Center at Washington University to focus on religion, politics

Wednesday, December 16, 2009 | 3:51 p.m. CST; updated 7:24 p.m. CST, Wednesday, December 16, 2009

ST. LOUIS — As an ordained Episcopal minister and retired three-term Republican senator, John Danforth has a passion for religion and politics. He is equally passionate in his concerns about how the two mix.

Now, a center at Washington University bearing Danforth's name will focus on the role of religion in politics. Plans for the John C. Danforth Center on Religion & Politics were announced Wednesday.

The center, which opens in January, is funded with a $30 million endowment gift from the Danforth Foundation, established by Ralston Purina founder William H. Danforth, John Danforth's grandfather.

John Danforth, 73, of St. Louis, has often been at odds with others in the GOP because of his concerns about the influence of the Christian right. In newspaper columns, speeches and in a book, he has argued that Christian conservatives have focused on divisive issues that polarize Americans.

Washington University Chancellor Mark Wrighton said the center in St. Louis will reflect Danforth's belief "in civil discourse that treats differences with respect."

"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.

Amy Drown, a spokeswoman for the socially conservative Christian group Focus on the Family, declined to comment about the center. A phone message left with the Christian Coalition of America was not immediately returned.

The center will employ five new faculty members with endowed professorships. It will attract visiting scholars, host public conferences and lectures and offer a minor in religion and public life. The search for a permanent director will begin in January.

Other universities offer study of religion's role in politics, but Danforth said most of those institutions have religious connections. Washington University is a private, secular school.

"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.

In his 2006 book, "Faith and Politics: How the 'Moral Values' Debate Divides America and How to Move Forward Together," Danforth wrote that issues such as abortion, gay marriage and the use of religious displays on government property are "of little intrinsic importance except as wedges" pitting people of faith against perceived enemies.

"Good Christians can be liberal and good Christians can be conservative," he wrote. "A church that practices reconciliation must be inclusive enough to welcome both."

Danforth has remained in the public sphere since retiring from the Senate in 1995. He led the 1999 federal investigation into the deadly government siege at the Branch Davidian compound in Waco, Texas, and he served as special envoy to Sudan in 2001 and as U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations in 2004.

The Danforth family has a long history with Washington University. John Danforth's brother, Bill, was Wrighton's predecessor as chancellor, and the main campus at the university is known as the Danforth Campus.

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