Danforth asks: What happened to my party?

Former Sen. John Danforth says the GOP has become the political extension of the religious right.

By Tim Grieve
Published March 30, 2005 4:11PM (EST)

Conservative bloggers aren't the only Republicans who think their party has gone too far in the race to "save" Terri Schiavo. John Danforth, the former Missouri senator who was, until January, George W. Bush's United Nations ambassador, says the GOP has been transformed into the "political arm of conservative Christians."

"The problem is not with people or churches that are politically active," Danforth writes in an op-ed essay in today's New York Times. "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."

It's not just the Republicans' intervention in the Schiavo case that's bothering Danforth. It's a series of initiatives, including the Republicans' support for a constitutional amendment banning gay marriage and their opposition to stem cell research. "Standing alone, each of these initiatives has its advocates, within the Republican Party and beyond," Danforth writes. "But the distinct elements do not stand alone. Rather they are parts of a larger package, an agenda of positions common to conservative Christians and the dominant wing of the Republican Party."

Danforth is an Episcopal minister who presided at Ronald Reagan's funeral and knelt in prayer and listened to "Onward Christian Soldiers" with Clarence Thomas during the justice's contentious confirmation hearings, but he has never been a favorite of the religious right. As the Washington Post noted in a 2004 profile, Danforth "voted against abortion rights but shied away from a leadership role in the movement." As a senator, he opposed school prayer, opposed the death penalty, and was what his former chief of staff called "an extremely aggressive advocate of the separation of church and state."

Still, Bush considered Danforth as a vice presidential candidate and then turned to him to represent the United States in the United Nations after John Negroponte left for Iraq last year. For such a prominent Republican with such a long relationship with the Bush family to speak out on the GOP's mind-meld with the religious right -- in the New York Times, no less -- has got to sting.

Danforth writes: "During the 18 years I served in the Senate, Republicans often disagreed with each other. But there was much that held us together. We believed in limited government, in keeping light the burden of taxation and regulation. We encouraged the private sector, so that a free economy might thrive. We believed that judges should interpret the law, not legislate. We were internationalists who supported an engaged foreign policy, a strong national defense and free trade. These were principles shared by virtually all Republicans.

"But in recent times, we Republicans have allowed this shared agenda to become secondary to the agenda of Christian conservatives. As a senator, I worried every day about the size of the federal deficit. I did not spend a single minute worrying about the effect of gays on the institution of marriage. Today it seems to be the other way around.

"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."

Tim Grieve

Tim Grieve is a senior writer and the author of Salon's War Room blog.

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