The Devout Donor
By Jessi Hempel
John Templeton’s $550 million gift doubles his funding of research aimed at showing that science and religion needn’t be at odds
Sir John Marks Templeton has been a contrarian from the start. In 1939, when he still lived in a grungy Manhattan walkup with mismatched furniture, Templeton borrowed $10,000 and used it to buy $100 worth of every stock valued at less than a dollar on the New York exchange. The timing hardly seemed opportune: Hitler had just invaded Poland. But Templeton believed that the impending world war would drive up the market — and he was right. He went on to become one of Wall Street’s most successful celebrity stockpickers and then to pioneer the first global-investing mutual funds, ultimately selling his Templeton family of funds to Franklin Resources for $913 million in 1992. His stake: about $440 million.
Now 92 and comfortably ensconced at a Bahamas estate, Templeton has recently made what may be his boldest move yet. Last December he donated $550 million to his already existing private foundation, propelling himself to No. 11 on this year’s list of BusinessWeek’s 50 Most Generous Philanthropists. His was no ordinary gift. While the vast majority of America’s philanthropic heavyweights choose to address traditional and tangible social needs — feeding the hungry, curing the sick, subsidizing the arts — Templeton has something else in mind. He wants to make an impact on the world of ideas.
Templeton’s controversial goal: to reconcile the worlds of science and religion. A devout man, Templeton began each morning at his mutual fund group with a companywide prayer. Yet he is also a creature of Wall Street — analytical, numbers-driven, and skeptical. When he hears scientists quarrel with believers, he thinks both sides are missing the broader point. “What I’m trying to do is say: ‘Don’t try to argue — maybe you’re both right,”‘ says the energetic billionaire, who still drives his tan, four-door Kia Opirus two miles to his office five days a week.
What projects are being subsidized with the $60 million the John Templeton Foundation now hands out every year? It’s a unique mix of science and faith, traditional research and provocative speculation. One beneficiary is a Duke University professor who is investigating the impact that regular church attendance has on blood pressure. Another is the Christian liberal arts institution Calvin College, which puts on Templeton-sponsored seminars with titles such as “Evolutionary Psychology and Scripture Scholarship: More Similar Than You Might Have Thought.” The $1.5 million Templeton Prize for Progress Toward Research or Discoveries about Spiritual Realities has been given to everyone from Mother Teresa to physicist Freeman J. Dyson to Watergate-felon-turned-evangelist Charles W. Colson to evangelist Billy Graham.
Seeking A Dialogue
Templeton’s venture is the most quixotic mission being undertaken by any major American philanthropist. He is, of course, far from the only person in the country interested in reevaluating the relationship between religion and science. Social conservatives are challenging orthodoxies such as Darwinism and the Big Bang while fighting for their right to control what is taught to schoolchildren. Templeton has done much to cheer their hearts. The Association of American Medical Colleges, for example, credits his foundation for the course in spirituality and medicine that has become a standard part of the curriculum in more than two-thirds of the country’s medical schools over the past decade.
But it would be a mistake to pigeonhole Templeton as a member of the Religious Right. While the foundation in the 1990s backed supporters of the theory of intelligent design, the notion that God had a hand in creation, it has since distanced itself from the idea. Foundation Vice-President Charles L. Harper says the group is the largest funder of projects challenging intelligent design and notes that it has invited scientific critics such as Harvard chemist George M. Whitesides to speak at conferences. “We’re not trying to encourage people to jump on one side of the fence and throw mudballs at the other,” says Harper. “We’re in favor of dialogue.”
The Templeton Foundation is clearly walking a fine line, but it’s one that feels comfortable to its founder. Templeton’s own faith stems from a Winchester (Tenn.) childhood in which his parents pushed Christian values of thrift and compassion. “I grew up as a Presbyterian,” he says. “Presbyterians thought the Methodists were wrong. The Catholics thought all Protestants were wrong. The Jews thought the Christians were wrong. So what I’m financing is humility. I want people to realize that you shouldn’t think you know it all.”
A visit to Templeton’s boxlike home in the well-heeled Bahamian neighborhood of Lyford Cay makes it clear he is focused on more than material things. Paint flakes off the antebellum pillars outside the Plantation-style residence. Inside, many of the kitchen’s original 1969 appliances grace formica countertops. French doors open from the living room onto a brick veranda, offering views of a posh seaside golf club.
Templeton doesn’t get to the nearby beach too much anymore. But he still has perfect posture, an affable grin, and the hint of a gentleman’s Southern drawl. A naturalized British citizen, he was knighted by the Queen of England in 1987 for his charity. Yet at the tiny third-floor office of his foundation, he does his own photocopying and sometimes answers his own phone. From the comfort of an office recliner upholstered in a print of butterflies, he reviews foundation proposals, flagging promising philanthropic investments in faxes he sends daily to foundation headquarters in Conshohocken, Pa. On a recent Monday he sent six.
Handing Over the Reins
The person on the receiving end of those faxes is usually Templeton’s son, foundation President John Templeton Jr., a former trauma surgeon and a born-again Christian. He has been on a hiring tear. In the wake of his father’s enormous gift, he must quickly figure out how to more than double the number of grants the foundation makes.
To see how the foundation operates, consider how it moved spirituality onto medical school curricula. In 1992, when Dr. Christina Puchalski taught her first course on spirituality and healing at George Washington University, she knew of three other medical schools offering such courses. In 1995 the Templeton Foundation began offering prizes (now $50,000 for medical schools) to the programs that best integrate issues of spirituality and medicine into their offerings. A few years later the foundation sponsored a conference where professors agreed on a standardized curriculum for a course that teaches medical students about the role of clergy and helps them understand their patients’ religious backgrounds.
The funding, paired with an official curriculum, has led about 90 of 125 medical schools to adopt similar programs. “When educators can say I’ve got money, I’ve got this outside institution backing me up, they’re much more likely to be met with support,” says Brownell Anderson, senior associate vice-president for medical education at the AAMC, who credits the Templeton Foundation for the spike.
Simplistic vs. Sophisticated
Templeton has also lent credibility to research on the topic of forgiveness. The National Institutes of Health didn’t fund any projects related to the subject until 1999, when it backed Virginia Commonwealth University psychology professor Everett L. Worthington Jr.’s study Forgiveness, Humility, and Gratitude Among Recently Married Couples, which measured how an education program on forgiveness and reconciliation affects newlywed couples. Worthington’s project was also funded by the Templeton Foundation. This year the NIH funded five projects relating to forgiveness. Worthington says that before 1997, when the Templeton Foundation first began funding research on the subject, he could find only 50 studies even remotely related to forgiveness. At last count the number of scientific-paper citations had climbed to nearly 4,500.
By increasing references to religious concepts in scientific journals and by moving religion into public discussion at universities, Templeton has made it easier for closeted believers within the elite halls of the Ivy League to form communities. Martin A. Nowak directs the Program for Evolutionary Dynamics at Harvard University, where he spends his time trying to figure out why people have evolved to help each other if evolution simultaneously fosters competition. Nowak is also a practicing Roman Catholic, a fact he has kept quiet at Harvard until recently. He says the climate is changing on his campus. “As a scientist who believes, you feel you are completely in the minority and you should never talk about it,” says Nowak, who recently became an adviser to the Templeton Foundation. “It’s nice to meet people with whom you can talk about a more complete perspective of the world.”
Critics worry that Templeton is buying the support of scientists who are desperate to win research dollars. Sean Carroll is an assistant professor of physics at the University of Chicago. An outspoken atheist, he recently declined an invitation to present at a Templeton conference at the University of California at Berkeley. He says that because funding for quantum mechanics is hard to get, some of his colleagues are willing to take Templeton’s research grants even if they don’t support his beliefs. The Templeton folks make it tempting, he says, because unlike other academic conferences, Templeton’s confabs pay presenters. Carroll says he would have received $2,000 to speak at the conference, a similar sum if he published his talk in their anthology, and a chance at a $10,000 prize for scientists under 40. For an impoverished academic trying to scrape by, that’s alluring. Says Carroll: “That’s money I could have used to, say, buy a car!”
Other atheists take a more neutral stance. In 2003, Harvard chemist Whitesides agreed to help the Templeton Foundation organize a cosmology conference called “Biochemistry and Fine-Tuning.” Whitesides says he was surprised by the extent to which spirituality was downplayed at the conference. Says Whitesides: “There are simplistic views and then there are more sophisticated views, and I think the Templeton Foundation embraces a sophisticated view.”
The foundation will have new leadership soon, though. At the time he made his gift, Templeton announced that he’ll step down in January, leaving his son, a conservative philanthropist whose religious views are more traditional than his father’s, to chair the board. Templeton has designed a process to keep his grantmaking on track: Every five years independent analysts will evaluate whether officers are making grants that match his intent. If they find his son is giving 9% of the grants to other causes, John Jr. has one year to correct the problem. If not, he’ll be fired along with his two top people. That’s not very forgiving, but it’s one way to ensure that Templeton’s unique vision lives on.