Paul’s Primer For Politics

John Danforth

[Reprinted by arrangement with Viking, a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc., from Faith and Politics: How the “Moral Values” Debate Divides America and How to Move Forward Together by Senator John Danforth Copyright © John Danforth, 2006]

Christianity does not give us an agenda for American politics. It does not provide policy positions that we can identify with certainty as being Christian. What it does offer is an approach, a way of thinking about and engaging in politics that is highly relevant to our ability to live together as one nation, despite our strongly held differences.

For me, one chapter in the New Testament has been especially helpful in describing how a Christian might approach politics—the twelfth chapter of Paul’s Letter to the Romans. This extraordinarily rich passage is virtually a how-to manual for the Christian in politics. Here are some thoughts that come to mind as I read it.

“Do not be conformed to this world,” Paul tells us in verse 2. Yet we have a strong inclination to let our politics determine our faith rather than the other way around.

We have deep and long-held opinions about a range of political questions, certainly the hot-button social issues, such as abortion and gay marriage, but also economics, foreign policy, national defense, criminal justice, and others. We may have come to these opinions any number of ways. We may belong to a particular party because our parents were members; we may support low taxes because we have high incomes; we may support the death penalty because we have been victims of crime. The various ways we come to our political opinions may have little or no connection to religion. But when we vest our personal opinions with the trappings of religion, we make religion the servant of our politics. By confusing faith and politics, we become conformed to this world.

Paul tells us to “be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God—what is good and acceptable and perfect”(verse 2). God gave us brains and we are supposed to use them. To do the work of God in the world takes more than a good heart and a commitment of will. It takes renewal of the mind.

At times, the will of God comes in a flash, as it came to Paul on the road to Damascus. But Paul seems to realize that such revelations are the exception. More often, discerning God’s will takes hard work. It requires us to think, to use our reason, to use judgment. Paul speaks of the will of God as “what is good and acceptable and perfect.” At the same time, he speaks of renewal of our minds—plural. God wills what is perfect, but the perfect is a matter for the discernment of countless unique minds, and it transcends the discernment of any one mind.

Many times during my Senate years, constituents would say, in effect, “You’re on the scene in Washington; we’re not. You know what’s going on; we don’t. You tell us the answers.” Such deference to government is never justified, for in a democracy we cannot afford to give the keys to the country to politicians, and then walk away. An ordinary citizen who takes the time to read a good newspaper can find out enough to have an informed opinion on almost every issue.

Some people have asked me whether America is a Christian country. The answer must be no, for to call this a Christian country is to say that non-Christians are of some lesser order, not full-fledged citizens of one nation. The American way is not one group having its way. No part of our country can have a monopoly of what is good for the whole.

The problem with many conservative Christians is that they claim that God’s truth is knowable, that they know it, and that they are able to reduce it to legislative form. Paul’s message is quite different. We must “think with sober judgment,” humbly acknowledging that whatever our thoughts, they are only “according to the measure of faith that God has assigned” (verse 3). God has given us different gifts, different measures of faith. God transcends our ability to understand him, much less our ability to impose our understanding of him on others through the power of government.

The understandable criticism of many Christians is that we seem so certain that God is on our side and that we are on God’s side. So the tendency is to adopt an us-against-them mentality. But Paul tells us we should not be “haughty” (verse 16). The dictionary definition of haughty is “disdainfully proud or overbearing: arrogant,” which is exactly how we appear to others, especially when we transform our religious beliefs into a political agenda.

Paul orders us, like it or not, to love one another with mutual affection. Suppose we are seething inside, utterly contemptuous of another person. In the heated world of politics, that is a very likely state of affairs. Then what? Paul’s response could not be more clear: “love one another with mutual affection” (verse 10). Regardless of how we feel, Paul tells us how we must act. We must act as though we love the other person. We must outdo one another in showing honor, even if we are gritting our teeth in doing it.

The Senatorial Language of Affection

In politics, it is important to act as though we love one another, even where there is no underlying feeling of love. In the Senate, the language of affection and respect, even to the point of unctuousness, is the lubricant that allows the Senate to function. Senate rules state that one member is forbidden to verbally attack another, and he will be compelled to take his seat if he does so. To assure that debate is on the issues and is not personal, senators are supposed to speak by addressing the presiding officer and not other senators. But beyond these rules of decorum, senators regularly outdo each other in showing honor, heaping praise on colleagues whether it is warranted or not. A common manner of speaking is, “No one has worked harder than my distinguished colleague to bring this bill to the floor,” when, in fact, the distinguished colleague may have done little more than add his name as a co-sponsor of the legislation.

Outdoing one another in showing honor is a long tradition in the Senate, but it has universal application. What Christianity brings to the arena of political conflict is a duty to act with mutual affection and show honor, even when we don’t feel like doing so. It is a duty that extends to our most disagreeable foes.

For those who practice politics as a career, the capacity to disagree in the context of friendship is not unusual. For ten years, I served in the Senate with my Missouri colleague Tom Eagleton. We are of opposite political parties, and we often disagreed on important issues, yet we were able to maintain a warm friendship that was well known to the people of our state. On many occasions, Missourians expressed to me appreciation that Eagleton and Danforth, quite different on the issues, got along with each other so well.

Every day the Senate is a battleground of hotly contested and constantly changing issues. Louisiana Sen. Russell Long once advised me never to let the disagreements of one day carry over to the next, for I might need today’s foe as tomorrow’s ally. The practical advice of a very practical politician is consistent with Paul’s instruction that we “live in harmony with one another” (verse 16).

I have the impression that today’s Senate is less inclined than in the past to encourage the kind of interpersonal relationships that transcend the controversies of the day. In the era of Lyndon Johnson and Everett Dirksen, senators are said to have gathered together for drinks at the end of the day. Now that Senate business often extends well into the evening, the cocktail hour may not be the appropriate custom to revive, but it did bring members together in an informal setting. The Senate gym continues to be a haven of bipartisan informality. I have a vivid recollection of earnestly discussing complex civil rights legislation in the gym with a colleague, both of us completely nude. It’s difficult to be aggressive in such a circumstance.

Today, the intensity of politics pushes both politicians and the public away from the mutual affection Paul encourages. And many Americans believe that something has gone terribly wrong with our politics. They say as much when they tell pollsters that our country is on the wrong track and that they lack confidence in our government’s ability to address major issues. They do not believe that either political party speaks for them, and they are offended by the relentless nastiness of what they see on television and hear during election years. Many times, ordinary citizens have expressed to me a sense of being powerless. They do not like the tone of politics, but they do not know what they can do to change it.

Indeed the twelfth chapter of Paul’s Letter to the Romans seems out of touch with the reality of today’s politics. No doubt it was just as out of touch with the reality of first-century Rome, or Paul would not have written it. That is just the point. These are instructions to Christians on how they should relate to a world given to meanness and to fracturing.

Engaging the Enemy

For all the non-confrontational emphasis of Romans 12, Paul is a realist. He recognizes what most of us take as the obvious: that we do have enemies, even very threatening enemies. We do not live in a make-believe land where everyone lives happily together. Paul goes so far as to call some of these enemies “evil.” He assumes that enemies do more than create trouble. The enemies he speaks of persecute people. He speaks from his own experience as a former persecutor of Christians and an apostle to a persecuted church.

But Paul challenges Christians to assume responsibility for doing their part to live peacefully in a world in conflict. When Christians claim special knowledge of God’s truth, when they divide America between “people of faith” and their “enemies,” Christians become not the means of peace but the cause of conflict. In that case, Christians are far from being powerless. They are powerful contributors to what has gone wrong in American politics.

If Christians have the power to contribute to what is wrong, they have the power to right the wrong. They have the power to substitute the ministry of reconciliation for the strategy of divisiveness. Where Christians in politics often have been notable for their hubris, claiming that they speak for God, they can, instead, be notable for their humility, acknowledging that God’s truth is greater than anything they can hope to express. Where Christians have championed wedge issues that divide Americans, they can substitute a search for common ground on which Americans might unite to address common challenges. Where Christians have polarized our politics, pushing us to ideological extremes, they can rebuild our political center and help bring us together. Where Christians have been quick to anger, they can show honor to their adversaries and bring civility to our politics.

“So far as it depends on you,” Paul says. Well, a united America does depend on us. It is the responsibility of people who follow Jesus. It is not a political agenda. It is the ministry of reconciliation.

John Danforth, who in 1963 earned degrees from Yale Divinity School and Yale Law School, is an ordained Episcopal priest, former three-term U.S. Senator (R-MO) and a former U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations.