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Prop 8, Templeton Foundation, "Homophobia" -- An Insider's View

Posted: 12/15/08 07:34 PM ET

The Templeton Foundation is capitalized at $1.3 billion, gave away $70 million in 2007, and sponsors the richest annual prize given to an individual: Michael Heller, the winner of the 2008 Templeton Prize for Progress Toward Research or Discoveries about Spiritual Realities, took home $1.6 million, more than any Nobel winner ever has. In the world of philanthropic and scholarly giving, the Templeton Foundation packs a fat money clip. But it may have gotten more buzz since the election than in all the years it has been generously funding research into "spiritual realities." Now, it finds itself at the nexus of a debate about gay rights, philanthropy, Prop 8, and academic freedom.

A little background: The Templeton Foundation was founded in 1987 with money given by legendary stock picker and mutual fund baron Sir John Templeton, who, years before his death last July, had moved to Bermuda, become an English subject, and been knighted. But since 1995 the foundation has been run by Dr. John "Jack" Templeton Jr., Sir John's son and a major contributor to right-wing causes through Let Freedom Ring, Inc., a crackpot non-profit that he bankrolls. And Templeton the Younger is reported to have given $1.1 million of his and his wife's private money--among the largest sums given by an individual or couple--to the Yes on Proposition 8 campaign, which worked successfully to ban gay marriage in California.

Of course, those who lead foundations are entitled to give their own money to any cause they wish, and there's no reason that such gifts should impede the work of the foundations. But when literary critic Caleb Crain suggested, in a blog post picked up by Andrew Sullivan and the Boston Globe's Christopher Shea, that Templeton's private life and the foundation he runs are not so easily disentangled, he raised a question that has been asked about the Templeton Foundation before. And, as I learned during a year working for the Templeton Foundation, there is no easy answer. The foundation is hardly the right-wing outfit that its critics have claimed, but, as I learned during a year working there, nor is it quite as apolitical as it would like the world to believe.

In 2006, I was asked to apply to be the editor of In Character, a thrice-yearly "journal of everyday virtues," published by the Templeton Foundation. Although I am fairly liberal and I had heard that the foundation was somehow conservative, I was offered the job. But before I said yes, I asked the men doing the hiring--two high-up officers of the foundation--what exactly the foundation did. And they all agreed that to understand the Templeton Foundation, you had to understand its founder, Sir John Templeton (who, despite being from Tennessee, was called "Sir John" by all his underlings at the home office in Conshohocken, Pa.) Sir John had several basic beliefs, which the foundation was to embody: He believed in market capitalism. He believed that science and religion had much to teach each other. And he believed in being virtuous. That's my synopsis, anyway. According to its web site, the foundation's mission "is to serve as a philanthropic catalyst for discovery in areas engaging life's biggest questions. These questions range from explorations into the laws of nature and the universe to questions on the nature of love, gratitude, forgiveness, and creativity." It goes on from there.

But the boilerplate doesn't give you a good sense of why a single foundation would fund research into the origins of the universe, free enterprise, the education of gifted children, and the healing power of prayer. Why does Templeton support research on positive psychology, Pentecostalism, and genetics? When I asked my future bosses how this all hung together, one of them said to me, with admirable candor, "It takes a while to understand what makes a research project 'Templetonian,' and it's the kind of thing we debate all the time ourselves." The men and women who run the foundation talk all the time about matters Templetonian--what Sir John thought, what Sir John would have wanted, how Sir John approached things. Given my experience there (I was let go in 2007--on which more in a moment), and having skimmed Sir John's dreary self-published books, I can essay this approximation of what the man was like: Sir John was a wonderfully eccentric billionaire seeker, a self-made man who used his money to investigate world religions and anything else that caught his fancy. He was also, like many self-made men, extraordinarily arrogant, not least about his own modesty: he titled a 1981 book The Humble Approach.

Sir John was not a conservative--in that same book, he wrote, "Rarely does a conservative become a hero of history"; rather, he was a business pioneer, a legendary stock picker, a guy who bucked trends. But lest you think Templeton had the weird, lovable, maverick Southern swagger of, say, Ross Perot, remember this: Sir John was earnest in the extreme. He was the anti-Seinfeld, loathing irony, and the anti-Carlin, loathing impropriety. I never met the man, but by all accounts he was a Puritan, devoted to thrift, given to lectures on virtue, and never one to laugh about any of it. Sir John was gentle, touchingly spiritual, awed by the universe, financially shrewd--and totally uncertain why anyone would make light of his passions.

Does that persona affect the mission of a foundation based on it? Often it's hard to see any connection. The foundation mostly funds non-controversial research by established scholars, and its summer fellowship for journalists has been awarded to reporters from The New York Times, NPR, and Slate. The foundation's interest in the nexus of science and religion does strike some as being pro-religion to the point of being anti-science; the science writer John Horgan wrote an article in which he described a Templeton conference at Cambridge University as basically an exercise in religious advocacy. But while some have argued that the foundation promotes the theory of Intelligent Design, that charge is definitely unfair.

In fact, to conclude from my experience, the Templeton Foundation is not a Republican front, an I.D. front, or even a front for organized religion. As editor of In Character, I published contrarian lefty George Scialabba, environmentalist Bill McKibben, and English professor Seth Lobis, whose work on the Renaissance is entirely apolitical. There was no litmus test for political beliefs. Rather, what got passed down from father to son was not any partisan politics but the puritanical bent, which expressed itself differently in each man, but has similar consequences for the Templeton Foundation. I first began to sense the puritanism in a conversation I had with Kimon Sargeant, who was my immediate supervisor at the foundation. At one point, Kimon and I were having a conversation about the pieces I was assigning for In Character; as usual, he was trying to explain to me what was "Templetonian" and what wasn't. It was nothing political, he assured me, but rather a sense of seriousness, of not being inappropriately jokey or lowbrow (nothing church historians usually get accused of, but I'd been a working journalist for some time, so I was suspect). So, I asked, would a hypothetical essay about character-building within gay unions or marriages would be a permissible piece to run? "I don't know," he said, after a pause. "That would be a tough one. We'd have to see." (Sargeant did not respond to offer his version of this conversation; his boss, Jack Templeton, would not be interviewed by me.) In a different conversation, another foundation officer assured me that although there was no anti-gay bias in Templeton's mission, there were "certain realities" about their boss's beliefs that they all "tried to be sensitive to."

* * *

I never had a chance to assign a gay-marriage piece, but it is telling to consider what finally got me in trouble--a witty, mildly snarky essay about Ayn Rand. When, in April 2007, Jack Templeton decided not to renew my contract, he and I talked about his decision. "It was the tone," Jack said, when we spoke briefly on the phone. One could be against Ayn Rand, but to laugh at her, as Amy Benfer did in the piece I'd commissioned, was simply too much. (In a generous move, my foundation overlords posted Benfer's piece on the In Character web site, even as they pulled it from what was to be my last print issue. Amy was very proud of it, and we didn't want it to disappear unread.) It was okay to publish a democratic socialist like George Scialabba, because he was serious (although he can be wickedly funny), but a Salon writer like Amy Benfer was infra dig.

And so we get to the question of how a funder's personality can affect his foundation's research program. Like Sir John, the earnest seeker, Dr. Jack, the hell-fearing Christian dauphin, is committed to what he perceives as decency--in tone, in affect, in presentation, and (it seems) in California's sexual mores. That does not mean that everyone who works with him agrees; in fact, one foundation trustee, the psychologist David Myers, has written a book called The Christian Case for Gay Marriage. And clearly left/right politics matter little when it comes to Templeton's funding of research in cosmology or chemistry. But what about funding areas like "character development" or "virtue theory and research"--if there's an unspoken but real hope that your character researchers or ethicists be reverent and decent, are they free to do their best thinking? Templeton seeks to fund research into topics like "awe" and "joy," but there's a clear institutional bias in favor of certain kids of joy: no irony, no lampooning, no teasing. Hence the problem I faced all the time as I edited Templeton's journal about virtue: if not ventilated by humor and irony, discussion of virtue can too quickly become preachy. If you're not laughing at yourself, you're probably hectoring your reader.

But the most obvious way that the Templetonian vibe affects the foundation is by drawing a certain kind of employee. Of the ten leading officers, one is Jack Templeton himself, while another is a former editor of the right-leaning journal Commentary. One used to teach at evangelical Calvin College, and one told me how sad he was that Rick Santorum lost his Senate seat. Now, all of these men and women could be free-thinkers, maybe liberal on some issues (even as they work for a foundation that is explicitly committed to free-market capitalism). But if there's a libertarian here, an Obama voter there, the foundation is still a conservative place--you wouldn't work for Jack Templeton if that bothered you. One staff member complained to me, when the Iraq War was at its bloodiest, about the hawkish leanings of the rest of the staff: "My co-workers all think the war is great. So I just keep my mouth shut." So when I read that the foundation has funded gay-marriage opponent David Blankenhorn (for a project unrelated to gay marriage), my first thought isn't that the foundation's officers are shilling for Jack Templeton's private, anti-gay agenda; rather, it's enough to know that Blankenhorn travels in their circles, that his Institute for American Values is reliably to the right, and that he does the kind of work that the Templetonians feel comfortable with. He's a natural for them to fund. That's not nefarious--but it is true.

Let's be clear: Templeton Foundation money has done a lot of good, funded some exalted scholars--Martin Seligman, Robert Bellah, Robert Putnam--and, so far as one can tell, hurt nobody. But the foundation is guided by a sensibility, and unspoken beliefs, that are not apparent from its mission statement. I know that my former bosses at the Templeton Foundation, some of them serious scholars, believe that they just try to fund the best research proposals they get. They strive not to be seen as just Republicans with PhDs (when I became editor of In Character, William Galston, an advisor to Mondale, Clinton, and Gore, was on our editorial board). But if the Templeton staff are people their very ideological boss finds palatable, and if they seek out people and projects whom their boss would also find palatable--and how could they not?--then, in the world of serious scholarship, that is a bias worth knowing.