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Backstory: 'St. Jack' hits the religious right

Former Senator Jack Danforth, an ordained priest and GOP elder, wants religion to be less overt in politics.

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He still recalls vividly the moment that politics became his life ambition. On a trip east from their Missouri home, young Jack Danforth, just 10 years old, and his family visited the Senate gallery and watched the floor action below. It was instantly clear to him that he wanted to be a United States senator. He wasn't even put off by his father's departing comment: "What a bunch of windbags."

"How many people can say their childhood dream from age 10 became a reality?" chuckles the lifelong Republican, who served his state for 18 years in the Senate.

Now a senior statesman with a host of "formers" before his name – former presidential special envoy to Sudan, UN ambassador, investigator of the Branch Davidian disaster in Waco, Texas – you'd think he'd rest on his laurels.

But Mr. Danforth has a new ambition: rescuing his beloved Republican Party and country from what he sees as a great danger – the too-intimate fusing of religion with politics. And his crusade is causing a stir within GOP circles because of who he is: Not just a party elder, but also a man of the cloth – an ordained Episcopal priest. "The question is not whether people of faith should engage in politics, but how we should go about doing so ... and whether we become a divisive or reconciling force in our country," says Danforth in a phone interview.

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Danforth is a lanky Midwesterner with a man-of-the-mountain visage and a thick shag of gray hair. While in college, though still harboring political ambitions, he was inspired by religion courses enough that he began questioning his long-held plans for law school.

He even stunned his fiancée, Sally Dobson, by announcing in her family's living room that he'd decided to go to seminary – a declaration not greeted with enthusiasm by a young woman who'd seen clergy life close up. Pulled in two directions, Danforth earned law and divinity degrees from Yale University in the same year. Though he opted for the law, he has stayed active in some aspect of ministry ever since – and even presided at President Reagan's funeral.

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