My reply to the Templeton Foundation

[For the background and progress of this controversy, please see my earlier posts “A Big Question about the Templeton Foundation,” “Boycott the Templeton Foundation,” and “The Templeton Foundation Responds.”]

Dear Mr. Rosen,

Thanks again for your considered response. I think I understand your position, and it isn’t ultimately with you that I’m quarreling but with John M. Templeton, Jr. However, to help myself think through matters, I’m going to try to respond to your letter carefully and in some detail. I’m posting this reply on my blog, as well as emailing it to you.

The best place for me to start might be with your description of Mr. Templeton’s gift of $1.1 million to the Yes on Proposition 8 campaign, a campaign that succeeded in depriving gays and lesbians in California of the right to civil marriage. You describe it as a “private, strictly personal contribution.” It may have been a personal contribution, but I disagree that it was a private one. It has been reported by the Los Angeles Times and the Philadelphia Inquirer, and its effect was certainly public. It changed California state law. I don’t think the difficulty in distinguishing public from private is incidental. On exactly this question, as it happens, the institution of marriage is famously ambiguous. The lived experience of a marriage is private, so much so that it’s probably inaccessible to any third party. (William Dean Howells: “Married life is as much a mystery to us outsiders as the life to come, almost.”) But a marriage ceremony isn’t valid without witnesses, and the fact of a marriage is public and is subject to the law. It is subject to law in a rather strange way. There are a number of civil and legal benefits associated with marriage today, but for most of its history, marriage has come before the law mostly in the process of its dissolution, either by death or divorce. Legally speaking, marriage isn’t “for” husbands and wives; it’s for children, widows, widowers, and the divorced. Indeed I think that’s one reason it’s taken so long for marriage to seem worth fighting for. When you’re living with your partner in good health, the ratification of marriage hardly seems necessary, except as a way to overcome such inconveniences and petty injustices as having to pay income tax on healthcare granted to you through your partner’s employer. Nonetheless, these inconveniences add up. The New York Times recently published an article listing all the contracts and legal documents that a gay couple need—even if they have a Massachusetts or a California marriage—in order to approximate a straight union. I imagine the eyes of most straight readers crossed, if they even made the attempt to read it. I know mine did. Injustice is often petty; it’s natural to want to look away.

I’ve strayed slightly off topic. My point is that marriage is a public matter that affects, and to some extent structures, an experience that most people think of as extremely private. It does so in large part by defining limits and end-states, but it does so nonetheless. And so when Mr. Templeton gave money to deprive gays and lesbians of marriage, I would argue that he was not only engaging in a public act, involving a change to the laws of California, but also intruding into the privacy of gays and lesbians in California who live in committed relationships. In effect, he walked into their bedrooms, he sat down at their breakfast tables, and he took something from them. It is worth keeping in mind the size of Mr. Templeton’s donation; he is reported to have been the third-largest donor to the Yes on Proposition 8 campaign. It is also worth keeping in mind that Mr. Templeton lives in Pennsylvania not California. The size of the donation, the willingness to reach across state lines, the publicity inseparable from law and any advocacy of change to it, the violation of others’ privacy implicit in the denial of marriage to them—all these elements suggest to me that even though Mr. Templeton contributed from his personal funds, and gave the money as an individual, it is fair game for me and others to respond to his contribution as a public matter.

In the comment I submitted to your website, I asked (half in bitter jest, I’m afraid) whether the Templeton Foundation might be willing to pose the question “Is marriage a civil right?” to the next group of thinkers it recruits. You responded: “The answer is no, we wouldn’t, because such questions are not part of our mission, as set out by the late Sir John Templeton.” I’m not persuaded, though, that my suggestion is as outlandish as all that. According to your website,

The mission of the John Templeton Foundation 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.

Perhaps what you mean is that my proposed question is trivial. If so, then I agree. Is marriage a civil right? Of course it is. But the question in the context of California’s ballot initiative is a rather big one. A better way to phrase it: Should civil marriage be denied to gays and lesbians? Seen in that light, I think the question does fall under your purview. If any marriage can succeed without love, gratitude, forgiveness, and creativity, I’ll eat the hat I bought yesterday, which is made entirely of synthetic fibers and has very long ear flaps. To judge by the nationwide protests that broke out after Proposition 8 succeeded, whether civilized people may continue to deny to gays and lesbians the benefits of marriage is one of the biggest questions of the hour. Though it isn’t how you describe yourselves, others have characterized the Templeton Foundation as encouraging the intersection of religion and science. Here, too, gay marriage would seem to be pertinent, because science offers no grounds for continuing to deny marriage. Only religion does—and fewer religions every year.

You write that Mr. Templeton “is very careful to separate his own political activities from the work of the Foundation. Like you, he has strong views on Proposition 8, but he does not use the Foundation to promote those views.” I think this is your strongest argument against me. Mr. Templeton is the chair of the foundation; he and it share a name; he and it got their money from the same source. But they are separate entities, and it may be slightly unfair of me to urge a boycott of the foundation because I disapprove of the actions of the man. I am calling for a boycott nonetheless, because if your argument here is valid, and the two are indeed separable, then let the foundation continue without its current chairman. For me to suggest such a separation is meddling, of course, but I feel that Mr. Templeton has meddled, and turnabout is fair play. I also believe the importance of the issue justifies meddling. In 1948 the California Supreme Court struck down that state’s anti-miscegenation laws. If the chairman of a philanthropy were to have contributed that year to an initiative to amend the California constitution so as to restore its anti-miscegenation laws, some might have criticized a boycott of the philanthropy as meddling then, but I think few would so criticize it now, in retrospect. In calling for a boycott, I am arguing that spending more than a million dollars to deny civil marriage to gays and lesbians in another state has become, in the last couple of decades, the sort of act to which public opprobrium naturally attaches. I am arguing, in particular, that opprobrium attaches to it in the community of writers and scholars whose approval the Templeton Foundation pursues.

Finally, I’d like to address the first point in your letter, namely, that you declined to publish my comment out of “ordinary editorial discretion,” because it was off topic. But I don’t see that it is. I’m arguing that public opprobrium attaches today to a donation like Mr. Templeton’s. If I’m right, then any scholar who accepts the largesse of Mr. Templeton’s foundation in the future has some explaining to do. He will have to defend himself from the charge that he’s allowed money to sway his judgment—that he’s agreed to overlook Mr. Templeton’s antagonism to gay rights in exchange for receiving funds from Mr. Templeton’s foundation. I foresee that a certain kind of libertarian will argue that he can both support gay marriage and accept the Templeton Foundation’s money. But I think most liberal and progressive thinkers will appreciate the moral hazard, and my aim in calling for a boycott is to point it out to them.

There is another way of defending my contribution from the accusation that it is off topic, and that is to point out that an intellectual conversation, especially in matters of ethics, should probably be somewhat flexible about its topic. A kind of tact is required. On the one hand, a conversation degenerates into chaos if it has no limits, but on the other hand, it’s dangerous to rule a topic out before there has been a chance to explore it, because you might be missing a chance to discover an unexpected truth. I wouldn’t even raise this point if Mr. Templeton were chairman of a frankly partisan organization. But the Templeton Foundation asserts a belief in open-minded inquiry, and your Big Questions campaign makes much of the candid disagreement among the opinions solicited. You write, regarding Mr. Templeton and Proposition 8, that it should be understandable if “we do not wish to use the Foundation or its website to promote those who disagree with him on this issue.” It is understandable, and even to be expected, but if the Templeton Foundation is committed to open-minded inquiry, it’s wrongheaded. I am an individual. The Templeton Foundation is an institution. When an institution is committed to open-minded inquiry, it does allow individuals to use it to express their dissent, even with—perhaps especially with—the opinions of its leader. It’s not as if I asked the Templeton Foundation to post my dissent on its homepage. I asked to contribute 258 words to an online debate that currently runs to more than 27,000. So I’m calling foul.

All best,
Caleb Crain