Griffith to head Danforth Center on Religion & Politics

Harvard religion professor a pioneer in the study of modern evangelical women

R. Marie Griffith, PhD, the John A. Bartlett Professor at Harvard University, has been named director of the John C. Danforth Center on Religion & Politics at Washington University in St. Louis, Chancellor Mark S. Wrighton announced.


Griffith’s appointment as director and as the John C. Danforth Distinguished Professor in Arts & Sciences is effective July 1.

Griffith has been known as a pioneer in the study of modern evangelical women since publication of her first book, God’s Daughters: Evangelical Women and the Power of Submission (1997).

Before joining Harvard in 2009, she was professor of religion at Princeton University from 2003-09 and director of the Program for the Study of Women and Gender at Princeton from 2007-09. From 1999 to 2003, she served as associate director of Princeton’s Center for the Study of Religion.

“I am delighted that Marie Griffith, one of the nation’s top scholars in areas of importance to the John C. Danforth Center on Religion & Politics, has agreed to take on this significant leadership position,” Wrighton says. “The Danforth Center is unique as a place where scholars, civic and religious leaders and community members can engage in constructive dialogue about key issues related to the interplay of religion and politics in America. Marie will lead the Danforth Center and shape the development of its programs.”

Griffith will be responsible for leading the intellectual mission of the center, recruiting four permanent center faculty and developing the center’s programs and teaching.

Founded in January 2010 with a $30 million endowment gift from the Danforth Foundation, the center is an ideologically neutral endeavor that fosters rigorous, unbiased scholarship and encourages conversations among those with diverse points of view. The gift is believed to be the largest of its kind to a university to establish such a center.

“I am honored by this exciting opportunity to delve constructively into the political and religious divisions in our culture,” Griffith says. “I very much want to sponsor real dialogues and debates among people who hold disparate views but are willing to think deeply together about substantive issues, perhaps even overcome a few stereotypes of other people. I’ve lived among very different groups of people myself, and part of my life’s work seems to be about bridging thorny divides.”

Griffith’s husband, noted scholar Leigh Eric Schmidt, PhD, the Charles Warren Professor of the History of Religion in America at Harvard, also will be joining Washington University. He will serve as the Edward Mallinckrodt Distinguished University Professor.

“Marie and her husband are going to be very important parts of our faculty. They bring real depth in their scholarly work, and they are very committed teachers,” says Provost Edward S. Macias, PhD, executive vice chancellor and the Barbara and David Thomas Distinguished Professor in Arts & Sciences. “She is going to lead the new center, which will be critically important to the university. It’s really going to be a unique opportunity.”

Griffith’s extensive, diverse research into modern American religion, along with her administrative background, will help guide important examinations into the impact faith communities have on U.S. politics, says founding Danforth Center Director Wayne Fields, PhD, the Lynne Cooper Harvey Distinguished Professor of English in Arts & Sciences.

“She is ready for this position in every way,” Fields says. “She is calm, generous in her dealings with others and not only interested in her own scholarly work, but also has contributed a lot of time to others’ projects.”

Griffith’s faculty appointments will be in American religion and politics and will complement the work of scholars already on the Washington University faculty. The new faculty will hold joint appointments with the center and existing academic departments.

Griffith intends to simultaneously increase the number of public events at the center while also building intellectual resources through undergraduate, graduate and post-graduate students, funding research, adding course offerings and bringing in visiting scholars to “keep fresh energy flowing through the center,” Griffith says.

“She will be a visible and authoritative academic leader who can reach out to the broader community and fulfill the mission of the Danforth Center,” says Gary S. Wihl, PhD, dean of the faculty of Arts & Sciences and the Hortense & Tobias Lewin Distinguished Professor in the Humanities. “We are extremely fortunate to have recruited her from Harvard University.”

She and the faculty she hires will work together to build a community on and off-campus to discuss issues at the intersection of religion and politics, Fields says.

“The challenge is to connect important scholarship with issues that are being raised in the public forum,” Fields says. “Marie has the kind of values and aspirations to do that and build an intellectual community here.”

The center convenes public conferences and lectures to address local, state and national issues related to religion and politics. Most recently, it held a public discussion with members of the Missouri Congressional delegation about civility in politics and will host a lecture Thursday, March 31, by Ray Suarez, anchor of The NewsHour. In its partnership with the Brookings Institution, the center will be holding a future forum called the Danforth Dialogues.

Under Griffith, the center also will offer an educational program in religion and politics, including an interdisciplinary undergraduate minor in religion and public life.

“Marie Griffith brings great talent as a teacher and scholar to her appointment as the director of the John C. Danforth Center on Religion & Politics,” says former U.S. Sen. John C. Danforth of Missouri and president of the Danforth Foundation. “She also brings essential administrative experience that makes her ideally suited to lead an intellectual community that is unique in its scholarly and public missions.

“Her biggest challenges will be not letting the center get lost in the entire complex of the university and to avoid it becoming a center for political correctness,” Danforth says.

The aim, Griffith says, will be to spark robust but respectful dialogue.

“We will remain rigorously non-partisan, and we will not shy away from the hot-button issues of our time, whether they have to do with the role and size of government, religion in the public square, sexuality and the definition of marriage, bioethics, immigration, healthcare or other issues that divide us,” she says.

Griffith is working on a book, titled Christians, Sex and Politics: An American History, to be published in 2012. A prolific author, her articles have appeared in, among other places, The Chronicle of Higher Education, Journal of American History, American Quarterly and Harvard Divinity Bulletin.

She earned a bachelor’s degree in political and social thought from the University of Virginia in 1989 and a master’s degree and doctorate, both in religion, from Harvard in 1992 and 1995, respectively.

Griffith and Schmidt have three children: Zachary, 13; Ella, 11; and Jasper, 3.

The addition of Schmidt to the faculty only will strengthen the university’s reputation, Wihl says.

“He is one of the top scholars of religion in the country, so bringing the two of them from Harvard will reignite national attention on the center,” Wihl says.

Before joining Harvard, Schmidt was the Agate Brown and George L. Collord Professor of Religion and chair of the Department of Religion at Princeton.

He is the author of numerous books, including Hearing Things: Religion, Illusion, and the American Enlightenment, which won the American Academy of Religion Award for Excellence in Historical Studies, and the John Hope Franklin Prize of the American Studies Association.

He also is the author of Restless Souls: The Making of American Spirituality; Consumer Rites: The Buying and Selling of American Holidays; and Holy Fairs: Scottish Communions and American Revivals in the Early Modern Period, which received the Brewer Prize from the American Society of Church History.