WashU to open Center on Religion and Politics


Former U.S. Senator John C. Danforth said he wants a new center at Washington University, which will bear his name, to become the premier place in America to study the nexus of religion and politics. He also hopes the John C. Danforth Center on Religion and Politics will help foster unity and tolerance among those of different theologies.

“I think it’s a job for Jews, Christians, Muslims and everyone else in America to try to hold the country together,” said Danforth, an ordained Episcopal priest. “I think that is particularly the job of religious people instead of being divided on the basis of faith and claiming my side is God’s side, therefore you are the enemy of God.”

Danforth spoke to the Jewish Light soon after it was announced last week that the University would be putting together this new institution to study the influence of religion in American political discourse.

Funded by a $30 million grant from the Danforth Foundation, the John C. Danforth Center on Religion and Politics is set to open next month. It is expected to eventually employ five full-time faculty, who will examine the interaction of faith-based rhetoric in the ideological arena. The center will also convene public conferences and lectures to address local, state and national issues as well as usher in an interdisciplinary undergraduate minor in religion and public life.

“We’re going to be focusing on gaining an understanding of the issues that sometimes divide us,” said Mark Wrighton, Washington University’s chancellor. “As Sen. Danforth has emphasized, the world of politics has a language of compromise. The world of religion has a language that is often more certain about the observations that people make.”

Danforth, an ex-U.S. ambassador to the United Nations and former three-term Republican U.S. Senator from Missouri, has long been recognized by colleagues as an elder statesman and as a voice for bipartisan cooperation. In more recent years, he has become an advocate for moderation and the use of responsible dialogue in approaching issues related to the intersection of theology and public policy.

In 2005, he wrote an op-ed piece in the New York Times endorsing the separation of church and state and linking the rise of right-wing Christian activism with the collapse of bipartisan collegiality. The following year he authored the book Faith and Politics, a work that elaborated on similar themes.

“We’ve become more polarized, more partisan,” Danforth said. “There’s nothing that makes us more partisan than trying to energize a political base or for people to claim that they have divine sanction for political positions.”

While he said that religion has always played a role in national discourse, Danforth said the challenge has been to find a balance in letting the passion of faith fuel political movements without allowing it to create exclusionary or absolutist ideologies.

“That’s why the framers of our Constitution were so anxious to separate church and state. The tendency when the two become connected is to be more divisive,” he said. “I think that American Jews have been particularly concerned to maintain the separation and they’ve been very aware of what can go wrong if the two are combined.”

Wayne Fields, a Washington U English professor, will head up the new center until a permanent director is found. Fields said that the Jewish community has played a big role in the formation of American political debate on a wide range of topics. He highlighted the relationship between Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, who marched with Dr. Martin Luther King, and Reinhold Niebuhr, a prominent Protestant theologian, as one key to understanding both the power of dialogue and the ability of the Jewish community to add its distinctive flavor to American thought.

“Certainly for the 20th Century, the Jewish community has been a kind of leaven in the American loaf,” he said. “Whether it was Jews putting their careers and lives on the line in the Civil Rights Movement or whether it has been people like Heschel who have spoken to the fundamental issues of justice in America, that function has been inextricable from the American experience.”

In addition to examining history from an academic perspective, Fields said the center will take on present day issues as well.

“The other part is the whole question of public discourse and the difficulty in having civil discussion in the areas that touch on this subject,” he said. “We know that a lot of the people participating in those conversations have college degrees. It’s not that we’re talking about people we’ve never had a chance to influence. The question is how we manage to be both a pluralistic society and a community that has some common ground.”

In an e-mailed statement, Rabbi Hershey Novack of Chabad on Campus, praised the new center as a welcome addition to a campus with such a rich history of promoting political discourse and religious diversity.

“This center is especially vital in our increasingly glib and superficial culture,” he wrote, “in which it seems that petty and irrelevant topics bubble forth to claim their ‘fifteen minutes of fame.'”

Gerry Greiman, president of the Jewish Community Relations Council said that while he was unfamiliar with the specifics of its work, the Danforth Center’s area of study was an important one. He even noted that the JCRC’s umbrella organization, the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, had recently made improving the tone of American political discourse a major theme issue for 2010.

“If the focus is to look at how we can flourish as a pluralistic society and how government and religion can coexist without trespassing on one another’s domains, we think that’s a good thing,” he said.