Danforth Center hopes to set tone for civility

October 28, 2010

Just across from the Gephardt Insti­tute for Public Service at
Washington University in St. Louis, employees are moving into a new
center named for another legendary Missouri politician.

The John
C. Danforth Center on Religion & Politics, launched last year with a
$30 million gift from the Danforth Foundation, officially opened its
doors on October 26 with an inaugural speech at the university's Graham
Chapel by journalist and historian Jon Meacham.

The proximity of
the two centers, one named for former Democratic congressman Richard A.
Gephardt and the other for former Republican senator John C. Danforth,
is emblematic of what Danforth anticipates the new center will do for
the tenor of political conversation in the country.

"My hope is
that this is a place that both illuminates the relationship between
religion and politics and . . . encourages respectful but vigorous
debate," Danforth said. "Respectful does not mean wishy-washy. It means
respectful."

Danforth's vision is for an academic center whose
scholars can respond quickly when religion enters the political news
cycle. Through conferences, debates, panel discussions, lectures and
publications, Danforth hopes that as the 2012 presidential campaigns
begin rev­ving their engines next year, the center can have a calming
effect on a debate that some say has devolved from thoughtful to
thoughtless.

"Two things we're told never to discuss at the dinner
table are religion and politics, but a lot of us grew up doing exactly
that," said E. J. Dionne, a Washington Post columnist and author
who often writes about both topics. "I think the Danforth Center is
trying to reproduce those dinner table discussions and replace the
shoutfest."

Officials say the political atmosphere of the recent midterm election campaigns illustrated the need for the new center.

"What
is called political commentary is, by most standards, entertainment—a
circus atmosphere, fight night, who can shout the loudest," said Wayne
Fields, a Washington University professor of English and American
studies and the center's founding director. "There's something
profoundly boring about it."

Danforth—an ordained Episcopal priest—wrote the blueprint for the new center in his 2006 book, Faith and Politics.
In it, he said it would have been "worse than inappropriate" and
"divisive and wrong" to "foist" his own religion on the electorate.

Washington
University officials have been careful to portray the new center as
nonpartisan, using terms like "unbiased," "ideologically neutral,"
"diverse" and "academic."

One of the center's first hires,
assistant director Lenora Fisher, was a religious outreach coordinator
and Midwest operations director for the 2008 Obama presidential
campaign.

Fields and Fisher have been busy with center
infrastructure and with putting together search committees to find
faculty and Fields's permanent replacement as director. The plan is to
have a new director in place by next summer, and the goal for the center
is to be "a significant voice" during the 2012 presidential election
cycle, Fields said. The center could get a profile boost if St. Louis
beats out three other cities vying for the 2012 Democratic convention.

The
center, while based in St. Louis, will have a major presence in
Wash­ington through its partnership with the Brookings Institution. —St. Louis Post-Dispatch via RNS