Has the Templeton Foundation corroded the moral character of of some of America's best-known intellectuals?
That was among the questions that the New Yorkbased writer and blogger Caleb Crain submitted this month as his contribution to an online forum sponsored by the foundation, upon reading reports that John Templeton, Jr., the foundation's chairman and president, was the second largest individual donor to the cause of banning gay marriage in California, through Proposition 8. Templeton, who lives outside Philadelphia, gave $1.1-million to promote the ballot initiative.
The ostensible topic of the forum was "Does the Free Market Corrode Moral Character?" To answer that question, the foundation solicited essays from the policy professor Robert Reich, the political theorist Michael Walzer, and the former chess champion Garry Kasparov, among other intellectual lights. The Harvard psychologist Steven Pinker and Harvard med's Jerome Groopman have contributed to other Templeton forums on what it calls "life's biggest questions." The foundation then publishes excerpts from these contributions as ads in leading publications, with snappy headlines ("Does science make belief in god obsolete? Absolutely not! No, and yes" ), and fosters debate online.
Crain asked how the foundation reconciled its lofty rhetoric with "the rather low and brutal practice of taking a civil right away from a minority group," and proposed for the next forum the question, "Is marriage a civil right? "
After the foundation declined to post his comments, he called on intellectuals to boycott it -- and, if they'd taken Templeton money, to publicly repudiate John Templeton's views on gay rights. After all, Crain said, they had lent their prestige to the organization Templeton oversees.
The spokesman for the foundation then replied, in an email he permitted Crain to post, that the organization had no obligation to publicize criticism of Templeton's private donations and that Templeton himself was "very careful to separate his own political activities from the work of the Foundation." (John Templeton, Sr., who died in July, started the foundation in 1987.) He also said the foundation would not be sponsoring a forum on gay marriage, "because such questions are not part of our mission." (Too small an issue? Here's the foundation's mission.)
Crain replied that Templeton's donation was a public act as well as an intrusion into the private lives of gay Californians, and so it invited public opprobrium.
Journalists as well as intellectuals are beneficiaries of the foundation's largesse: it finances a generous fellowship at Cambridge University, for example, for study of issues at the intersection of religion and science. The 2008 fellows included writers and editors for the Washington Post, the L.A. Times, Slate and the New Republic.
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Joshua Rothman is a graduate student and Teaching Fellow in the Harvard English department, and an Instructor in Public Policy at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government. He teaches novels and political writing.