Americans are bitterly divided on a host of political and cultural issues. John Danforth regrets that religion has often been deployed to deepen our divisions rather than to seek the common good. In The Relevance of Religion: How Faithful People Can Change Politics (Random House), the former Episcopal priest, Republican senator, and United Nations ambassador argues that communities of faith can restore a spirit of civility to our longstanding disagreements. Jake Meador, the lead writer at Mere Orthodoxy, spoke with Danforth about the possibilities—and pitfalls—of faith-based activism.

What do you mean when you talk about “the proper place” of politics?

Politics is not the realm of, “I am absolutely right and you are absolutely wrong.” It’s the art of compromise. It depends on civility and a degree of interpersonal forbearance. People practicing politics have to show some degree of respect for their adversaries. Putting politics in its proper place means seeing that it’s not, to use the language of Paul Tillich, a matter of “ultimate concern.”

You encourage religious believers in politics to work for the common good. But one lesson from recent debates over same-sex marriage and the Planned Parenthood videos is that different groups have very different ideas of what the common good is. How can we pursue the common good when we disagree on what it is?

People who are pro-life and have traditional views on marriage often think their beliefs are no longer politically viable, particularly since the Supreme Court has decided these matters. It may be, however, that the best way to advance those positions is in the broader society, as opposed to lobbying the government. ...

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