AJC honors Sen. John Danforth

The American Jewish Committee awarded former Sen. John Danforth the John D. Levy Human Relations Award last week. Here, Danforth accepts a gift from former Ambassador Sam Fox. Last year’s winner, Chancellor Mark Wrighton is at right and AJC event Co-Chairpersons Ed Dowd and Don Lents are on the left. Visit www.stljewishlight.com to read Danforth’s acceptance speech, calling for tolerance, compromise and humility in political discourse.

Courtesy Sen. John Danforth & American Jewish Committee

Remarks by John C. Danforth Upon receiving the John D. Levy Human Relations Award from The American Jewish Committee

May 3, 2010


A few weeks ago, Peggy Noonan wrote of the anger in our country, especially in politics. She compared America to a beehive that people in Washington were poking with a stick. She worried that “something bad is going to happen.” 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’m guessing that what Peggy Noonan said rings true with everyone here tonight. It’s not just the offensiveness of bad manners and lack of civility in political discourse, it’s over the top rage. We see it on TV’s so called news channels. It’s more diatribe than news-not talking heads but screaming heads. Many liberals complain about Fox News, and they have a point. Glenn Beck seems to be crazy. But try turning to MSNBC, try watching Keith Olbermann or Rachel Maddow, and ask yourself if the left isn’t equally unglued. It’s as though the loudest mouths are on the fringes and the rest of us are silent.

It can’t be good for the blood pressure to listen to this or to listen to the excesses of politicians in both parties. But our health as individuals is nothing compared to the health of America.

The old saying is true that politics is the art of compromise. We will need compromise to address any of the great issues before our country. 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. Recent legislation that failed to achieve that goal could have used a lot of compromise.

The framers of our Constitution understood compromise, and wrote it into our system. They called it “checks and balances.” Compromise is difficult, maybe impossible, when the prevailing style of pundits and politicians is fanaticism.

That’s a tough word, but it applies. It’s from a French root that means “pertaining to a temple-inspired by a god.” The dictionary gives this quote 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 holding ideas with uncompromising fervor. It’s the elevation of ideology beyond the level of debatable opinion. But, in America, politics is a matter of opinion, and our tradition is that everyone’s opinion is debatable.

In her column, Peggy Noonan writes, “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, and I think it is, then whose project is it? Who is going to take on the work of holding America together? I think that it should be our project. We should take on the work of holding America together. By “we” I mean those of us who share a religious tradition that takes this work seriously. Religion can be divisive, but that’s not the meaning of the word. It’s origin is the same as for “ligament,” what binds the body together. To do the work of religion is to hold us together, not drive us apart. That should be our work, yours and mine.

Let’s underscore the name of the organization that brings us here tonight. It’s the American Jewish Committee, Jewish: that’s religion, and it has much to say about public discourse. The first two commandments of your religion and mine say that we have one God, no other, and that we must not treat anything not God as though it were God. God alone receives our absolute loyalty.

To believe this puts politics in perspective. It means that no party, no ideology, no issue is God. To treat them as though they were is idolatry. The lesson of faith to politics is the opposite of certainty. It’s humility, the knowledge that God is over and against every political thought we hold. That humility makes compromise possible.

This is a way of doing politics. It’s what people of faith have to offer America. If we do our work, we will stand against the fanatics. We will be their opposites. Our tone will be humility, our plea will be for compromise, our objective will be religious in the true sense of the word.

Our great project will be to hold America together.