Can Theology Move the Needle on Environmental Issues? One Funder Thinks So

We've written quite a lot about the Henry Luce Foundation—including its significant arts grantmaking, higher ed gifts, and Clare Boothe Luce Program supporting women in STEM—but environmental funding has never emerged as a big topic.

Lo and behold, the foundation just gave $425,000 to the Methodist Theological School in Ohio for a seminary environmental leadership initiative. It’s a three-year grant in partnership with the Interfaith Center for Sustainable Development in Israel, and the Green Seminary Initiative in New Jersey, and will involve a certification program and nationwide conferences. More seminaries are embracing environmental issues as a moral imperative, and the goal of the initiative is to establish best practices and resources for those looking to engage.

Faith-based environmental initiatives aren’t all that unusual, and we see grants going to them now and then as green funders look to build broad-based constituencies behind issues like conservation and climate change. This grant, however, comes from the foundation’s theology program, one of a handful of places where environment and sustainability grants pop up in Luce’s idiosyncratic giving. 


Henry Luce was the co-founder of Time Magazine and other publications, and in 1936 launched a foundation to honor his parents, Presbyterian missionaries and educators in China. It’s expanded since, but like a lot of longstanding foundations with legacy interests, you see footprints in its current work. There are programs for theology, religion in international affairs, and Asia, for example. 

The foundation actually did have an environment program at one point, which ran from 2000 to 2007 and distributed $30 million. The program wrapped up upon reaching its goal, but some of that interest still manifests in other programs. 

For starters, the 2016 grant comes from the Luce Fund for Theological Education. There’s also been occasional green funding from a religion in international affairs program, such as an environmental studies film festival at the University in Wisconsin in 2014. There was even an American art grant for an exhibit at Princeton, Nature’s Nation: American Art and Environment.

But the biggest avenue for Luce's current environmental funding is the relatively new Luce Initiative on Asian Studies and the Environment (LIASE). This program launched in 2010, and “encourages innovative approaches to Asian studies teaching and research at liberal arts colleges through the lens of the environment and sustainable development.”

The program notes that Asian studies are frequently rooted in the humanities, and funding seeks to bridge the humanities, physical and biological sciences, policy, and professional fields. Not only is this relevant to the foundation’s interest in cultural exchange with Asia in the United States, but it also responds to the outsized role Asian countries currently play in global environmental issues such as sustainable development and energy.

The program made four grants in 2016, each $400,000 to universities to develop curricula on the subject. For example, funding at Centre College in Kentucky is running a program on the impact of food processing industries in Thailand, Malaysia and China. Oberlin has an initiative on the theme of resilience as an organizing principle. Funding also includes exchanges with Chinese universities, and opportunities for student research abroad. 

For a good-sized funder with assets topping $800 million, Henry Luce Foundation has some unique, niche funding initiatives. While not a huge priority for the foundation, Luce's environmental giving is also filling some interesting slots.