God, Science and Philanthropy
John Templeton once told Harper that he read only the news in the paper, never the editorials; the fray of partisanship and policy didn't interest him. He wanted to keep his foundation away from party politics, just as he kept its offices away from downtown philanthropic circles. He loved undertakings, like a mission to the moon or a mutual fund, that would unite people around a common transcendent purpose.
In the minds of some, he succeeded. Conservative Christian columnist and blogger Rod Dreher, upon beginning his new job as the foundation's director of publications at the start of this year, had a revelation. "I didn't realize how burned out with and depressed by politics I had become," he wrote me. Working at the Templeton Foundation, he believes, gave him a chance to grow in a way that political editorializing would never allow. "I've become ever more convinced that the more important questions facing us are cultural, not political," Dreher explains.
Templeton has long maintained relationships with a network of right-wing organizations that share its interest in open markets, entrepreneurship and philanthropy. The Heritage Foundation, for instance, received more than $1 million between 2005 and 2008, and the Cato Institute, more than $200,000 in the same period. Templeton's charter stipulates that the chief executives of the Atlas Economic Research Foundation and the Acton Institute for the Study of Religion and Liberty are entitled to be members of the foundation, and both have received hundreds of thousands of dollars in Templeton grants in recent years. Those organizations also receive contributions from Big Oil and take part in the campaign to distort the scientific consensus on global warming.
Exceptions to the rightward trend abound: psychologist and Templeton trustee David Myers penned What God Has Joined Together: The Christian Case for Gay Marriage; just last year the foundation treated the Marxist literary theorist Terry Eagleton to a Templeton Book Forum event at the Harvard Club in New York—the list goes on. Grants to conservative think tanks are a comparatively minor part of the foundation's overall giving, but they send a strong signal nonetheless. "There is no getting around the fact," declared a glowing 2007 National Review article, "that it [Templeton] has quickly become a major force in conservative philanthropy."
This is even more the case today. Jack Templeton announced, in the 2008 Capabilities Report, a "fresh endeavor" on free enterprise, the area of the foundation's work closest to his own predilections. Mauro De Lorenzo, hired as a vice president to lead the initiative, still retains a post at the neoconservative American Enterprise Institute (AEI), which Templeton has also funded. When I asked him about the foundation's think tank portfolio, De Lorenzo said, "We would be delighted to fund work at so-called left-of-center think tanks, so long as it meets the donor intent." That they haven't funded such organizations yet, he continued, is just a matter of "not knowing each other."
There is another glaring omission in Templeton's funding record: the foundation has yet to break ground on one of the six principal causes that John Templeton stipulated—education about voluntary family planning. Gary Rosen explains that this program "is still in development" though it has been in the charter for more than a decade. It is also an area where the foundation's mission could come into tension with its political and religious allies.
Treading carefully over such theologically fraught ground is a practice that goes back to the founder. His writings might have been iconoclastic, but his deeds were mainly establishmentarian, keeping him in good standing with the religious powers that be. Templeton money has supported a wide range of pious causes, from the American Bible Society to awards for "wholesome" filmmaking (including, controversially, The Passion of the Christ). Templeton Prizes have gone to evangelists Billy Graham and Bill Bright, as well as Watergate conspirator turned Evangelical activist Charles Colson and AEI theologian Michael Novak.
John Templeton built a place where the right's hardened partisans, like Dreher and Rosen, can settle down and turn to life's real Big Questions, in peace, for all mankind. But the foundation meanwhile has associated itself with political and religious forces that cause it to be perceived as threatening the integrity of science and protecting the religious status quo. This is quite the reverse of the founder's most alluring hope: a spirituality finally worthy of our scientific achievements. As a result of such alliances, though, the foundation is also better positioned than most to foster a conservatism—and a culture generally—that holds the old habits of religions and business responsible to good evidence, while helping scientists better speak to people's deepest concerns. On issues that range from climatology to stem cells, science has too often taken a back seat to the whims of politics, and Templeton's peculiar vision offers a welcome antidote to that. To live up to this calling, Big Questions are one thing; but the foundation will have to stand up for tough answers, too, as it did when announcing the findings of a major study that intercessory prayer doesn't improve medical outcomes, or when rebuking intelligent design.
John Templeton did want to hijack the meaning of life; he meant to remake the human race's moral and cosmic toolbox in some scientific revolution of the spirit. His money has given new life to ancient questions that matter to all of us. But there is also an inescapable curiosity—or for some, like Margaret Poloma, good luck—in the idea that how we think about the most lofty things has become so much at the mercy of an eccentric investor's later-life dreams.