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Former Senator John Danforth Calls for U.S. Unity in a Time of Polarizing Rhetoric

Former U.S. Senator John Danforth represented the state of Missouri in the Senate for 18 years before retiring in 1995. But his life and career have taken many turns, as an ordained Episcopal minister, a lawyer, a criminal investigator, a peacemaker-diplomat, and an author and activist on one of the great issues of our time -- setting proper boundaries between faith and politics.

John Danforth was born in 1936 in St. Louis, Missouri. He says he first dreamed of being a U.S. Senator when he was just 10 years old.

"My parents took my brother and me to Washington, and when I was 10 years old, I sat in the Senate Gallery and I thought to myself 'this is something that I would like to do when I grow up,'" he says. "And then I remember thinking about that and being so excited and before I had a chance to share it with my parents, I remember the first words that my father said as we left the Senate Gallery. His first words were, 'What a bunch of windbags!' But I thought it was terrific."

Danforth kept that dream alive. By the time he was in high school, he'd earned the nickname "Senator" from his classmates. He went on to receive a bachelor's degree from Princeton University in 1958, and attended both law and divinity graduate schools at Yale University. His first bid for public office came in 1968, when he was elected at the age of 32 to be Missouri's youngest-ever Attorney General.

Danforth made his first bid for a seat in the U.S. Senate in 1976. Running as a Republican, he won his first election handily. Six years later, he was re-elected, but only narrowly. His Democrat opponent was Harriet Woods, a relatively unknown state senator. She was active in women's rights organizations and had strong union backing. But her support for a woman's right to an abortion cost her enough votes to give Danforth a slim victory.

The senator overwhelmed his Democrat challenger in the 1988 race, which would be his last for the Senate. Danforth chose not to run for a fourth term and retired from the Senate in 1995. He feels he made an important difference as a lawmaker.

"I believe that I worked well on a bi-partisan basis," he says. "I believe that I was able to accomplish some significant objectives relating to, for example, the research and development tax credit to encourage research, and the 1991 amendment to the civil rights laws, which made it possible for people to prove cases of employment discrimination."

Danforth has had a distinguished post-Senate career. In 1999, President Clinton's Attorney General appointed him to head a review of events surrounding the government's fiery 1993 assault on the compound of a heavily-armed religious cult in Waco, Texas.

One year later, Danforth's name was being mentioned as a possible vice-presidential nominee to run with Republican presidential candidate George W. Bush. He didn't get the call. John Danforth did get the call to help broker a peace in the civil war torn African country of Sudan. In September 2001, President Bush appointed Danforth a special envoy to Sudan:

"He thought that if the Sudanese could find a way to bring peace to the country and overcome the religious, the ethnic and the racial division in that country, anybody can. So he saw in Sudan a model to try to create a peace process where people can learn to live together."

Senator Danforth considers his role in brokering the Sudan peace agreement one of the most significant achievements in his public service career.

As an ordained priest, Danforth officiated at the funeral services of former President Ronald Reagan on June 2004. His unique blend of experience as both a priest and a politician has made him especially sensitive to the increasing role of conservative religious groups in the political agenda of the Republican party. He says his party has become a political arm of conservative Christians.

"Most people in America do not believe that a political party should be a sectarian party. Most people in America believe that we are all in this together regardless of our religion if we are Catholic, Protestant, Jewish, Muslim, Hindu, whatever we are, we have a common stake in America and we can not allow ourselves to be divided along religious grounds."

John Danforth has watched with growing concern the changes in both his party and his church. After criticizing the Christian right for its focus on issues such as abortion, stem-cell research, gay marriage and public displays of religion, he is calling for change in his new book "Faith and Politics."

Two years ago, Danforth was again called on to serve his country, as Ambassador to the United Nations. Though he stayed at the UN post for just five months, he considers it a very useful institution. A strong believer in the importance of multi-lateral efforts, he hopes that as a leader of today's world, the United States can enlist the cooperation of other countries in seeking global peace:

"I think that one of the lessons of the last few years is that the U.S. cannot do it efficiently alone," he says. "But on the other hand, the rest of the world has a responsibility. If other countries and other people do not assume their responsibility for combating chaos and trying to create a world where we can live together, somebody is going to stand to a world of chaos. And I think that the U.S. is going to have to do it. I hope we can do it constructively with other like-minded people."

John Danforth says that America's compassion toward a suffering world is derived from its deep-seated moral values. And he believes that this kind of compassion is the gift of religion to American politics.

For earlier profiles in VOA's
American Profiles series click here