A Discussion with Michael Gilligan, President, Henry Luce Foundation

With: Michael Gilligan

March 31, 2017

Background: The Luce Foundation is a pathfinder in the complex area of religion and national and international affairs, and Michael Gilligan, as the foundation’s president, has a keen personal interest in the topic and the program. This conversation with Katherine Marshall (by telephone) on March 31, 2017 explored his own background in the field, how the foundation embarked on this initiative, and where the program stands today. His journey from English major and teacher to leader in a Catholic pontifical academy to the Luce Foundation has reinforced his early conviction that practical and scholarly attention to religious topics has central importance for current affairs, both in the United States and worldwide. He returns often to the significance of diversity, commenting that his upbringing in southeastern Ohio gives him a perspective that serves him in his current work, offsetting what can be a classic echo chamber, a “well-furnished bubble.” Looking to the future, he highlights thoughtful approaches to communicating across disciplines and communities as a central challenge.

What paths led you to the Luce Foundation?

Let me give you the quick version! I was an English major, and my background is in rhetoric. In the 1970s, I was involved in lower school work in Catholic schools in Ohio. I was asked (in 1985) to go for a curriculum project at the Pontifical College Josephinum (in Columbus, Ohio), which is the only college/seminary in the United States that comes directly under the auspices of the Holy See. As a national seminary, the Josephinum was faced by the sharp decline in priesthood candidates and the need to admit students who lacked traditional academic preparation. While I expected to spend a short time there, I ended up becoming the academic dean of the college seminary, and thus was involved full time in religious work. I spent nearly 10 years there.

I was then asked to go to the Association of Theological Schools (ATS), to participate in developing new accrediting standards, and for five years worked in accreditation and leadership education. When the Luce Foundation was looking for a full-time director of their theology program in 1998, I had the opportunity to move there. Over the four years I directed the program, we recognized the need to narrow our focus but expand our participants. And then in 2002 I was elected president of the foundation and moved into a very different kind of work.

I could say I am one of those people who are constantly aware of the imposter syndrome, in that I have come to do things that I did not expect and for which I had little experience: as an English teacher unfamiliar with basis points, for example, I found myself guiding the rebuilding of the foundation’s portfolio! I have learned a lot over the past 15 years. 

And where are you from, and how did that contribute to the paths you took?

I am from a small town in southeast Ohio, near the coal mining region. Both my parents were from there. In Ohio there are 15 or 17 counties that are like West Virginia and Kentucky, quite different from the rest of Ohio. I say that I am an Appalachian Ohioan, not a Midwesterner. One of my grandfathers was a coal miner who died of black lung disease, at a young age. The other grandfather was from an Irish Catholic farming family, who left home as a teenager to find work in the nearest town—where both of my parents later grew up on the same block. Like many families in the Depression, there were certainly times when neither family had enough to pay the bills.

In our small-town schools I was a good student and had the chance to study at Duke, where I found myself in a very different world, with students whose backgrounds had little resemblance to my own. Duke guided me into places foreign to many of my cousins. But with them I share not just a common history but many common experiences.

That background helps me still in my work. In this kind of position, it is easy to end up in a classic echo chamber, a well-furnished bubble. During family events in Ohio, I am aware that many in my family have led harder lives than mine. In rural Ohio, the opioid epidemic is real today, for example, and close friends have suffered in multiple ways from the shifts in the economy. Some of the family today are working on solutions, for example social service delivery. The links to where I came from and my family reminds me of the diversity and complexity of this country, giving different contexts that are culturally very specific. 

Have you considered writing about this juxtaposition, as part of our common effort to understand better the forces at work in contemporary America?

In a sense I think that J.D. Vance has written that story in Hillbilly Elegy! But in fact my mother reflected on it earlier in a book she published shortly before her death in 2011. My grandmother, who was widowed at 29 years old, with eight children, had very limited opportunities for education, but my mother graduated from college and was an elementary school teacher. At the age of 80 years old Mom wrote a children’s book, a fictionalized version of my father’s family’s history. The book tells of an Irish family that came to Ohio, reflecting their varied experiences, including the diversity and discrimination they met. She writes about a little boy who encounters Native people in nineteenth century rural Ohio. 

When I look at what has happened lately in the nation, I think back to my Catholic high school class. Of 80 kids who graduated in 1967, only the minority completed post-secondary education. Many of the boys went into the military service or to work in local factories, expecting to work steadily and retire young and then to enjoy leisure time, and many classmates were married and had children quite young. Since then they have faced a disrupted economy. This fall I will go back to my fiftieth reunion, and I fully expect that half will be Trump supporters, unlike my neighborhood in Brooklyn!. But it’s more complicated than electoral divides. One classmate wrote me recently after he had seen an update where I reported that my husband and I had gotten married. He said my comment might have caused commotion for some, but, he observed, I would be surprised by how widespread the points of views were. 

You have a particular background in Catholic schools, as you taught in the system during the first years of your career. Catholic education (worldwide) has emerged from our research as one worth far more exploration. A first striking point is how different the systems are in different countries. However, for example in Guatemala, information about the system and assessment of impact is not easy to obtain.

That is certainly true, and the topic is well worth pursuing. Catholic school systems are indeed very different in different countries. The U.S. story is perhaps unique. Many of the Catholic schools were established before there was universal access to education. They grew out of disadvantaged immigrant populations and served large, often marginalized, communities. At every level the schools were outposts in immigrant communities, tools of evangelization in a Protestant-dominated world. In Mexico and Guatemala, the history and evolution are totally different. There was such a small percent of the population that was educated, in a Catholic-dominated society, and the relationship of the Church with local communities was very different.

The focus of the Church on social justice issues likewise differs markedly by country and region, and it reflects to this day sharp divisions. Any place that was colonized by the Spanish and Portuguese is very different from the United States. In Latin America, the Catholic priests and religious orders were very often seen as part of an oppressive system, for example in Mexico in the early twentieth century. They were the forces holding people down. Almost 25 years ago, in 1993, Cardinal Juan Jesús Posadas Ocampo was murdered at the Guadalajara airport, where he had gone to welcome the papal nuncio. The official version was that he was caught in crossfire, but it was clear that he had been assassinated by drug traffickers. He was dressed in his full clerical clothes; at that time it was still illegal in Mexico to wear religious dress on the street. No one was arrested for 50 to 60 days, and when someone was charged the official story was surely not the real story.

When I was dean of the seminary, I met squatters around Cuernavaca, and there was a strong movement of Catholic women especially, strongly influenced by liberation theology. They were working to assure inclusive opportunities for education of the ultra poor. But the legacy of the colonial history is still there. It is a history that needs to be written in a much more complicated way. And these historical tensions are accentuated today by the increase of the sectas, the evangelicals.

Much of the Catholic hierarchy lacked warmth in dealing with local groups and communities. There are stories from both sides, to be sure. It is vital to find out where people come from to understand them. The history of the bitter conflicts is still very much present, and the phenomena like the “disappeared” and the raw absence of judicial protection are still alive. There are many questions as to the roles of religious actors in these situations. 

That you studied and taught English makes sense: the magic of literature and its appeal to a brilliant student. But how did you become so involved in religion?

I was always interested in theology. I am an Episcopalian now and have been for a dozen years, but I was raised in a very Catholic environment, though in a not very Catholic part of the country. I went to a seminary prep high school for several years. For a time I imagined a life in the Church. I was fascinated, hook, line, and sinker, by the changes that Vatican II brought. I taught a religion class every year when I was working in the school system. So I became fairly conversant about religion, for a lay person. Then I was at the pontifical seminary “at the heart of the Church.” There I came into contact with some who were suspicious of or who contested Vatican II. Then in my ATS role I was in a more diverse theological environment that was still Christian but often university-based. Earlier in Columbus I had helped to found a lay ministry training program. I was thus involved in many discussions about ministry, in a very progressive, world-embracing way.

In short, religion was not a foreign language, but also not an area of professional focus. I did become an expert in the way seminaries and divinity schools work, with a particular interest in how leadership training is done, albeit without the background most who are directly involved in the subject would have. 

How did the Luce Foundation become so involved in the topic of religion?

The Luce Foundation comes out of a Protestant history, but with a longstanding perspective that cuts across all religions. As director for theology and then president I found a readiness to move towards a broader and more articulated capacity to prepare religious leaders to work in a religiously pluralistic society, not just working with people who were like them. Religious leaders today need to be interpreters of difference, especially in communities that are struggling with rapid changes. The Luce theology program has given plenty of focus to reforming theology education so that graduates can deal more directly with religious diversity. We’ve also focused on intellectual excellence, helping religious voices to be smarter in order to be more audible and more credible.

An important turning point in our work was the decision to end the foundation’s interdisciplinary professorship program, in fact the only program named for founder. The question was what to do next. The sense was that focusing on higher education as a sector did not offer really represent the founder’s interests. What he would have wanted us to do was to grapple with a big idea, in a way that was faithful to our history and within our capacity as a relatively small foundation. This discussion took place in 2003 and 2004, just a few years post 9/11, during the first term of George W. Bush.

One board member suggested that nothing was less well understood at a national level than the role of the world’s religions, as they are lived out in various parts of the world. This tied in well to Henry R. Luce’s interest in international relations. It seemed the right moment for this inquiry, and we began to explore it systematically. The effort was genuinely exploratory, as we did not, at first, know what was out there, nor whether there would be any takers nor whether the work could have any impact. That was when we met [Katherine Marshall served on an advisory group for the project at the time.] The initial approach and structure was to focus primarily on the APSIA [Association of Professional Schools of International Affairs] schools.

And what are the main ways in which the program has evolved? Where does it stand today?

A dozen years later, it is a very different scene, with projects and strategies we had not initially anticipated. We have learned a great deal.

In launching the initiative, Terry Lautz played the major role. He was a terrific program officer, even though this was not his area (he is an East Asia specialist). About a year into the initiative, during a discussion about some of the complexities involved, I realized that he and I had never actually talked about religion, and I had no idea about his beliefs; I realized that I might have spoken loosely about aspects of some traditions without even considering his sensitivities. This was also true about the Luce Foundation board. We had few conversations around religion per se, and no formal faith statements at all: there was simply an awareness that that religion was more important than generally acknowledged and that we had some capacity to address that gap. And we had some unharnessed funds. What we knew was supported by various informants, but we ourselves really brought little by way of formal expertise. We were aware that the same could be said about the organizations of our focus: the U.S. State Department and USAID, for example. And so we chose to concentrate: at least 60 percent of our early grants went to the APSIA schools, with a focus on curriculum development so that graduates would have some exposure to questions of religion in international affairs.

Within the first several years, the advisory committee and others suggested that the initial approach was way too slow and too limited in its focus on graduate education. It was not close enough to decision-makers, and it was doing too little to help build the networks that were already emerging. When Terry Lautz retired, Toby Volkman joined our staff and built on Terry’s great start. She brought a strategic view and expanded our responsive approach to grant-making. She has helped our approach become far more world-focused, and extending well beyond Christianity and Islam, beyond security and peace, to a full range of aspects of lived religion. Continuing and rich conversations have allowed us to be opportunistic in accepting some proposals, and to develop stronger and farther reaching connective tissue.

At the outset, we had planned that after three years we would review the program and see if we were doing what was intended and if we had enough grantees. At the three-year point our board authorized us to continue for up to eight to ten years. We were then to evaluate the program, and it was anticipated that we might then look for an exit strategy. In fact, though, we have found after 10 or 11 years that we have a much clearer sense of what we had been able to advance and that there is still room to grow. Do we intend for this work to go on forever? Probably not. The board has concluded that the religion in international affairs initiative should remain an initiative, but they are not encouraging us to think in terms of an endpoint.

We have also found, as we look back 20 years, that there is less concern now about what was then a firewall within the foundation’s work and approach. The firewall was between the foundation’s programs and any media work, and it grew from a concern to avoid any risk of conflict of interest with the sector that had produced our assets. Through our grantees, we came to realize that in the kinds of work we supported, the media and journalists were not simply telling others’ stories. Journalists, in print and broadcast media, are in fact part of the scholarly network. Working with them makes it possible to create richer bridges, to reinforce religiously literate networks, to link those based in different conversations. This is a growing edge of our work these days. We see as core functions both training and connecting. With a maximum of $5 million in grants a year, the program is still quite small. What is important is that we continue to support new ideas, and to intervene at the right times. Toby is highly skilled in building of networks, using her areas studies background to raise questions across many disciplines. She is a genuine contributor to the conversation, never simply a foundation administrator. 

What do you see as changes in your own perspectives, things that have surprised you? 

The perspectives (my own included) have shifted away from the more U.S.-exclusive focus that we had at the very start. We aimed then primarily to provide and assure high quality resources for U.S. decision-makers. Three to four years in we came to see this far more as a global network, as the issues were not just U.S. issues. We needed to support grantees who were in conversation with people from multiple countries. We also came to recognize some tensions in how the foundation’s new initiative was perceived. Some remembered Henry Luce as a political conservative and the son of Protestant missionaries, and wrongly assumed we had a specific political or religious objective. We needed to build an initiative that included many points of view, and to establish a relationship for inclusiveness.

Another change is the explicit recognition that it is almost impossible to make a neat distinction or separation between the international and the domestic. The U.S. population is always changing, with so many born in a different place. How do issues with international roots play out in domestic policies? The global perspective does offer different connections and ways of seeing issues of poverty, hunger, gender, and the roles of religion in U.S. society. We can’t treat other countries as case studies without paying attention to ourselves. In this work, too, we know that change is constant, which fuels some of the anxiety we are experiencing today.

One of biggest challenges to being influential in the U.S. policy context, with Congress, the State Department, and other executive departments, is the rapid turnover of people. Someone working this year on hunger in Africa may next be assigned to a different region and issue. It is hard for knowledge to be passed on. This makes it an especially significant challenge to build durable, resilient resources so that each new person or group does not start from zero. We need reports and curricula that can span changes in personnel and administrations.

An example was John Kerry’s establishment of the Office of Religious Engagement in the State Department. We were delighted by the proposal and celebrated as Shaun Casey and Liora Danan built the office. Through the American Academy of Religion we supported a group of Franklin fellows in that office, scholars to contribute to the office. And then when the administration changed the future of this work became uncertain. Will the recent good work have any staying power?

If we are looking for durable change in the understanding of religion in international affairs, one thing we’ve learned is how essential it is to keep up the buzz. Decision-makers are responsive to constituents, not just to experts. These are people who depend on local papers and talk shows, not just on scholarly books and white papers. We need to equip scholars to take on public intellectual roles, going well beyond just the academic world. It means reaching across the secular and religious worlds. This has to be broadly scaled. It can mean that complex but understandable reporting needs to be supported. That can apply, for example, in efforts to promote the understanding of Islam and the role of women. It requires getting beyond simplistic thinking and misunderstandings about Islam. From my own early career, I recall examples of gross oversimplification of church teaching about women’s roles, and others when discrimination was defended by fundamentalist and ahistorical interpretations of scripture. We’ve seen similar examples, when cruel treatment of LGBT people in many countries is justified by resorting to religious teachings that are not really well understood. The educational challenge is real: to bring the best thinking to bear on complex issues, and simultaneously make it comprehensible for wide audiences. 

And last, how do you see the challenges facing interfaith approaches and movements?

There certainly are many different interfaith efforts and movements that contribute in significant ways today. I am especially interested in how lay people across traditions come together to understand one another. One such approach is reading texts from different traditions by their respective adherents sitting together. Museums take a similar approach, presenting an art object that is seen by some as sacred to their tradition with a careful, respectful explanation of its different significance to different viewers. 

Ecumenical work in the past often began with the exploration of theological and doctrinal differences, usually led by formal authority figures. A different kind of interfaith work that, to be honest, interests me more is where religious leaders and communities come together to work on problems. This can best be seen, often, in very local cases. Some of the most dramatic and compelling examples of interfaith as a reality on the ground happen when people are motivated by their faith to respond together to human needs and to address together real issues. There is an old maxim in fundraising: that money follows mission. What may be most powerful in promoting interfaith understanding is a vivid example of groups working across traditions to, for example, empower women or to draw in marginalized groups. I trust that resources would follow if we could demonstrate that cooperation yields results worth working for.

But that means that we need to get information out, in ways that people can understand and can respond to. Here’s one story. My own church in New York has offered a hot lunch program five days a week for more than 30 years, one of the largest in the country, relying on the resources and energy of a relatively small congregation. In some ways, it’s hard to argue that we’ve had an effect: hunger and homelessness in the city have only gotten worse over the years; many of the same folks come day after day for a meal. To draw volunteers and supporters for our program, we’re challenged by how to communicate a need that just doesn’t go away and to reach across the divides we face today in our city and our country. We’ve chosen to talk about radical hospitality, calling the people we serve our guests, and telling stories that emphasize not our different circumstances but our shared humanity.

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