WEST CONSHOHOCKEN, Pa.—For conservative evangelicals, the billion-dollar Templeton Foundation is a puzzle.
Its CEO, Jack Templeton, is an elder in the theologically conservative Presbyterian Church in America, and it makes grants supporting free enterprise and educational competition that most PCA members would cheer. For example, a Templeton grant made possible Jim Tooley's research on the growth and success of private schools for the poor in Asia and Africa (see "Schools that serve," in our Nov. 20 issue).
And yet, Templeton has poured millions of dollars into grants supporting groups committed to macro-evolutionary theory, which most evangelicals find theologically counter-biblical and scientifically questionable. To a one-word question—Why?—there is a one-word answer: Calling.
The Foundation's founder, Sir John Templeton, died two years ago at age 95, after his stock market picks made billions for himself and those who trusted him with their money. But once Sir John became wealthy, he spent much of his time working out a philosophy that melded dozens of exotic religious brands. His son Jack, age 70, retired from a renowned surgical career to carry out what he sees as his calling: to keep the foundation faithful to the intent of his dad.
I drove to Templeton headquarters in a nondescript office building in a Philadelphia suburb and heard repeatedly Jack's answer to just about every question: His calling is not to fund his own favorites but "to learn more and more clearly what Sir John's specific donor intent was." He makes such study mandatory for everyone on the Templeton Foundation staff, so that all program officers ask the same first question in considering every internally or externally developed grant: "Would Sir John want to fund this?"
It's not as if Jack doesn't have his own ideas and his own standing. In 1960 he spent a summer at a Presbyterian medical mission in Cameroon and resolved to have a career in medicine. He became by all reports a great surgeon, working at one point with former surgeon general C. Everett Koop, who mentored him spiritually. Jack's personal contributions do not mirror those of the Templeton Foundation. But he believes strongly that his calling is to pass out Foundation funds as his father would have wanted.
Those funds are large: The Foundation now has assets of $1 billion, and that sum will at least double with the settling of Sir John's estate. Sir John set up his foundation in 1987, but 14 years earlier he was already awarding the "Templeton Prize for Progress Toward Research or Discoveries about Spiritual Realities." Mother Teresa was the first winner, but recently the prize has gone to theistic evolutionists like John Polkinghorne (2002), Michael Heller (2008), and Francisco Ayala (2010), principal author of Science, Evolution and Creationism, a critique of the Intelligent Design movement.
Jack Templeton knows about his father's desires not only through years of conversation but by piles of books and documents that his father wrote. Jack as a PCA elder subscribes to the Westminster Confession of Faith from the 1640s, but his father wrote that "the rate of spiritual development is accelerating. . . . We may be setting the stage for a great leap forward in our spiritual understanding."
Jack recalls that when Sir John died in 2008, "Eleven people from the media called me and wanted an interview. Ten of the 11 said, 'Now that the old guy is dead, what are you going to do to change the place?' That's our culture. No respect for the sense of those things that probably ought to endure and be strengthened. None of that."
Jack resisted then any questions about differences between father and son. He resists them now. Last year the foundation world was buzzing when longtime Templeton Foundation executive director Charles Harper lost his position, but Jack would not answer my questions about that. He said after a second inquiry, "Dad was not interested in the past. The question is, What are you doing tomorrow?"
If Jack's commitment were not enough by itself, his father created an extraordinary way to enforce faithfulness to his intent. Every five years, three independent analysts are to conduct a review to see if Jack Templeton (or his successor) is making grants consistent with Sir John's intent. If they find that Jack is giving 9 percent or more of the grants to causes inconsistent with paternal intent, he has one year to get back into line. If not, Jack and his top two officers will be fired.
Nor can Foundation trustees make changes by themselves or choose new board members. Templeton family members, plus winners of the annual Templeton Prize, plus heads of several organizations Sir John respected (such as the Acton Institute) are honorary members: There are about 75 in all, and 95 percent of them must be in agreement for any substantive change in foundation goals and purposes to be made. Even to change the location of the board's annual meeting requires a 75 percent vote of the honorary members.
The Foundation maintains Sir John's "core funding areas." The lead one, "Science & the Big Questions," includes questions about evolution. Other Templeton core areas are Character Development ("We can determine how to be the masters of our habits"), Exceptional Cognitive Talent & Genius (humans can be "helpers in the acceleration of divine creativity"), and Genetics (the Foundation is not yet accepting unsolicited proposals in that area). Jack Templeton would not discuss any differences from Sir John in those areas: His calling is to do the will of his father.
The son clearly sees things the same way as his father in one other Core Area, Freedom & Free Enterprise. Jack recalls how Sir John "often spoke, year after year about 'people's capitalism' and what it would mean if the overwhelming majority of people in any country were shareholders themselves with the result that they would be much less likely to be envious and instead would focus much more persistently on 'the good of the whole.'"
I made one last try to understand the tension that might affect the son in doing the will of the father: I asked how Jack Templeton's personal giving differed from Templeton Foundation philanthropy. He responded by emphasizing how his life's work as a doctor influenced his charity: "A good part of my giving has had something of a 'therapeutic nature' to it." He has given to trauma prevention programs and to attempts to reduce youth substance abuse-"especially since there is a growing level of evidence that abused substances from alcohol to legal and illegal drugs clearly create variable and visible damages to the brain."
He also has supported "education and empowerment of Third World women (especially mothers and home leaders) who are trapped in a deeply entrenched culture of the mental and the material reality of poverty." Yet he is not striving to change the Foundation's giving pattern, even if he could, and he speaks of "specificity in the intent, the purpose, goals and vision of the John Templeton Foundation with which I also strongly resonate."
This may seem strange to some, and I don't like Templeton support for evolution—but in a foundation world where sons regularly disregard and even despise the intent of their fathers, Jack sees himself called to honor Sir John.