God, Science and Philanthropy | The Nation


God, Science and Philanthropy

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At worst, Templeton could be called heterodox and naïve; at best, his was a mind more open than most, reflective of the most inventive and combinatorial strains of American religious thought, eager to radically reinterpret ancient wisdom and bring it up to speed with some version from the present.

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Nathan Schneider
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In 1996 Charles Harper, a planetary scientist from Harvard and NASA with a graduate education in cosmology and theology from Oxford, joined the foundation as its executive director. A forceful—and by many accounts difficult—personality with a visionary streak, Harper shaped John Templeton's dream into a package of programs that could begin to look credible to the scientific community.

A decade later, phrases that Templeton used, like "spiritual realities," "progress in religion" and even the foundation's official motto, "How little we know, how eager to learn," were hiding behind a more presentable formula: "Supporting science, investing in the Big Questions." By no means, though, was the spiritual sidelined under Harper's leadership. "Rigorous, advanced research in science in certain areas," he wrote me, "can be supported and engaged as a form of theologically-
significant research adventure." Harper shared with his boss the hope of making questions of faith part of the scientific conversation, and for years they funded innovative ways of doing so.

But in May 2009, less than a year after Templeton's death, Harper was fired. Those at the foundation are reluctant to explain why; Harvard astronomer and longtime advisory board member Owen Gingerich attributes it to "a difference of opinion about who could best understand Sir John's intentions" between Harper and Jack Templeton. Above all, "there was a clash of personalities."

Jack Templeton is little like his father. While the elder Templeton's writings venture into the poetic and speculative, his son's read like a medical report. Jack displays admirable filial loyalty, evident most of all in his decades-long leadership of the foundation under his father's guidance; he has been president since it began, serving full time since he left a successful pediatric surgery practice in 1995. His memoir begins and ends with lessons his father taught him and is suffused by, as he put it, "a struggle to find acceptance and approval in my father's eyes."

Only now, though, are we beginning to learn how that struggle will express itself in his father's absence. With Harper gone, and his replacement yet to be announced, there is a vacuum at the top. It is, says physicist and trustee Paul Davies, "an anxious time." What seems to have people there most on edge right now, though, is not so much science as politics. In this respect too, the younger Templeton differs in kind from his father. He has financed a right-wing organization of his own, Let Freedom Ring, which once promoted the "Templeton Curve," a graph he designed to advocate privatizing Social Security. Now Let Freedom Ring lends support to the Tea Party movement. Jack Templeton's money has also gone to the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth and to ads by the neoconservative group Freedom's Watch. In 2008 he and his wife gave more than $1 million to support California's Proposition 8, which banned same-sex marriage.

According to his lifelong friend Jay Norwalk, Templeton "is exceedingly scrupulous about keeping his personal life separate from the foundation." By most accounts, this has been the case. Physicist Karl Giberson, a self-described liberal who has been a close collaborator on various foundation projects, adds, "To me, Jack Templeton represents the way you want conservatives to be." (Jack Templeton declined requests for an interview, and the foundation's chief external affairs officer, Gary Rosen, a former editor at Commentary, instructed foundation leadership to conduct interviews with The Nation only in writing.)

"Conservative," though, hardly encompasses what the Templeton Foundation is about. The founder's relationship to the notion was especially paradoxical; in The Humble Approach, Templeton writes, "Rarely does a conservative become a hero of history." Although Templeton could be nostalgic, harking back to time-tested values and homespun sayings, he wanted above all to move the world forward, not hold it back. Yet he was, in political parlance, a conservative: a voting (and donating) small-government, probusiness Republican. More George H.W. than Dubya, his values bear little resemblance to the sex-centered prohibitions of today's religious right. His foundation's charter speaks instead of "love," "forgiveness," "generosity," "creativity," "thrift" and "awe."

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