U.S. Senators Discuss Religion and Its Role in Political Life (video exclusive)
by Trent Gilliss, senior editor
"In some ways, our religious traditions give us guidance about the lack of working together, the partisanship, because as different as our faith traditions are, there are some common values. And one of them is something as simple as justice."
—Senator Bob Casey
"Colson would warn that salvation does not lie in what comes out of the United States Congress or the White House in Washington D.C."
—Senator Dan Coats
"If politics is the art of compromise, purity is not compromise; it’s inconsistent with it."
—Senator John Danforth
Civil conversation among our politicians is at a premium these days. So rarely do we get to witness our political leaders respectfully engaging each other in a discussion about matters of the spirit and how they intersect with their civic responsibilities that we might not think it possible. But there are places trying to make this happen, venues that provide a human space for this type of thoughtful dialogue.
The Brookings Institution in Washington D.C. and the John C. Danforth Center for Religion and Politics at Washington University in St. Louis are creating such a communal space. The ”Danforth Dialogues” — moderated by, you guessed it, former Senator John C. Danforth — kicked off its inaugural event with Senator Bob Casey, a Democrat and Roman Catholic from Pennsylvania, and Senator Dan Coats, a Republican and Evangelical Christian from Indiana.
For the most part, the first half of this conversation is a warm-up period that covers somewhat well-trodden ground: the culture of Washington, compromise on taxes and entitlements, the budget. But there are moments of resonance too. When I hear the three men regret that there are limited opportunities for social interaction, I think of Princeton philosopher Kwame Anthony Appiah, who posits that regular, seemingly inconsequential bump-ins are a necessary starting point for deeper, more meaningful discussion. Senator Casey puts a point on this idea when he tells a story about introducing his daughter to Senator Coats on an elevator for the first time and says “the fact that it stands out in my memory indicates that those interactions are pretty rare.”
If you’re interested in a more personal discussion about faith and how it influences politics for the two currently serving senators, the discussion gets rolling about 27 minutes in. A couple of moments to highlight come in the form of references: one to a book by a former Nixon aide, the other to a church hymn.
When asked if he thinks religion is more directly involved in politics than ever before, Senator Coats cites Chuck Colson’s Kingdom in Conflict as a philosophy that informs how he navigates his distinct responsibilities as an elected official and a Christian:
"He [Colson] warns in his book that you have to be careful that the kingdom of man, kingdom of government, doesn’t dictate the essential message of the kingdom of God, and vice versa. And so it takes some discernment to not go too far either way."
Near the end, Senator Casey remarks:
"There’s a great hymn in the Church, "We Are Called to Act with Justice." The refrain goes on to say, ‘We are called to act with justice. We are called to love tenderly, to serve one another, and to walk humbly with God.’ If members of Congress focused on those four things, we might be better off."