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New John C. Danforth Center aims for discourse, not discord, on religion and politics

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Dec. 16, 2009 - In the spring of 2008, with the presidential contest in full swing, retired U.S. Sen. John C. Danforth, R-Mo., decided that it wasn't enough to deliver speeches and publish a book on a topic that he's passionate about:

The longstanding, and at times controversial, role of religion in American politics.

Danforth wrote a letter to Washington University Chancellor Mark Wrighton, to propose the idea of setting up an academic center charged with studying the phenomenon and serving as a neutral bridge to encourage civil discourse and debate.

Wrighton wrote back with a suggested framework.

On Wednesday, the two held news conferences in Washington D.C. and at Washington University to announce the new John C. Danforth Center on Religion & Politics, endowed with $30 million from the Danforth Foundation.

The center -- which will be housed in an existing campus building -- will begin operations in January under interim director Wayne Fields, a respected professor who already teaches courses on the unique role that religion has often played in American politics.

By early 2011, Wrighton said the university hopes to have a permanent director in place. When fully staffed, the center will have hired five new faculty.

The upshot will be the creation of the nation's largest, and best-funded, academic institution set up "to encourage a civil discourse in which a pluralistic society can respectfully address complex and difficult issues."

"We believe this gift is the largest gift of its kind for this purpose,'' Wrighton said.

Aside from an array of invited speakers espousing all viewpoints, Fields said he envisions annual religion-in-politics conferences hosted by the center, and a once-every-four-years session held in the midst of the national presidential contest.

Danforth, Wrighton and Fields made clear that the center will encourage conversation of all religious viewpoints. Said Danforth: "It's not going to be an ideological monolith."

Danforth will chair the center's advisory committee  and hopes to be involved in some of its activities. But he emphasized with a chuckle, "I don't want to be seen as 'Mr. Know It All.' "

Was Arch's loss the center's gain?

The creation of the center comes as Danforth and his brother, retired Washington University chancellor William Danforth, are focusing on the distribution of Danforth Foundation money.

The former senator explained that the family doesn't see the foundation lasting forever, and is "in the process right now of spending money'' by directing foundation funds to favored projects and programs.

And in the case of the role of religion in American politics, said Danforth, "This is a subject I think is very important."

Just over a year ago -- about six months after Danforth proposed the center to Wrighton -- the Danforth Foundation made public that it had dropped its earlier plan to spend at least $50 million on a new museum and other improvements on the grounds of the Gateway Arch.

Danforth said Wednesday that the foundation's decision to back away from the Arch project, and create the new religion and politics center, weren't directly related.

But he added that it would have been difficult to finance both. "With a finite amount of money," Danforth said, "You can't fund everything."

Meanwhile, the Danforth Foundation has for decades been the top benefactor to Washington University, giving more than $300 million for various projects.

The family's fondness for Washington University made it the obvious choice for the new center, Danforth said. "Washington University is a magnificant place. The crown jewel of our community."

The center also may add to the stellar image that Washington University already has attained in the national political community. The university has hosted -- or been chosen to host --a presidential or vice presidential debate in every election since 1992. No other academic institution comes close.

Wrighton, who once had said publicly that perhaps it was time for the university to step away from presidential debates, said Wednesday that he now welcomes the idea of applying again to host such an event in 2012.

"We'd love the opportunity to do it again,'' Wrighton said.

(Below is our initial story on the center)

Retired U.S. Sen. John C. Danforth and Washington University Chancellor Mark Wrighton announce Wednesday that the university will open a new academic center in January that, according to the New York Times, "will focus on the intersection of religion and politics."

It will be called the John C. Danforth Center on Religion and Politics.

Wrighton said in a statement: "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."

The Times said in its account Tuesday that the center "will eventually have five full-time faculty members, offer an undergraduate minor and sponsor conferences and lectures."

The senator, an ordained Episcopal priest, has been outspoken for years about his concern that American politics -- and especially his Republican Party -- is getting too entwined with religion, especially that espoused by conservatives. Danforth is the author of a book titled “Faith and Politics."

He told the Times that "the center would strive to be ideologically neutral and spark open-minded discussion on religion and politics. 'I think all of us benefit from thinking about these issues more deeply, in a more scholarly way that is respectful to all points of view. ... My hope is to build into the DNA of the center that this is going to be a place of coming together.' "

Washington University professor Wayne Fields will be the interim director of the center.

The center will get its start with a $30 million grant from the St. Louis-based Danforth Foundation, a charitable foundation started by William H. Danforth, the founder of Ralston Purina and the former senator’s grandfather.

Danforth and Wrighton first unveiled plans for the center Wednesday morning at the National Press Club in Washington; they are to reprise their announcement in the afternoon at Washington University.

Jo Mannies has been covering Missouri politics and government for almost four decades, much of that time as a reporter and columnist at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. She was the first woman to cover St. Louis City Hall, was the newspaper’s second woman sportswriter in its history, and spent four years in the Post-Dispatch Washington Bureau. She joined the St. Louis Beacon in 2009. She has won several local, regional and national awards, and has covered every president since Jimmy Carter. She scared fellow first-graders in the late 1950s when she showed them how close Alaska was to Russia and met Richard M. Nixon when she was in high school. She graduated from Valparaiso University in northwest Indiana, and was the daughter of a high school basketball coach. She is married and has two grown children, both lawyers. She’s a history and movie buff, cultivates a massive flower garden, and bakes banana bread regularly for her colleagues.

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