Almost everyone across the liberal to conservative spectrum seems to agree that American politics is deeply damaged. It often feels as if nothing gets done in Washington. Republicans and Democrats seem to despise each other. The most extreme voices appear to win over and over again, while everyone else has to live with the consequences. Religion, too, has played a role in the gridlock: sometimes it exacerbates the polarization; sometimes it improves it. Regardless, most of us today feel bleak about our political present and we worry profoundly about the future.
In an attempt to examine America’s broken politics, Washington University in St. Louis recently hosted a conversation between former Senators John C. Danforth and Joe Lieberman, two politicians from different political parties who served and worked together. Marie Griffith, the director of the Danforth Center on Religion and Politics, moderated the discussion, which took place on the campus of Washington University last December.
John C. Danforth recently retired as a partner with the law firm Bryan Cave. He began his political career in 1968 when he was elected attorney general of Missouri. He served in that post until 1976, when Missouri voters elected him to the U.S. Senate, where he served a total of 18 years. He later represented the United States as U.S. ambassador to the United Nations and served as a special envoy to Sudan. As an Episcopal priest, Senator Danforth has been open about his Christian faith and commitments, and he has presided many important occasions, including the funeral of President Ronald Reagan. He has also written a book on the subject, Faith and Politics: How the Moral Values Debate Divides America and How to Move Forward Together, and he is currently completing a new book for Random House, titled The Relevance of Religion. Danforth has been a generous patron of numerous organizations, including the Center on Religion and Politics that bears his name at Washington University, which publishes this journal.
Joe Lieberman is perhaps best known as the Democratic candidate for vice president of the United States in 2000. In 1970 he was elected to the Connecticut State Senate and served there for a decade. He then served as Connecticut’s attorney general. He was first elected to the U.S. Senate as a Democrat in 1988, and he served 18 years before being elected to a fourth term as an Independent in 2006. Senator Lieberman has spoken and written widely about his Orthodox Jewish faith and its relevance to politics, and he is the author, among other works, of the 2011 book The Gift of Rest: Rediscovering the beauty of the Sabbath. Lieberman now practices law in New York and is co-chair of the American Enterprise Institute’s American Internationalism Project, a cross-party initiative designed to rebuild a bipartisan consensus around American global leadership and engagement.
This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
MG: I’ll ask you first, Senator Lieberman. When did politics seem to function well and when didn’t it? And how can we begin to think better about our broken politics today?
Lieberman: Let me just say how much I’ve been looking forward to this evening. I’m really fascinated by the topic, because religion and politics have played a big role in my life.
I came to the Senate in 1989, which was the beginning of Jack’s third and last term. I came from Connecticut, where as the old saying goes, “Politics ain’t beanbag.” In other words, there was some partisanship to it. But even then, I was surprised at some of the debates that became partisan, such as the debate on whether we should be involved in the Gulf War, to give the first President Bush the authority to go on. I must say that every year since then, the Senate has become more partisan. I told Jack this story when we were talking about tonight on the phone, which he asked me to repeat, so I will.
The Senate is so divided in terms of party, even in schedule. Every Tuesday, Republicans meet separately at their caucus lunch; Democrats meet separately at their caucus lunch. One Tuesday evening I was at a reception in Washington and ran into a Republican colleague, and I said, “How are you doing?” and I said, “Did you have a good day?” and he said, “Oh, it was all right, but oh my god, those caucuses kill me.” I said, “What do you mean?” He said: “Well you know, Senator So-and-So gets up for the first 20 minutes and he’s the head of the campaign finance committee, and he calls our names out and tells us how we’re letting him down and we’re not raising enough money for the next election. Then Senator So-and-So gets up and talks about how we’re going to essentially make the Democrats look terrible in what happens on the floor this week, and that goes on for about a half hour. And that leaves about ten minutes for constructive discussion.” And I said to him, “I got to tell you the truth: the Democratic caucus is the exact mirror reflection of what you have just described.”
We’re at a point where George Washington, in his farewell address, which reads pretty well after more than two centuries, warned of what he called “the danger of factions” in America’s future. Really, I think he meant parties—that loyalty of members of the government to their faction would become more important than loyalty to the country. And I think we’re living Washington’s worst nightmare now. I mean I can talk if you’d like about why it’s happened, but basically people who run for Congress with the best of intentions—most of them have worked very hard to get there—and then acting in a way once they get there—because of party divisions, ideological rigidity—in a way that cannot really give them any satisfaction. It’s not why they ran and it’s certainly not why their constituents voted for them, and the result is a gridlock that makes the government dysfunctional.
If I had to say in one or two simple sentences why isn’t the place working anymore, what does it mean that people are too loyal to party ideology, big campaign contributors, it’s because people have lost the ability to compromise. If you go into a debate or discussion on a major piece of legislation and you’re going to take the position that if this one piece is not in there I won’t support it or, as some do, if I don’t get 100 percent of what I want in this bill, I’m not supporting it, the end result is that you and the Senate and the country are going to get 0 percent because we’re a country of almost 320 million people represented by 535 people in Congress. We’re an extraordinarily diverse country, and all of that is represented in Congress. You can’t get anything done unless people are willing to be reasonable with one another and compromise, and that’s not what happening. Who was it who had the definition of insanity—that you keep repeating the same fruitless behavior over and over again? The net effect of all this is that Congress is at a historic low in terms of public approval. The numbers hover somewhere around 10 percent or below. My friend John McCain says that when your numbers are that low, you’re basically down to close relatives or paid staff. And usually I say, “You know, I’m not so sure about all my paid staff.” Anyway, that’s a sad introduction with a joke at the end.
Danforth: Joe, thanks for being here. It really is great to see you. Believe it or not, I left the Senate 20 years ago. There are only three ways to leave the Senate. Two have to do with boxes, and you don’t want either of those. But I’m not sure I’ve seen you since, and I just want to let you know that you haven’t aged a day.
Lieberman: So good of you. That’s why I love you, John.
Danforth: I’m fishing, I’m fishing. Well, Joe talked about the Tuesday caucuses, the party caucuses—they have been going on for a long time. I got to the Senate in January 1977 and we had our party caucuses then, and they were reasonable affairs. But beginning in my last couple of years in the Senate, they changed, and they became basically schemes to embarrass the Democrats. And I take it that it was pretty much the same on the other side, and it’s easy to do it. The way you try to embarrass the other side is you concoct amendments for members of the Senate to vote on that will put them in a bad light. This is not a new strategy. When Ronald Reagan was first elected president, he put in place with the help of Congress what was popularly called Reaganomics, which was essentially, “Let’s cut taxes and trim back some of the spending programs.” The Democrats offered a series of floor amendments that we Republicans had to vote on, and basically they were to the effect of, “Let’s restore money for the halt and the lame and the veterans and so forth,” and not give tax breaks to the rich, and that was the kind of thing we had to vote on. The other side has done it to Republicans. And so these Tuesday meetings became increasingly “gotcha” meetings, where members of my party would stand up with real glee on their face—“Make em vote on it”—something that would make the Democrats look bad. Now, my understanding is that instead of the parties meeting once a week on Tuesdays for lunch, they now meet Tuesday and Wednesday and Thursday for lunch, just as parties. And all of these meetings are in the same vein, namely, let’s do the other guys in and set ourselves up for the next election. So everything has to do with, how am I going to gain advantage for my party in the next election?
It really is remarkable, you know, that we just had an election a month ago and now you’re hearing the TV commentators say, “Well they better get with it in Congress because in a few months they won’t do anything because another election is coming.” And it’s as though it’s always the election right around the bend and everything that is done in Congress is to try and create an advantage, particularly by offering embarrassing amendments. What’s happened in the Senate, is that the majority leader, now outgoing, Harry Reid, decided, “Well I don’t want that to happen to my party, so I’m going to get control of the floor and not allow any amendments to be offered.” And so the Republicans say, “We’re going to do the same kind of thing. If anything comes up, we’re going to filibuster it.” So now it takes 60 votes to get anything. That is new. I mean that was the filibuster rule, but when the filibuster is just tried occasionally, okay, that’s what it takes to invoke cloture and end the filibuster. Now it’s the standard way of proceeding. So the effect is gridlock. The effect is, nothing gets done. And that, I think, is the current state of American politics.
Now I have one further thought. And that is, why is it that partisans in Congress take these exceptionally hardline positions? And compromise has become a dirty word? We won’t allow it. Why is that? Why no compromise? Why is the spirit of compromise gone? That really is a big change recently. It’s gone because politicians want to succeed and the way they succeed is to get reelected, the way the get reelected is to get nominated, to get nominated they have to appeal to their so-called base, and the base, certainly in the Republican party and I think increasingly in the Democratic party as well, are the purists. And their view is, don’t give an inch. And this is what members of Congress hear: Don’t give an inch. So the moral of the story is that there have to be other voices, and there has to be participation on the part of people who are not just the party regulars who show up at primary elections. It’s very important for more people to vote in primaries and very important for more people to show up at political meetings and be counter-voices to what the politicians are hearing.
Lieberman: I agree with everything Jack has said, and I think the analysis particularly about appealing to the core constituencies has been heightened by the misuse of a good thing, which was the Supreme Court decision, which I think was in the 60s, Baker v. Carr, which said basically that the Congressional districts had to be about equal after every 10-year census, because otherwise people who had 200,000 in their district would have more weight in Congress than people with 2 million. That led to redistricting every 10 years, and the politicians took hold of that and drafted lines to protect incumbents in the House. And so the districts became more and more partisan. Basically, to just put an exclamation point after what Jack has said, most analysts say that out of all the 435 seats in the House, almost 400 are really uncontested on Election Day, on most normal election days. It’s all about the primary. And here’s why this has a bad consequence—this and dependence on partisan and ideological contributors to your campaign—because you won’t take a risk. You can’t solve the country’s most difficult problems. Take the debt—now over 17 trillion dollars—it’s hard to believe, and we’ve done that over the last 14 years. You can’t solve that and make everybody happy. You’ll do the right thing for the country, you’ll probably be unpopular with some groups for a while, but in the end I think you’ll be popular because the economy will get better. But the whole place is risk averse because they don’t want to offend the partisan group back home.
You know, I thought of something. When Jack was still there, there was a tradition in the Senate that seems quite quaint and outdated now. During my first term the best I can recall no incumbent senator would go into the state of another incumbent from the other party and campaign against that person. That happens all the time now. Now you can imagine the effect that has when you get back in the Senate. You go to incumbent Senator B, who you’ve just campaigned against, and ask for his or her support on a bill, and, you know, “Hell no! Where were you last November?” [Laughs.] So you know, that’s just a little anecdotal response to what Jack has said.
Danforth: I was elected to the Senate in 1976, so I went to Washington and started in the Senate January 1977. I was then 40 years old. And the Republicans only had 38 seats. 38 seats is nothing. It’s just nothing. And I landed on the Senate Finance Committee, and what a great committee. It has this terrific jurisdiction over taxation and international trade, healthcare, social security, all the big issues. And so I show up, one of 38 republicans, the junior member of the minority party in the Finance Committee, and the chairman of the committee is Russell Long. One of the great experiences was to know Russell Long. He was just terrific. So I take my seat, I’d never met Russell Long before, this was my first day! And I’m sitting at the end of the table and the finance committee was at work drafting a letter to the budget committee about what our plan was going to be for the next year. Here is what we’re going to do this ensuing year. There was a little pause in the proceeding and I put my hand up and I said, “Mr. Chairman,” and he looked down the table at me, and I said, “I have an idea.” And he said, “Oh? What’s your idea?” and hey, I’m a Republican, and I said, “I think we should have a tax cut.” And he said, “How much?” Well, I hadn’t thought about that. [laughter] So I said, “5 billion dollars.” And this was 1977—5 billion dollars was worth something. [laughter] And he said, “All right. Any objection?” Nobody said anything. And he said, “That’s agreed to.” And I thought, “Wow!” [laughter] “This is going to be great!” So I hustled back to my office and cranked out press releases telling the people of our state that on my first day on the job I’d gotten a 5 billion dollar tax cut. Actually I had done nothing of the kind—we were writing a letter to the budget committee, it didn’t have anything to do with real legislating—but I put it in my press release. Here’s the question: why did Russell Long do that? Senior Republican, junior nonentity, one of 38 Republicans—why did he do that?
Fast forward 8 years, Republicans are now in control of the Senate. I become chairman of the Senate Commerce Committee, and I decide I’m going to call on Russell Long and ask him, how do you become a good committee chairman? He gave me two pieces of advice. One is never hold a grudge, because your opponent today you’ll need as your ally tomorrow, and the second is, give everyone on your committee a sense of belonging, a sense of participation, a sense of being part of the action. That’s what he was doing. He was making me look good! I don’t think that’s the case anymore.
Lieberman: It’s rarely the case, Jack. It’s a wonderful story. So it leads me to this response: It reminds me and everyone here that politics is not a science, it’s an art. Even though there are departments of political science at great universities like Washington University, and even though some of the most important decisions in politics are based on numbers—the number of votes you get, the number of votes you have to pass legislation—ultimately I say it’s art because it really deals with people being able to work together, people being able to trust each other, people feeling like they belong on the committee. There’s very little of this. It’s part of the reason why the place is dysfunctional and the parties have dominated. The parties are some of the cause of that, but there’s more to it than that. I could go on too long about it. Part of it is the schedule of the Senate. The joke in Washington is that the two worst things to happen to Congress were the advent of air conditioning and modern airplane travel. Air conditioning because Congress can stay there during the summer. Before that, Congress used to come in January and pretty much stay until late spring and then go home. But air travel, because generally speaking, senators arrive for a vote Monday afternoon—a bed check vote, so-called, usually not a very important one. They work Tuesday and Wednesday. By Thursday—you can talk to Harry Reid in the last several years and Mitch McConnell will have the same experience next year—the members are going over to the leader and saying, “I got an event back home,” or “I got a fundraiser in St. Louis or New York” or whatever. “I got to get out of here, early today, Harry or Mitch.” And by midafternoon—sometimes a little later—they’re on the plane out of town. When they’re there they’re running around to different events. There’s very little time for members to get to know each other and particularly across party lines because of the division of the caucus and all the rest. So what I’m saying is that in the end, the Senate—all the big debates and big issues and real problems—in one sense it’s 100 people going to work in the same place every day and it’s really like pretty much any other workplace. If you trust the person you work with and perhaps you even like the person you’re working with, you’re more likely to cooperate with him or her. And the prospects for that are less and less today because members really don’t know each other that well besides the “you’re in my caucus” and “you’re not in my caucus.”
Just a brief story. I was part of a group with Lamar Alexander from Tennessee that was trying to figure out a couple years ago, how do we break through some of this partisanship? And we invited in two of the senior members of the Senate: Ted Stevens from Alaska, Republican, and Danny Inouye, Democrat from Hawaii. Both are now gone from the Senate and this earth. They were really remarkable people. Interestingly, both were the first senators from their states after statehood, and neither from the continental U.S. They had an unbelievable relationship. For years and years and years they were the top Republican and top Democrat on the all-powerful Appropriations Defense Subcommittee and then the full committee. They used to say you have more staff when you’re in the majority; when one party would lose the majority the other would come in and pay for the other’s staff, so they could keep the same staff. Ted Stevens told me a story that was so quaint. He said, “One of the reasons how I learned about the Senate—when I first came, I used to carpool in with Mike Mansfield, who was later the majority leader and a Democrat,” and I forgot a couple of others. “Basically we were in town all the time and we’d rotate when we’d leave the car for our wives”—this was the old days—“and we just got to know each other.” Stevens said, “Once I put an amendment on a bill, and a Democratic senator got up and opposed it and all the Democrats fell in line, they were in the majority, and defeated the amendment. And I knew he didn’t know a damn thing about it”—knowing Stevens, his language was a little more florid than I have just spoken—and he said, “I went over to Mike Mansfield, and I said, ‘Mike, I don’t think your folks understand this amendment.’” And Mansfield said, “Well, tell me.” And he told him about it, and he said, “Mansfield moved to reconsider the vote. And explained that he’d talked to me and thought I was right, and he urged all Democrats to vote for the amendment, and it passed. That would never happen today. And part of it was because we carpooled together, we knew each other.”
Danforth: It sounds like it’s not a big point, but it is. There is a breakdown in social interaction, I think. And I’ve really been gone a long time, but I do know that we had a lot of social interaction across party lines. And when you’re in someone’s home and you know the senator’s spouse and you know the children of that family, it does have an effect on how you act. I was told by one incumbent senator that this person couldn’t think of six other senators he would have over at his house for dinner. Part of it is the cost of living in Washington. It’s the great populist thing: Never give these people a pay raise, that’s terrible, they’re in it for the money. They’re not in it for the money. All of them could make more money elsewhere. But they can’t afford to have their families there. And it’s just one little thing—Marie, do you mind if I just briefly interrupt this program for a commercial message?
Griffith: Go right ahead. About what?
Griffith: Okay! Well, that was next.
Danforth: I want to talk about why this breakdown is, I think, a religious issue. Because I think that the message that politicians are hearing now—members of the Senate, members of Congress—is basically from the base, “Don’t compromise, don’t move an inch.” And from everybody, “Your job is to give me mine, now. Give me my benefits and don’t raise my taxes.” And politicians who want to be popular and want to be reelected a) attend to their base and b) don’t say anything that’s not popular. I think that the antidote to those messages is essentially religious. Because I think religion says to the ideologically pure, the true believers, it says, it’s just politics. It’s not absolute. There are no absolutes in politics. It’s only politics, it’s only sausage-making. And it should not be confused with religion. Back in 1982 I was running for reelection, and I thought I was going to lose the election. I was in a deep depression, oh my gosh, my whole career is going to be ruined. And my daughter DD, who is here tonight, was trying I guess to cheer me up, and she said during my despair, “Well, it’s not the World Series.” [laughter] And it isn’t. And it isn’t religion. And I think religion says—faithful people say—compromise is something that is expected from politics. Because if it’s not compromising, first of all it’s not respectful, it’s a violation of the love commandment. But secondly it’s idolatry. It’s making a political ideology an absolute. That is idolatry—it’s not making something out of wood, it’s making something out of ideas. It’s making politics something that it really isn’t. And I think that that is really, really an important thing for religious people to say to politics.
Lieberman: So I want to join in your commercial message. I think that’s a brilliant insight. How does religion organize itself to influence politics in that way? You’re right: Religion is really about what ought to be. There’s a great rabbi of the last century, Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik, who talked about there being in the Hebrew Bible, the Torah, two covenants, if you will. One was with Abraham, which he called the “covenant of fate,” which is the original covenant, but really what we are, what one is—in this case as a Jew but more broadly of course because Abraham transcends the monotheistic religions
The other covenant was entered at Mt. Sinai when Moses received the Ten Commandments, and the rabbi called that the Covenant of Destiny, the values that we aspired to. In other words, not what we are, as in the Covenant of Fate, but what we hope to be, as in the Covenant of Destiny. And religion generally is about as you said what we ought to be. It’s about vision, perhaps a prophetic vision. Politics is deep in what is but really at its best it tries to mediate between what is and what ought to be. So that’s where religion can have an impact if we can figure out how to organize it: in raising politicians above where they are now, particularly the ones in Congress. In the Hebrew Bible the most powerful expression or illustration of the prophetic vision is the long journey of the children of Israel through the desert for 40 years with a lot of difficulties on the way, making it hard on their leader Moses and even turning against God, or complaining to God, but ultimately seeing that the way they reached the promised land was by joining together and working together. It wasn’t easy.
It may be that you’re on to something really unique, because frankly nothing else so far has worked to disenthrall those in power in Washington from where they are—the gridlock—and to liberate them back to where I think most of them really want to be. Of course the point of leverage here is that most Americans and most members of Congress are religious. But I think that what happens, which happens in other parts of our lives, is they separate their religious beliefs and aspirations and values from the work that they’re doing in Congress. I don’t mean even substantively, I mean the way they’re going at it—the fact that they’ve allowed themselves to be trapped by loyalties they have made idols.
Danforth: But I think it’s not just the politicians. Politicians, look, they’re human beings. They want to win, they want to tell people what they want to hear, which is exactly what they do. And what people want to hear is, “I’ve got it coming. I’ve really got it coming. I’ve been treated so unfairly. I deserve more than I’m getting from politics.” And the politicians say, “Oh, of course. You’re right.” Where’s the counter-message to this? There was this concept of our first four presidents that was one of the great Republican principles in the early days of our country. And it was called virtue. Virtue to them meant great conduct, but it meant something else: It meant not grabbing everything yourself but putting the common good ahead of personal interest. All of them—Washington, Adams, Jefferson, Madison—spoke about virtue. Madison, the consummate political realist, Madison said, “Without virtue, everything is just going to fall apart.” Well, where’s that message anymore? It’s not coming from politics. JFK, when he said, “Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country,” and he said, “Let the world know that we will pay any price and bear any burden in the pursuit of liberty,” that was more than 50 years ago, and have you ever heard anything from any politician like that since? I don’t think so. I don’t think there’s any politician that would say, you should pay any burden at all, pay any price, however small, no. You should get a tax cut. Keep your social security checks coming. Medicare! All of this stuff. So we’ve got the 17 trillion dollar national debt, and growing. So where does the counter-message come from?
Griffith: Religion has been part of the problem at times, too. It sounds like both of you are in some ways talking about cultivating a particular kind of virtue, or returning to certain kinds of virtues, rather than talking about “all” religion. Can you be more specific about what you’re advocating?
Lieberman: You know, I was just thinking as Jack was talking that if there’s a place to be encouraged about this, it is that some of these values and virtues are actually still lived out in the lives of people. There’s still an awful lot of volunteering for charitable or communal organizations, religious, not religious, etc. It’s the fundamental feeling that people get tremendous satisfaction out of serving a cause larger than themselves. At some point they want to feel that they’ve done something that may leave the place better when the leave, or is just beyond taking care of themselves. And it’s perhaps easier for you and me, out of office now, to say, but I think that there’s a lot of people in this country, and it might just be a majority, who would respond to a leader who would challenge them to be more selfless. To make the country as strong as they want it to be again. And I hope somebody tries it in the next presidential election. It may be that the country is so fed up with the status quo and knows that it’s not just that Congress is not producing widgets—the Congress is not solving problems that people have that are real. Whether it’s the debt or the condition of too many of our public schools—we’re failing a lot of kids, including mostly poor kids—whether it’s something like climate change, we have a series of problems that it seems as if Congress is going to wait to become crises or catastrophes before they deal with them, and it’s going to be very hard. I wish somebody would come along and appeal to our better nature. Incidentally, if I had to cite two things or three that got me into public service, it would be that Kennedy inaugural address. I was going into college that year, and it wasn’t just me, it was a lot of people of my generation who were catalyzed into public service by those ideas.
Griffith: Speaking of problems and issues to be solved, one issue as you know that’s facing the St. Louis region is the tension around race, racism, and inequality in and around Ferguson, and here we’re just about 10 miles from Ferguson. I think we talked a little bit in our conference call about ways you might think about bringing some of these ideas about religion to bear on these kinds of broader issues that are very live across the country. Senator Danforth, could you speak to that?
Danforth: I think this whole thing has been heartbreaking for all of us who love this town. I mean, we love it. When I left the Senate I didn’t leave because I was tired of it or I didn’t like it. I loved being in the Senate. I wouldn’t like it now, but I loved it at the time. I wanted to come home. This is our home. If you go around and talk to just scads of people in St. Louis, you’ll get the message, “We love it here.” And then we have become sort of the national or international standard for something awful. And we got to make it right. So I think that we need a project here. There are just so many good people in this town. Hundreds and hundreds and hundreds and hundreds and thousands of them. And they’re not mean, nasty, violent, racist people. They’re good people, and they take pride in having a community in which they live, so we got to make this thing right. We got to have a project, in my opinion, and part of the project, a lot of it, is governmental stuff. People are working on this. So what are we going to do? People say we need more representative police departments. Good, let’s work on that. We can do that. There are ways to do that. People say that these traffic tickets, speed traps and so on to make money for these little municipalities, basically poor municipalities, it’s just wrong, it’s asking for trouble. We can fix that. We can do that. Or the body cameras, if that’s a good idea. There are things we can do; let’s just get on with it. Let’s turn this from St. Louis being the standard for just awfulness to a community that can turn it around, and I think that this, too, is a responsibility for particularly our religious congregations. It’s not just “okay, let’s change the law on how much revenue municipalities can get from traffic tickets,” or “let’s recruit more African American police officers.” That’s good stuff to do. But I believe that being a faithful person must entail more than writing a letter to your congressman or your state legislator. So what can religious congregations do? What would happen if our religious congregations—I’m a great believer in congregations—maybe some people worship God on the golf course, but I bet they don’t—
Lieberman: [laughs] They may pray to God on the golf course.
Danforth: More likely curse God. [laughs] But let’s suppose that our religious congregations started thinking about, “Okay, let’s get some projects going here.” What could they be? “Let’s support some schools.” Our daughter Mary is involved in starting the Hawthorn School. It’s going to be on North Kingshighway and it will be a charter school for girls, teaching them STEM curriculum. That’s a big deal. Why couldn’t our congregations say, “Okay, we’re going to help something like that,” or “we’re going to have a mentoring program,” or “we’re going to have a one-to-one relationship with another congregation in another part of town, we’re going to make them stronger. We’re going to make them community centers. That’s something we can do.” And I think that’s what people in St. Louis want to do. So let’s get on with it.
Lieberman: I don’t have much to add to that. I’d say, Jack, your response is both characteristically constructive and characteristic of you, to take on that kind of personal feeling of almost guilt for this region. I do want you to know from the perspective of somebody who’s been in the Northeast since the trouble broke out in Ferguson, after the grand jury decision, that I don’t think anybody I’ve talked to sees it as a St. Louis or Ferguson problem. In other words, we don’t see it as “that’s them.” I think people are seeing it as us. And feeling that notwithstanding that we have an African American president, notwithstanding that we have African Americans at higher and higher levels of every area of activity in America, there are still a lot of African Americans who are left behind and are not treated equally. That we don’t have equal opportunity. And I agree with you. I think that in some ways religions and religious entities have pulled off that particular battlefield. I mean religions were really—I’ll say a good word for religion here—American history religion has played a very constructive role overall. In the beginning the founders framed our founding documents based really on a lot of their religious beliefs. Self-evident truth that all of us are created equal and endowed not by the philosophers of the enlightenment but by our creator with the rights to life liberty and the pursuit of happiness. The abolitionist movement was led by religious leaders and religious congregations, and so too with the Civil Rights Movement, particularly with Dr. Martin Luther King. But it’s time for religious groups to come back onto the field and continue the work because it’s not over, the need is not over.
Danforth: I wrote a book several years ago and it was a reaction to what I thought was the misuse of religion to divide us, and the creation of religiously fraught wedge issues and the use of them for political purposes. I wrote that book and Rush Limbaugh spent a couple of segments attacking my book. I bet you’ve been the topic of Rush.
Lieberman: Yes. Something else we have in common. [laughter]
Danforth: Anybody else? You haven’t lived! [laughter] But he said, “Oh no, Danforth says religious people should get out of politics” No, I think they should get into it, not out of it. But it’s really interesting. Religion can be used divisively, has been used divisively—look at Iraq. Very divisive. That’s why we kept it out. We don’t want the entanglement of religion and politics in the United States and we certainly don’t want political agendas. But the meaning of religion, the meaning of the word, the root of the word, is the same as for “ligament.” It means “to bind us together.” That’s what it means. In Hebrew, “shalom,” as I understand it, means “wholeness.” In Christianity, “in Christ all things held together.” Holding together—the ministry of reconciliation—really is religion in a constructive, positive way, not to try to win elections—“I’m on God’s side, you’re not”—but religion is binding us together. And that’s a great national project as well as a great religious project.
Griffith: Please join me in thanking Senator Lieberman and Senator Danforth.