08/09/2012 02:35 pm ET Updated Oct 09, 2012

The Lost Art of Political Compromise: An Interview With Al Simpson

Alan K. Simpson is one of America's favorite political pugilists. A lawyer, legislator, and devout Episcopalian, during his four decades in national politics, Simpson has learned to take a political punch as much as he's learned to throw one. "Politics ... it's a total contact sport," he explains. This is especially true for a Republican whose support for access to abortion and advocacy for gay rights has placed him in opposition to the views held by most members of his own party. Simpson has a counter to his Republican critics, including his former Senate colleague, and onetime GOP presidential hopeful, Rick Santorum (Santorum reportedly once called Simpson a "baby killer," after Simpson refused to support a bill to outlaw late-term abortions). "It's total hypocrisy," Simpson says, "to be in favor of the core values of the Republican Party -- the precious right of privacy -- and mess around all day long in women's lives ... abortion, and gay marriage."

Since leaving the Senate (he served Wyoming from 1979 to 1997), Simpson has become famous not only for his views on social issues, but for his leadership on federal deficit reduction. In 2010, with former Clinton White House Chief of Staff Erskine Bowles, Simpson was appointed co-chair of President Obama's National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform. He also serves on the National Advisory Board of the John C. Danforth Center on Religion & Politics at Washington University in St. Louis.

As the 80-year-old statesman got ready to do some fishing at his ranch in northwestern Wyoming, Simpson spoke with Religion & Politics about his long career as an advocate for the virtue of compromise in politics, and about his views on the role of religion in American political life. This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

R&P: You served in the Senate from 1979 to 1997. This was an interesting time in the history of American religion and politics, as it coincided with the rise and the fall of the Moral Majority. What are your recollections of this period?

AS: The Moral Majority was received first as a negative. But then I met people of the Moral Majority and they didn't frighten me. I'm an Episcopalian and have my own faith. I said [to members of the Moral Majority], "What are your tenets of the Moral Majority?" And they said, "Well, we think that the public education system is failing. We would like to have our children homeschooled if we could, if we found that appropriate. We think that God has been omitted from the curriculum. And we think that's wrong. And we are also disappointed when we see that if a football coach loses 10 [games] in a row he becomes the American History teacher. We don't think that that's very helpful for our children."
And, you know, how can you argue with that?

But when people begin to ask you on the floor if you've "been saved," I mean, that's strictly personal business in my mind.

R&P: And this began to happen?

AS: Yes, they'd say, "Are you saved," and I said, "Yes, I am." "Well, how can you show us Jesus is in your life?" I said, "Well, I couldn't exist without a higher being in my life but I'll tell you one thing, pal, they strung this guy up on a cross 2,000 years ago and He died for me. He saved me." It's fun to irritate them like that.

R&P: Do you think the Tea Party is something new, or is it a new branding of something that we've known since days of the Moral Majority?

AS: Well, for one thing, it's not a party. That's what people have to get over. They're named after an historical event and they're not all crazies. They believe in limited government and government out of your lives and doing something with the debt and the deficit and the interest to be paid, so they're not goofy.

But the avid Tea Party people, they're not just for limited government, they're for no government. And that is, to me, a very troubling thing: to see members of that Tea Party Movement or Democrat or Republican or whoever, saying, "We're not for limited government. We're going to do what Grover Norquist says; we're going to drown government in the bathtub."

R&P: Speaking of Grover Norquist, he seems to think that decreasing the size of the federal government is a moral issue. Some people think that making cuts to military spending is a moral issue, or requiring the richest Americans to pay higher taxes is a moral issue. Are these moral issues?

Read Simpson's response at Religion & Politics. Max Perry Mueller is associate editor of the online journal, Religion & Politics, a project of the John C. Danforth Center on Religion & Politics at Washington University in St. Louis. Follow Religion & Politics at Twitter@ReligPolitics and follow Max @maxperrymueller.