In recent years, charitable foundations have played a large role in both spurring research and supporting ministries in American religion.
Both conservative and liberal religious groups are at the receiving end of generous donors who might have different and sometimes conflicting religious outlooks and ideological goals. Christianity Today (July 12) reports that a primary factor in the resurgence of evangelical scholarship has been the warming of large foundations to their projects.
Some of the foundations have no particular religious viewpoint or founding agenda, such as the Lilly Endowment, which is based on the fortunes of the Eli Lilly pharmaceutical firm (the makers of Prozac and other drugs). The endowment funds the research of a wide range of groups, more recently including evangelical scholars, reports Michael Hamilton and Johanna G. Yngvason.
In contrast, the Pew Charitable Trusts started out as a strongly evangelical-friendly foundation, funding missions and evangelism, due to the sympathies of J. Howard Pew, head of Sun Oil Company. Today, the foundation is more leery of directly supporting evangelical mission and evangelism work and has shifted to funding evangelical scholarship, such as the Institute for the Study of American Evangelicals at Wheaton College and a flourishing movement of academic Christian philosophers.
Other foundations have a clear religious philosophy, but they are now realizing the importance of funding scholarship rather than only groups and projects that propagate their particular visions. One increasingly influential foundation is the Fieldstead Institute. Fieldstead founders Howard and Roberta Ahmanson have long funded conservative political and Christian groups. Today Fieldstead is seeking funding initiatives that wrestles with secular ideas from a Christian perspective.
These include: the Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture at the University of Virginia under sociologist James Davison Hunter (pledging $1 million) and the Intelligent Design movement, which seeks an alternative to evolutionary theory ($2.8 million). Another evangelical foundation that has moved from supporting evangelism to funding scholarship (including such conservative think tanks as the Discovery Institute and the Ethics and Public Policy Center) is the Maclellan Foundation.
The Templeton Foundation, founded by financier John Templeton, has funded a wide range of religion projects, particularly involving science and religion. Yet evangelicals and other conservative believers may chafe at John Templeton’s admiration for the Unity of School of Christianity, which teaches that all great religions embody part of the ultimate truth and move toward the same goal. The Templeton Foundation Press recently published a sympathetic history of the Unity Church.
The church’s president Glenn R. Mosley is also the only denominational leader on the foundation’s board of trustees. Templeton’s concepts of “progress in religion” (that religions evolve and only have a small grain of the truth) and his connecting prosperity and spirituality have been strongly influenced by Unity teachings, reports the July 6 Long Island newspaper Newsday
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