Washington University in St. Louis to establish religion and politics center

$30 million endowment gift from Danforth Foundation funds creation of center

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 Dec. 16 at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C.

“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 opens January 2010 and will convene public conferences and lectures to address local, state and national issues related to religion and politics and also 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,” said Danforth. “But great non-sectarian 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 — co-exist with civic virtue and of how the ‘truths’ of the one are made compatible with the toleration and good will required by the other.”

The founding director of the center will be Wayne Fields, Ph.D., the Lynne Cooper Harvey Distinguished Professor of English in Arts & Sciences at Washington University, and a search for his successor will commence 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 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,” said Fields.

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,” said Fields. “Scholars are simultaneously at work taking things apart and putting them back together and are an experiment in whether individuals can be at once independent and yet part of something larger.

“Our center should build on these yearnings even as it brings together profoundly different cultures and commitments. 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.”

More about John C. Danforth

John C. Danforth represented the State of Missouri in the United States Senate for 18 years. Prior to his retirement from the Senate at the end of 1994, Danforth served on three key committees: the Committee on Finance; Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation; and the Select Committee on Intelligence. His major legislative initiatives were in the areas of international trade, telecommunications, health care, research & development, transportation and civil rights. In 2004, Danforth represented the United States as U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations where he focused on ending the North/South civil war in Sudan, a 20-year conflict that killed two million people and displaced five million others. President Bush appointed Danforth as Special Envoy to Sudan in 2001. A peace agreement between the two sides was ultimately signed in Nairobi, Kenya, on Jan. 9, 2005. He is an ordained Episcopal priest and a partner with the law firm of Bryan Cave LLP.

More about Wayne Fields

Wayne Fields, Ph.D., the Lynne Cooper Harvey Distinguished Professor of English and a professor of American culture studies in Arts & Sciences at Washington University, is a widely recognized expert on American literature, non-fiction prose, rhetoric and American political argument. A member of the WUSTL faculty since 1968, he has held several key leadership positions at the university, including founding director of the American Culture Studies Program, 1996-2008. He is the author of many essays and four books, including a widely acclaimed history of presidential speechmaking: “Union of Words: A History of Presidential Eloquence” (1996).

More about Mark S. Wrighton

Mark S. Wrighton has served as the 14th chancellor of Washington University in St. Louis since July 1, 1995. Wrighton, also a professor of chemistry, is committed to teaching and research. Since his arrival, the University has made significant progress in student quality, campus improvements, resource development, curriculum and international reputation. University accomplishments during his tenure include a more than two-fold increase in undergraduate applications, nearly 190 new endowed professorships for faculty, a redesigned Arts & Sciences curriculum, newly created programs in biomedical engineering and American culture studies, and completion of 30 new buildings, with several more either under construction or planned in the next few years. Wrighton served as a presidential appointee to the National Science Board (2000-06), which is the science policy advisor to the President and Congress and is the primary advisory board of the National Science Foundation.

More about Washington University in St. Louis

Washington University in St. Louis is an independent university known internationally for excellence in teaching and research and for the quality of its faculty and student body. It draws students and faculty to St. Louis from all 50 states and more than 110 countries. Founded in 1853 as a nondenominational community of scholars, the university ranks among the nation’s leaders in higher education. Its undergraduate, graduate and professional programs are highly regarded. More than 13,500 undergraduate, graduate and professional students enroll each year. The university’s 3,170 faculty teach in seven schools. Twenty-two Nobel laureates have been associated with Washington University, with nine doing the major part of their pioneering research there. Since 1992, the Commission on Presidential Debates, a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization, has asked the university to host debates in five consecutive elections. WUSTL holds the distinction of hosting more debates than any other institution in history.