June 17, 2005
Onward, Moderate Christian Soldiers
By JOHN C. DANFORTH
IT would be an oversimplification to say that America's culture wars
are now between people of faith and nonbelievers. People of faith are
not of one mind, whether on specific issues like stem cell research
and government intervention in the case of Terri Schiavo, or the more
general issue of how religion relates to politics. In recent years,
conservative Christians have presented themselves as representing the
one authentic Christian perspective on politics. With due respect for
our conservative friends, equally devout Christians come to very different
It is important for those of us who are sometimes called moderates to
make the case that we, too, have strongly held Christian convictions,
that we speak from the depths of our beliefs, and that our approach to
politics is at least as faithful as that of those who are more conservative.
Our difference concerns the extent to which government should, or even
can, translate religious beliefs into the laws of the state.
People of faith have the right, and perhaps the obligation, to bring
their values to bear in politics. Many conservative Christians approach
politics with a certainty that they know God's truth, and that they
can advance the kingdom of God through governmental action. So they
have developed a political agenda that they believe advances God's kingdom,
one that includes efforts to "put God back" into the public square and
to pass a constitutional amendment intended to protect marriage from
the perceived threat of homosexuality.
Moderate Christians are less certain about when and how our beliefs
can be translated into statutory form, not because of a lack of faith
in God but because of a healthy acknowledgement of the limitations of
human beings. Like conservative Christians, we attend church, read the
Bible and say our prayers.
But for us, the only absolute standard of behavior is the commandment
to love our neighbors as ourselves. Repeatedly in the Gospels, we find
that the Love Commandment takes precedence when it conflicts with laws.
We struggle to follow that commandment as we face the realities of everyday
living, and we do not agree that our responsibility to live as Christians
can be codified by legislators.
When, on television, we see a person in a persistent vegetative state,
one who will never recover, we believe that allowing the natural and
merciful end to her ordeal is more loving than imposing government power
to keep her hooked up to a feeding tube. When we see an opportunity
to save our neighbors' lives through stem cell research, we believe
that it is our duty to pursue that research, and to oppose legislation
that would impede us from doing so. We think that efforts to haul references
of God into the public square, into schools and courthouses, are far
more apt to divide Americans than to advance faith. Following a Lord
who reached out in compassion to all human beings, we oppose amending
the Constitution in a way that would humiliate homosexuals.
For us, living the Love Commandment may be at odds with efforts to
encapsulate Christianity in a political agenda. We strongly support
the separation of church and state, both because that principle is essential
to holding together a diverse country, and because the policies of the
state always fall short of the demands of faith. Aware that even our
most passionate ventures into politics are efforts to carry the treasure
of religion in the earthen vessel of government, we proceed in a spirit
of humility lacking in our conservative colleagues.
In the decade since I left the Senate, American politics has been
characterized by two phenomena: the increased activism of the Christian
right, especially in the Republican Party, and the collapse of bipartisan
collegiality. I do not think it is a stretch to suggest a relationship
between the two. To assert that I am on God's side and you are not,
that I know God's will and you do not, and that I will use the power
of government to advance my understanding of God's kingdom is certain
to produce hostility.
By contrast, moderate Christians see ourselves, literally, as moderators.
Far from claiming to possess God's truth, we claim only to be imperfect
seekers of the truth. We reject the notion that religion should present
a series of wedge issues useful at election time for energizing a political
base. We believe it is God's work to practice humility, to wear tolerance
on our sleeves, to reach out to those with whom we disagree, and to
overcome the meanness we see in today's politics.
For us, religion should be inclusive, and it should seek to bridge
the differences that separate people. We do not exclude from worship
those whose opinions differ from ours. Following a Lord who sat at the
table with tax collectors and sinners, we welcome to the Lord's table
all who would come. Following a Lord who cited love of God and love
of neighbor as encompassing all the commandments, we reject a political
agenda that displaces that love. Christians who hold these convictions
ought to add their clear voice of moderation to the debate on religion
2005 The New York Times Company