God's Venture Capitalist
The strange quest of Sir John Templeton.
Andrew Carnegie's libraries embodied the democratic confidence of the Gilded Age. John D. Rockefeller's universities enshrined the scientific meliorism of the Progressive Era. But the defining philanthropist of our time is not a university builder or an art collector or a chair endower. It is Sir John Marks Templeton, religious philanthropist, investment wizard, amateur philosopher, and full-bore crank.
A do-gooder for the end of the millennium, Templeton pays professors to promote conservative values, universities to build character, and researchers to investigate the connections between faith and science. He believes he can reconcile the irreconcilable contradictions of contemporary society: Christian conservatism and New Age loopiness, capitalist greed and sweet charity, old-time religion and modern technology.
Before he started giving away his fortune, Templeton was one of the world's greatest moneymakers. A Yale graduate and Rhodes scholar, he began investing in the early '40s and soon proved a natural. He established the Templeton mutual fund in 1954. He was the first great global investor, buying international equities long before other American stock pickers noticed them. The Templeton Fund grew an astonishing 15 percent a year between 1954 and Templeton's 1992 retirement--a $10,000 stake in 1954 would have grown to more than $3 million by 1992. Templeton developed a cult following: Fund shareholders thronged to the annual meetings in Toronto and obeyed his every pronouncement. Even today, five years after retiring, Templeton can move the market. When he hinted earlier this year that the U.S. stock market was overvalued, the Dow dropped briefly. In 1992, he sold his company, pocketed more than $400 million, and turned full time to good works. Last year, he gave away $15 million through his Pennsylvania-based John Templeton Foundation.
The octogenarian Templeton has always been a devout Christian. (His own faith marries the strict Presbyterianism of his childhood with a sunny Norman Vincent Peale-y optimism.) But his genius as a philanthropist is secular: He brings capitalist hucksterism to religious charity. Templeton has transformed philanthropy into marketing, his own name into a brand. His earliest venture set the tone. In 1972, he inaugurated the annual Templeton Prize for Progress in Religion to remedy the Nobel Foundation's omission of religion. His brilliant stroke was to brag that his prize would be worth more than the Nobel, thus ensuring lavish press coverage. The first award went to Mother Teresa (six years before her Nobel Peace Prize. He has raised the prize's profile by awarding it to Alexander Solzhenitsyn, Billy Graham, and Watergate-burglar-turned-minister Charles Colson. (The Templeton Prize helped its founder win a knighthood in 1987. In the '60s, Templeton had moved to the Bahamas--a tax haven--abandoned his U.S. citizenship, and become a British subject.)
Post retirement, Templeton demonstrated a knack for tapping into popular culture. He has, for example, cast himself as a guardian of Christian morals and a bulwark against political correctness. The "Templeton Honor Roll," announced with much fanfare last month, celebrated 126 universities, departments, professors, and even textbooks that uphold traditional (i.e., conservative) educational values. Professional moralist Gertrude Himmelfarb and conservative economist Milton Friedman won $25,000 lifetime-achievement awards. Conservative scholars Walter Williams, Julian Simon, and Mary Lefkowitz also made the roll. The "Templeton Honor Roll for Character Building Colleges" rewards more than 100 schools that "promote character development." The "Templeton Honor Rolls for Education in a Free Society" boosts colleges that promote market economics. The "Templeton Laws of Life Essay Contest" awards $2,000 to adolescents who write essays about spirituality. The "Templeton Prize for Inspiring Movies and TV" (now renamed the "Epiphany Prize") gives $25,000 to movies and TV shows that acclaim faith. (Favorite nominee: CBS's Touched by an Angel.) He's Bill Bennett with a bankroll.
But Templeton is more than just a conservative sugar daddy. His moralism is a sidelight to his much more ambitious goal: the reunification of science and religion. Other philanthropists endow chairs and build hospitals: Templeton is trying to refashion the world's intellectual fabric. He is, if this is not an oxymoron, a religious technocrat. Since the Renaissance, science has outstripped faith, and Templeton views this as a great tragedy. He believes that theologians must match science's advance with spiritual research, and attempt to rejoin the soul and the brain. Religion should harness the tools of science to make "progress." "Progress" is his favorite word, though no one, not even Templeton himself, seems to know what "progress" in religion would mean.
Templeton has, almost single-handedly, revived the field of religious science. He gives 100 colleges $10,000 a year to teach courses in science and religion. He offers the same amount to medical schools for classes on "healing and spirituality." The Templeton Lectures send scholars to campuses to opine on faith and science. Templeton may appeal to New Age softheadedness, but he's much more rigorous than the crystal-and-shaman crowd. He believes in hard science. Favorite projects include a Duke University study on the relationship between prayer and longevity, and research at Johns Hopkins into how meditation alters brain activity. Last year he awarded the Templeton Prize to a respected Australian cosmologist who argues that the structure of the universe reflects intelligent design. Even so, the entire enterprise reflects a mad obsessiveness: What to make, for example, of the "Templeton Prizes for Exemplary Papers in Humility Theology"?
Templeton's magnificent crankhood reaches its apotheosis in his own writings. His new book (published by, naturally, the Templeton Foundation--a true vanity press) is Worldwide Laws of Life. As ambitious as its title, it lists 200 "eternal" spiritual/ethical laws that purportedly apply to all people, in all times, in all places. No kidding. This is Templeton unvarnished, didactic, optimistic, scientific, grandiose beyond imagination: "Behind this book is my belief that the basic principles for leading a 'sublime life' can be examined and tested just as science examines and tests natural laws of the universe." Worldwide Laws of Life is an incredible volume--a weird combination of Thomist canon law, The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, and Successories. Some of the laws are biblical aphorisms: "As you give, so shall you receive." Most are platitudes of high banality: "Every ending is a new beginning." "What the mind can conceive, it may achieve." (Of 200 laws, seven come from the Bible, four from Ralph Waldo Emerson, two from Henry Ford, and 65 from Templeton himself.)
And yet, even at his most peculiar, Templeton stays true to his scientific and capitalistic principles: If you send him a new law and he adds it to the next edition of Worldwide Laws, he'll pay you $1,000. If you teach a course about Worldwide Laws, he'll pay you $10,000. And if you want to scientifically "prove" or "disprove" one of the worldwide laws, he'll fund the experiment.
David Plotz is the Editor of Slate. He's the author of The Genius Factory: The Curious History of the Nobel Prize Sperm Bank and Good Book. He appears on Slate's Political Gabfest.