Witherspoon Institute

The Witherspoon Institute is a Princeton, New Jersey-based nonprofit organization with ties to the Family Research Council and Roman Catholic traditionalists. Its mission is to “enhance public understanding of the moral foundations of free and democratic societies.” The Institute’s namesake, John Witherspoon, was a signer of the Declaration of Independence and the sixth president of Princeton University.

The Institute operates two research centers that focus on university ethics and religion and the Constitution. The Institute’s six research programs also cover family, marriage, business ethics, and bioethics.

Witherspoon produces original research and awards grants and scholarships. According to tax filings, it has supported a marriage researcher at the University of Virginia, and awarded research fellowships to university professors across the United States.

The Institute also operates a fellowship program that supports more than 20 scholars, including professors from Notre Dame, Georgetown, the University of Saint Andrews, and Princeton. Fellows are selected for “excellence in scholarship as well as teaching.”

Witherspoon sees its role as one of educating the public rather than inspiring Americans to lobby elected officials. Attorney Stephen Whelan, who chairs Witherspoon’s board, explained his group’s focus to the Princeton Alumni Weekly in 2008. “We’re trying to influence people’s thinking, rather than what happens in Trenton or Washington, D.C.,” Whelan said. “We’re not seeking to bring people in and then tell them to go forth and lobby.”

The two research centers of The Witherspoon Institute hold popular summer seminars. In 2010, the Center on Religion and the Constitution will host a seminar on the moral foundations of law. The Center on Ethics and the University will host seminars on Islam and society, natural law, and marriage and social sciences. In 2007, Witherspoon joined with Princeton University religious organizations in co-sponsoring a conference aiming “to equip students with a set of arguments to defend Christian faith and morality as a valid, eminently reasonable system of belief.”

Witherspoon also supports scholarly book projects through its research programs. One of the bioethics program’s two books argues the scientific basis on which an embryo should be considered human life. The program on family issues has published a ten-point document on marriage and the public good.

The Institute is currently researching Islam and civil society, including an analysis of Islamic theology, political pluralism, and religious freedom.

Public Discourse: Ethics, Law, and the Common Good is an academic-minded Witherspoon Institute online publication, founded in autumn 2008, which publishes new material on a rolling basis at least twice each week. Its editor describes this unusual publication:

We are not a Journal. We are not a Blog. Our aim is to provide a venue where readers can find out what our associated scholars are thinking about or working on—whether in their own academic scholarship or in informed commentary on contemporary events. Our hope is that by benefiting from these scholars’ perspectives, readers will be better equipped to form their own.

Witherspoon produces its own publications and those of its scholars, and hosts events covering topics featured in its research programs. Public Discourse covers topics like abortion, natural law, economics, and constitutional law. Contributors to Public Discourse have also been featured in The New Republic, The Wall Street Journal, The Christian Science Monitor, The Weekly Standard, The Economist, and National Review Online.