FEATURE — Spring 2010


Religion & Politics at the Center

The Danforth Foundation endows $30 million to the University to establish a new center that will focus on the complex relationships between religion and politics.

By Steve Givens

Washington University in St. Louis is establishing a scholarly and educational center that will focus on the role of religion in politics in the United States, according to Chancellor Mark S. Wrighton.

“The establishment of the John C. Danforth Center on Religion & Politics reflects the legacy of Jack Danforth and his belief in the importance of a civil discourse that treats differences with respect,” Wrighton said in making the announcement December 16, 2009, at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C.

To honor the legacy of former Sen. John C. Danforth and his belief in the importance of a civil discourse that respects differences, the University is establishing the John C. Danforth Center on Religion & Politics. Wayne Fields (top), the Lynne Cooper Harvey Distinguished Professor of English in Arts & Sciences, is serving as the founding director. Fields joined Chancellor Mark S. Wrighton (top right), Danforth (center), and the Hon. William H. Webster (bottom), JD ’49, an emeritus trustee, to announce the creation of the new center December 16, 2009, at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C. (Photos: Andres Alonso)

“The center will serve as an ideologically neutral place that will foster rigorous, unbiased scholarship and encourage conversations between diverse and even conflicting points of view,” Wrighton said.

“Knowing that religious values and beliefs can either encourage or undermine civility, the center and its educational programs and scholarly research can provide a bridge between religious and political communities and will inform new kinds of academic explorations focusing on the relationships between the two. We think that’s a worthy goal.”

The creation of the center, which includes the recruitment of five new faculty members, is being made possible by a $30 million endowment gift from the St. Louis–based Danforth Foundation.

It is believed to be the largest gift of its kind made to a university to fund such an academic center.

The center, which opened in January 2010, will convene public conferences and lectures to address local, state, and national issues related to religion and politics and will offer an educational program in religion and politics, including an interdisciplinary undergraduate minor in religion and public life.

The new faculty appointments will be in the area of American religion and politics and will complement the work of scholars already on the Washington University faculty. The new faculty members will hold joint appointments between the new center and existing academic departments.

The center will attract visiting scholars to St. Louis and create opportunities for interaction with Washington University faculty, students, and members of the St. Louis community. It also plans to publish and disseminate proceedings of conferences and results of studies by faculty, visiting scholars, and students of the center.

“Historically, the responsibility for this kind of dialogue has most often been left to universities with religious connections,” Danforth said. “But great nonsectarian institutions like Washington University combine rigorous academic standards with traditions of civil conversation, and that’s why this is the perfect place for such a center.

“Few issues are more critical to the well-being of a democracy than how religious beliefs—or the denial of such beliefs—coexist with civic virtue and of how the ‘truths’ of the one are made compatible with the toleration and good will required by the other,” Danforth said.

The founding director of the center is Wayne Fields, the Lynne Cooper Harvey Distinguished Professor of English in Arts & Sciences; a search for his successor commenced in January 2010. The newly recruited director will be named the John C. Danforth Distinguished Professor.

“Most leading scholars—and increasingly more and more of the general public—recognize the profound and complicated relationship between religion and politics in America,” said Fields, also a professor of American culture studies and an expert on political rhetoric.

“This relationship was acknowledged by America’s founders as both an enormous advantage to a democratic republic and a challenge to a society committed to individual rights of conscience and belief. Institutions of higher learning are ideally situated to use their special status as places of intellectual rigor and openness to help identify and negotiate the tensions that the relationship between religion and politics often generates,” Fields said.

While most of the center’s activities and conferences will be located in St. Louis, the center will draw upon Washington University’s growing presence in Washington, D.C., including its renewed partnership with the Brookings Institution, which was announced last April.

“Both religion and politics revolve around an effort to find wholeness. Scholars … experiment in whether individuals can be at once independent and yet part of something larger,” Fields said.

“Our center should build on these yearnings even as it brings together profoundly different cultures and commitments,” he continued. “It joins a number of other distinguished programs across the country that are engaged in some aspect of the study of religion and politics. We hope to complement their work while contributing to a growing academic and public conversation.”

Danforth, Fields, and Wrighton also took part in a second news conference in St. Louis at the Alumni House on the Danforth Campus later that same day.

“At least from the moment that the founders suggested that we had inalienable rights that were the gift of a creator, our politics and our religion have been bound together in American democracy in unique and complicating ways,” Fields said at the afternoon news conference.

“Part of what we are hoping to do with this extraordinary opportunity is to contribute both to the ways in which, as scholars and as students, we understand how these things have worked in America’s past and how they are working in America’s present, but also how we begin to create a kind of place in which an ongoing civil conversation in this area can be sustained,” Fields said.

“The more light that’s shed on a subject, the healthier we are. That is what this center is intended to do. It’s intended to shed light on a subject that can be very, very difficult,” Danforth reiterated at the afternoon news conference.

“I think the more light the better, and I can’t think of a better place to shed light than at a university.”

Steve Givens is the associate vice chancellor and executive director of University News Service.