Change Font Size:   A A A

Nov 28, 2011 | Sen. John C. Danforth

Sen. John C. Danforth Sermon: The Next Great Project, Holding America Together

John DanforthOn Sunday, October 23, 2011, former U.S. Senator John C. Danforth gave the following sermon at St. Martin's, Houston.


Good people of St. Martin’s, it’s my honor to preach in one of the great parishes of our Episcopal Church. It’s also less than you deserve. You deserve a great preacher, and instead you get a retired politician.


My message this morning is, in fact, about politics. As a general rule, that’s not an appropriate topic for a sermon. Certainly, it would be inappropriate for a preacher to speak as a partisan. That would be disrespectful to faithful people in a congregation who may be on any point of the ideological spectrum.


So what I am about to say will be entirely non-partisan. It will be based on a simple observation that is shared across the board, by liberals and conservatives, Democrats and Republicans. The across the board observation is that something has gone terribly wrong in American politics. We have become so combative, so polarized, so enraged with one another that we can’t find common ground on major subjects that we must somehow resolve. The biggest of these subjects is a national debt approaching $15 trillion. The President knows this. He appointed a commission led by Erskine Bowles and Al Simpson. Both parties in Congress know this. They created a super committee on the debt.


Still the battle lines are drawn on taxes and spending, and few are willing to cross those lines. And the attitude of thought leaders and many in the public is intransigence and rage.


Nearly all the politicians I have known are good people. They are honest, energetic and well meaning. It’s not individuals who are the problem. It’s the angry, divisive business they are in. This morning, I’d like us to consider what has gone wrong with politics, and what Christian people might do in response. Especially, I’d like us to consider an important ministry that I believe is the calling of the Episcopal Church.


What is the present state of politics? Historians might tell us to put things in perspective, that times have been worse. Congressman Preston Brooks beat Senator Charles Sumner with a cane on the Senate floor.  Perhaps times have been worse, but times have surely been better. For 18 years your Senator Lloyd Bentsen, a Democrat, and I, a Republican, worked together on a daily basis. In those days bipartisan cooperation was the way to do business. It’s unheard of today.


Columnist Peggy Noonan has compared America to a beehive that people in Washington are poking with a stick. Here’s a quote from her column:


“Anger is stoked by cynical politicians and radio ranters and people who come home at night, have a few drinks, and spew out their rage on the comment thread. It’s a world full of people always cocking the gun and ready to say, if things turn bad, ‘But I didn’t tell anyone to shoot!’”


I agree with this description. It’s not just the lack of civility in political discourse, it’s the over the top rage we read of every day. It’s protestors with bull horns working themselves into frenzies. It’s TV’s so-called news channels, more diatribe than news — not talking heads but screaming heads.


This can’t be good for the blood pressure. It’s worse for the health of America.


The old saying is true that politics is the art of compromise. We will need compromise to rein in our national debt. We will need compromise to produce energy and protect the environment. We will need compromise to control the cost of health care. The framers of our Constitution understood compromise and wrote it into our system. They called it “checks and balances.”


Compromise is difficult when the prevailing style of pundits is fanaticism. That’s a tough word that has a religious connotation.


It’s got a French root that means “pertaining to a temple — inspired by a god.” The dictionary gives this as an example of the word’s usage, “their fanatic sense of righteousness, their absolute certainty that they alone had God’s ear.”


Fanaticism is the elevation of ideology beyond the level of debatable opinion. But, in America, politics is a matter of debatable opinion.


Since Moses confronted Pharaoh, people of faith have engaged in politics. They have marched for peace and civil rights. They have championed the poor and defended the family. But politics isn’t religion.


To understand the difference, consider this verse from today’s Epistle. “We have been approved by God to be entrusted with the message of the gospel — we speak, not to please mortals, but to please God.”


That’s not politics. Politicians do speak to please mortals, and they have not been approved by God.

Religion is creedal affirmation of ultimate meaning. Politics is splitting differences and reaching common agreement. Politics, however seriously we may take it, is only politics. Yet, the recent trend is to blur the difference. Conservative candidates urge evangelical pastors to support their “values” agendas.


Liberal clergy kneel in prayer asking God’s intercession for what they call a moral federal budget. Some candidates say that God told them to run.


The confusion of politics with religion undermines our common stake in America. There is no common ground at Armageddon. There can be no common purpose if politics is viewed as a contest between God and the enemies of God.


Some think that churches share responsibility for the fracturing of America. In his book, The Big Sort, Bill Bishop describes niche churches where members cluster together according to politics. Once, people walked to the parish church. Geographical proximity held together people with different politics.


Now we can drive great distances to be with people just like us and to hear sermons that reinforce our opinions. Where people go to church is a predictor of how they will vote.


For religion to have any part in the fracturing of our country is contrary to the literal meaning of the word. The word “religion” comes from the same root as ligament: what binds the body together. Binding people together is a recurrent theme in the New Testament. In the High Priestly prayer, Jesus prayed that we all may be one. Colossians said that in Christ all things hold together. St. Paul said that Christ has entrusted his Church with the ministry of reconciliation.


Peggy Noonan wrote this: “The great project now is to keep [America] together, to hold us together as much as possible, because future trends will be to come apart.”


Well if that’s the great project, then whose project is it? Who is going to take on the work of holding America together? Here, in a nutshell, is my point this morning. I think that holding America together should be your project and mine, the responsibility of Christians. I think it should be the project of all people of faith, but it’s one for which Episcopalians are especially well positioned. We are the middle way. We do not insist on doctrinal purity. We allow a variety of beliefs in our common prayer. We welcome all to our altars. We boast of being inclusive. Some might think we are too broad a church. But in the work of holding things together, our breadth is our strength, not our weakness.


If the ministry of reconciliation is our ministry, what should be our next steps? Our first step should be consciously to adopt reconciliation as the ministry of the Episcopal Church. If that’s our work, let’s say so, and let’s keep it in front of our minds.


And let’s make it clear that we are respectful of a variety of political opinions, even if we disagree with them.


The second step is to confess that politics isn’t religion, and speaking politically isn’t the same as speaking for God. This if the gift of humility.


It’s the recognition that our perception of political truth isn’t God’s truth. It’s the insistence that God alone is absolute, and that no party, no ideology, no issue makes the same claim on us as God. Faith puts politics in perspective, and that perspective makes compromise possible.


I do not suggest that politics should be wishy washy and weak. Many of us have strong opinions on issues of the day. I do suggest that we should spend more effort resolving differences than winning points, that we should acknowledge the good will of those with whom we disagree, and that we should stand up to fanatics on all sides.


Peggy Noonan wrote that future trends will be to pull us even further apart than we are now.


If so, that means that the work of holding things together will be even more difficult and even more necessary than it is today. I believe this work is the calling of all Christians, and that it is a special mission for the Episcopal Church. It is work that is evoked by our faith and consistent with our tradition. Its success is crucial to America. I believe there has never been a more critical time for the Church to lead. It’s your calling and mine. May God bless each of us in this calling.