforth noted that while the American people may feel helpless in doing anything about the current state of political discourse, they actually have the power to help change things, if they will start with their own feelings toward government.
“People say politicians don’t listen,” Danforth said. “You bet they listen. The question isn’t whether they listen. It’s what they hear. And what they hear is give me mine, and give it to me now, and don’t give an inch….
“The American people have the final authority in this country. Don’t think of yourselves as impotent.”
During the program, which was presented by the university’s John C. Danforth Center on Religion and Politics, both Danforth and Lieberman said that the atmosphere in Congress had soured in the years since they served. Party positions have hardened, they said, and members of opposite parties take little time to get to know each other.
“People who run for Congress with the best of intentions,” Lieberman said, “act in a way that cannot really give them any satisfaction. It’s not why they ran, and it’s certainly not why their constituents voted for them….
“People have lost the ability to compromise – not compromise in principle, but if you go into debate or discuss a major piece of legislation and take the position that if you don’t get 100 percent of what you want in this bill, you won’t support it, the end result is that you are going to get zero percent.”
Danforth said that too much attention is paid to the next election and making the other party look bad by presenting meaningless amendments and forcing embarrassing votes.
By appealing solely to their base, he said, Congress is in gridlock. “This is what members of Congress do,” he said. “Don’t give an inch.”
They recalled that a time when senators got to know each other and each other’s families, and that made their official discourse far more civil.
“We had a lot of social interaction,” Danforth said, “across party lines. When you’re in somebody’s home, when you know a senator’s spouse and you know the family’s children, it affects how you act.”
The role of religion in returning civility and compromise to politics, he added, is to recognize that hard-line politics is the opposite of religion.
“It’s idolatry,” Danforth said. “It’s making a political ideology an absolute. That is idolatry. It’s not making something out of wood. It’s making something out of ideas. It’s making politics something that it really isn’t.”
Lieberman added that religion is about vision, and while most Americans and most politicians may consider themselves to be religious, they too often separate their beliefs and their values from the work they are doing.
Politics, he said, needs to bring back the art of compromise.
“Really, “ Lieberman said, “at its best, it tries to mediate between what is and what ought to be. So that’s where religion can have an impact, if we can figure out how to organize it, in raising politicians above where they are now.”
Danforth recalled John F. Kennedy’s inaugural address, where he said Americans should not ask what their country can do for them but what they can do for their country.
“Have we heard anything like that from any politicians since?” he asked. “ I don’t think so.”
Religion, Lieberman said, generally emphasizes the middle way, the golden mean, and religious norms can be what he called “an antidote” to the undercurrent of unyielding political opposition so prevalent today.
“If you believe in God the creator,” he said, “and that every human being is a creation of God, then it certainly seems to be self-evident that you have a responsibility to treat that person at least with respect and civility.”
Noting the aftermath of the grand jury decision in the case of Darren Wilson, Danforth said it was time for religious institutions and others to take on as their goal correcting the inequities that led to the conditions in north St. Louis County and elsewhere.
“We have become the national or international standard for something awful,” he said of the image of the St. Louis area, “and we’ve got to make it right. I think we need a project. There are just so many good people in this town – hundreds and hundreds and hundreds and hundreds and thousands. They’re not nasty, violent, racist people. They’re good people. We’ve got to make this right….
“I believe bring a faithful person must involve more than just writing a letter to your congressman.”