Public Life: 'St. Jack' Examines His Conscience--And Party

Jack Danforth once stood at the intersection of religion and politics. He was a moderate Re-publican, three-term senator, diplomat. He is also an Episcopal priest, so pious that his Senate colleagues called him "St. Jack." With his new book "Faith and Politics," in stores next week, Danforth--now 70 and retired--positions himself as an outsider. He takes his own beloved party to task for allowing itself to be hijacked by the Christian right.

This conviction took hold the spring of 2005 as he watched the coverage of the Terri Schiavo case on TV. "The idea that religious groups were having rallies and that the members of Congress were considering legislation and that the president was very much involved--I remember watching that and thinking, This is just wrong," he told NEWSWEEK. Danforth quickly wrote two controversial opinion pieces for The New York Times, rebuking his party for adopting the agenda of the religious right and for using wedge issues--Schiavo, but also stem-cell research, gay marriage and public prayer--to gain votes. Real faith is about searching for answers, not presuming to know them, he says, and "an assumption that ... I am God's chosen messenger to deliver a certain political message is divisive."

It's hard to see his book as anything but a condemnation, but he denies that it's an attack on the religious rhetoric of President George W. Bush or his administration. "I like President Bush," he says. "I don't think it's helpful to try to blame one person or another or try to accuse one person of being a liar or another of being a coward."

The book is surprisingly confessional. He writes of his personal anguish as a young man over whether to become a priest when he thought he really wanted to be a lawyer; he wound up doing both. Danforth tells of being insensitive in public (mentioning the Holy Spirit during a speech at Yale graduation) and in private (hurrying his wife to a black-tie dinner minutes after she'd had a terrifying run-in with thugs). Most revelatory are his recollections of his role in the nomination of Clarence Thomas to the Supreme Court in 1991. A devoted friend and supporter of Thomas's, Danforth did everything he could to discredit Anita Hill. "I am a real admirer of Clarence Thomas," he says, "and ... I found myself in this fight and I felt really beleaguered. It was a fight without any rules. It was a brawl, and I'm sorry I was involved in it, but I was. Would I have done it differently? I don't know. It was ... . It was the worst thing I've ever done in my life." He's not taking it back, but he is taking a hard look at his conscience, which is some-thing he wishes his peers would do as well.

--Lisa Miller