Danforth Centers Hopes to Set Tone for Civil Religion

10/29/2010 08:49 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

By Tim Townsend
St. Louis Post-Dispatch

ST. LOUIS (RNS) Just across from the Gephardt Institute for Public Service at Washington University, employees are moving into a new center named for another legendary Missouri politician.

The John C. Danforth Center on Religion & Politics, launched last year with a $30 million gift from the Danforth Foundation, officially opened its doors on Tuesday (Oct. 26) with an inaugural speech at the university's Graham Chapel by journalist and historian Jon Meacham.

The proximity of two centers named for former Democratic Congressman Richard A. Gephardt and former Republican Sen. John C. Danforth is emblematic of what Danforth anticipates the new center will do for the tenor of political conversation in the country.

"My hope is that this is a place that both illuminates the relationship between religion and politics, and also encourages respectful but vigorous debate," Danforth said. "Respectful does not mean wishy-washy. It means respectful."

Danforth's vision is for an academic center whose scholars can respond quickly when religion enters the political news cycle. Through conferences, debates, panel discussions, lectures and publications, Danforth hopes that as the 2012 presidential campaigns begin revving their engines next year, the center can have a calming effect on a debate that some say has devolved from thoughtful to thoughtless.

"Two things we're told to never discuss at the dinner table are religion and politics, but a lot of us grew up doing exactly that," said E.J. Dionne, a Washington Post columnist and author who often writes about both topics. "I think the Danforth center is trying to reproduce those dinner table discussions and replace the shoutfest."

Officials say the political atmosphere of next week's midterm election illustrates the need for the new center.

"What is called political commentary is, by most standards, entertainment -- a circus atmosphere, fight night, who can shout the loudest," said Wayne Fields, a Washington University professor of English and American studies and the center's founding director. "There's something profoundly boring about it."

Danforth -- an ordained Episcopal priest -- wrote the blueprint for the new center in his 2006 book, called "Faith and Politics."

In it, Danforth said it would have been "worse than inappropriate," and "divisive and wrong" to "foist" his own religion on the electorate.

"Because the task of government is to hold together in one country a diverse public, my interjection of religion into politics would have been a profound disservice to my state and my country," Danforth wrote. "It would have sown division where there should be unity."

Danforth also called out Republican Party operatives and conservative Christian pastors, writing that in recent years "the wisdom of our Founding Fathers has been challenged as the Republican Party has identified itself with the political agenda of Christian conservatives."

Washington University officials have been careful to portray the new center as nonpartisan, using terms like "unbiased," "ideologically neutral," "diverse" and "academic."

One of the center's first hires, assistant director Lenora Fisher, was a religious outreach coordinator and Midwest operations director for the 2008 Obama presidential campaign.

Fields and Fisher have been busy with center infrastructure and putting together search committees to find faculty and Fields' permanent replacement as director. The plan is to have a new director in place by next summer, and the goal for the center is to be "a significant voice" during the 2012 presidential election cycle, Fields said. The center could get a profile boost if St. Louis beats out three other cities vying for the 2012 Democratic convention.

Fields said the center will use religious, political, journalistic and educational voices in its programs. It will react to national headlines with an electronic publishing arm that will allow its scholars to analyze the news on a more journalistic timetable.

It will host national conferences during presidential election years, Fields said, "to assess the role religious issues are playing in the life of the campaign and in the life of the culture at that moment."

The center plans to keep tabs on the politico-religious zeitgeist by also holding meetings with religious leaders and believers of diverse backgrounds throughout the country. The center also plans to hold regular lectures and offer classes in religion and politics.

The center, while based in St. Louis, will have a major presence in Washington through its partnership with the Brookings Institution. Fields said scholars from each organization would travel back and forth for lectures and visiting appointments.

"I think it's helpful that the center is based in the middle of the country," said Dionne. "That the center is outside of Washington may give it credibility for some in the country that a center in Washington would not have."

Dionne, who is also a senior fellow at Brookings, and others there will help organize the Danforth Dialogues, a series of conversations among experts about religious-political issues other than hot-button topics like abortion and gay marriage. Those conversations will eventually be published by the Danforth center.

Danforth said that when Americans vote, they're participating in decisions about the country's future.

"It deprives people of that choice, and that participation, if an election campaign is cheapened to the point of focusing ... on name-calling," he said. "One thing religion can offer politics is a
sense of humility, an understanding that political opinions are not divine."

Tim Townsend writes for The St. Louis Post-Dispatch in St. Louis, Mo.

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