Founded in 2003 by Robert P. George and others, the institute is named after John Witherspoon. It shares many scholars with the James Madison Program in American Ideals and Institutions. Fellows include Chen Guangcheng, Harold James, John Joseph Haldane, W. Bradford Wilcox, and James R. Stoner, Jr.
The Witherspoon Institute opposes same-sex marriage and deals with embryonic stem cell research, constitutional law, and globalization. In 2003, it organized a conference on religion in modern societies. In 2006, Republican Senator Sam Brownback cited a Witherspoon document called Marriage and the Public Good: Ten Principles in a debate over a constitutional amendment against same-sex marriage. It held a conference about pornography at Princeton University in December 2008.
Financially independent from Princeton University, its donors have included the Bradley Foundation, the John M. Olin Foundation, the John Templeton Foundation, and the Lee and Ramona Bass Foundation.
On October 2, 2013, the Witherspoon Institute announced the appointment of blind Chinese lawyer and human rights activist Chen Guangcheng as Distinguished Senior Fellow in Human Rights at the Witherspoon Institute, as well as Visiting Fellow of the Institute for Policy Research and Catholic Studies at the Catholic University of America, and Senior Distinguished Advisor to the Lantos Foundation for Human Rights and Justice. In an interview, Luis Tellez, President of the Witherspoon Institute, told Reuters: "We're not asking him to do anything specific... The main point is he's a truth teller, he tries to tell the truth as he sees it." Tellez said that he expects Chen to continue his advocacy for human rights in China in his new appointment, which is set to last for the next three years.
On October 16, 2013, Chen made his first public appearance as a fellow of Witherspoon. He delivered a public lecture at Princeton University entitled "China and the World in the 21st Century: The Next Human Rights Revolution," co-sponsored by the Witherspoon Institute and the James Madison Program in American Ideals and Institutions. The text of Chen's speech, translated into English, was then published online. In the speech, Chen called on the American people to support the Chinese people by fighting against the oppressive Communist government of China. He reminded the audience that even small actions undertaken in defense of human rights can have a large impact, because “Every person has infinite strength. Every action has an important impact. We must believe in the value of our own actions.”
In 2012, the Witherspoon Institute drew public attention for having funded a controversial study—called the "New Family Structures Study" (NFSS)—concerning LGBT parenting, conducted by Mark Regnerus, an associate professor of sociology at the University of Texas at Austin. The study was later declared to be flawed in an audit conducted by the publisher of the study, Social Science Research, and was criticized by major professional scientific institutions and associations, as well as other sociologists at the University of Texas. In a brief to the United States Supreme Court, the American Sociological Association formally condemned the NFSS for being invalid. The University of Texas conducted an inquiry into the publication and declined to conduct a personal investigation stating that ordinary errors are not considered personal misconduct. Documents from the University of Texas at Austin show that Regnerus, who was provided with talking points by the Institute, requested payment authorizations, for assistance in data analysis, to William Bradford Wilcox, associate professor of sociology at the University of Virginia, a member of the James Madison Society at Princeton University, the director of the National Marriage Project at the University of Virginia, and fellow (at that time) of the Witherspoon Institute. William Bradford Wilcox no longer appears on the official website for the Witherspoon Institute. Although the Witherspoon funding was part of the controversy, these documents show direct involvement in the study by the Witherspoon Institute. The methodology of the study has received criticism and defense.
In 2012, Darren Sherkat, professor of sociology at Southern Illinois University and a member of the editorial board of Social Science Research was asked by the journal's editor to audit the peer-review process that led to publication of the Regnerus study, for which Regnerus received $700,000 from the Witherspoon Institute and $60,000 from another conservative think tank. His conclusions were published in the November 2012 issue of Social Science Research. In an interview with the Southern Poverty Law Center, Sherkat described the study as being "deeply methodologically flawed and a peer-review process that failed to identify significant problems." Sherkat also found that the study was riddled with technical flaws:
The key measure of gay and lesbian parenting is simply a farce. The study includes a retrospective question asking if people knew if their mother or father had a “romantic” relationship with someone of the same sex when the respondent was under age 18. This measure is problematic on many levels. Regnerus admits that just two of his respondents were actually raised by a same-sex couple, though I doubt that he can even know that, given his limited data. Since only two respondents were actually raised in gay or lesbian households, this study has absolutely nothing to say about gay parenting outcomes. Indeed, because it is a non-random sample, this study has nothing to say about anything.
Sherkat concluded that Regnerus, a conservative evangelical Christian, had "disgraced" himself by drawing misleading conclusions from poor research:
When we talk about Regnerus, I completely dismiss the study. It’s over. He has been disgraced. All of the prominent people in the field know what he did and why he did it. And most of them know that he knew better. Some of them think that he’s also stupid and an ideologue. I know better. I know that he’s a smart guy and that he did this on purpose, and that it was bad, and that it was substandard.
In his comments, Sherkat asserted that "[t]here are a large number of conservative Christian scholars in sociology, in political science, in family studies, and it’s surprising how many now are rising up into the top ranks." Sherkat further opined that "[t]his is Mark Regnerus you’re talking about. He’s believed this since he was a child. He thought that because he was a brilliant young conservative Christian that he could save Christianity from the evil forces of secularism, that he would become a prominent intellectual and slay the homosexual demons."
In Regnerus' defense his former doctoral advisor, sociologist Christian Smith, has argued that, while "his article is not perfect," nevertheless "it is no scientifically worse than what is routinely published in sociology journals." Smith, who says he is not a conservative, nevertheless described the response to the Regnerus study as a "witch hunt," adding that "Regnerus published ideologically unpopular research results on the contentious matter of same-sex relationships. And now he is being made to pay. In today's political climate, and particularly in the discipline of sociology—dominated as it is by a progressive orthodoxy—what Regnerus did is unacceptable. It makes him a heretic, a traitor—and so he must be thrown under the bus."
Smith opined that progressive political motivations lie behind many of the attacks made by the media and professoriate on Regnerus' study:
The Regnerus case needs to be understood in a larger context. Sociologists tend to be political and cultural liberals, leftists, and progressives. That itself is not a problem, in my view. (I am not a conservative.) A critical progressive outlook is part of sociology's character and contribution to the world, making it an interesting and often useful discipline, especially when it comes to understanding poverty and inequality, determining whether social policies are effective, and establishing why education systems succeed and fail. But the ideological and political proclivities of some sociologists can create real problems (…) To be sure, there are many sociologists—progressives and otherwise—who are good people, scholars, and teachers. But the influence of progressive orthodoxy in sociology is evident in decisions made by graduate students, junior faculty, and even senior faculty about what, why, and how to research, publish, and teach.
Subsequently, eighteen other social scientists have also spoken out in defense of the Regnerus study, opining that "much of the public and academic response to Regnerus is misguided". The 18 scholars added the following observations:
We do not think that [the Regnerus study and others] settle the nation’s ongoing debate about gay parenting, same-sex marriage, and the welfare of children. In fact, research on same-sex parenting based on nationally representative samples is still in its infancy. But we think that the Regnerus study, which is one of the first to rely on a large, random, and representative sample of children from parents who have experienced same-sex relationships, has helped to inform the ongoing scholarly and public conversation about same-sex families in America. Indeed, it is possible to interpret Regnerus’s findings as evidence for the need for legalized gay marriage, in order to support the social stability of such relationships. As social scientists, our hope is that more such studies will be forthcoming shortly, and that future journalistic and academic commentary related to such studies, and this contentious topic, will be more civil, thorough, and thoughtful than has been the coverage of the new study by Professor Mark Regnerus.
- Religious Freedom: Why Now? Defending an Embattled Human Right (2012)
- Embryo: A Defense of Human Life
- The Social Costs of Pornography: A Collection of Papers (2010)
- The Social Costs of Pornography: A Statement of Findings and Recommendations (2010)
- Rethinking Business Management: Examining the Foundations of Business Education (2008)
- Marriage and the Public Good: Ten Principles (First edition, 2006; Second edition, 2008)
- The Meaning of Marriage: Family, State, Market, And Morals
- Official website: Mission
- Deborah Yaffe, 'A conservative think tank with many Princeton ties', in Princeton Alumni Weekly, July 16, 2008
- David D. Kirkpatrick, The Conservative-Christian Big Thinker, The New York Times, December 16, 2009
- Robert P. George & Jean Bethke Elshtain, The Meaning of Marriage, Scepter Publishers, p. vii
- Official website: Fellows
- Roger Scruton, A political philosophy, Continuum International Publishing Group, 2006, p. 210
- Public Discourse website
- Bartlett, Tom (July 26, 2012). "Controversial Gay-Parenting Study Is Severely Flawed, Journal’s Audit Finds". The Chronicle of Higher Education. Retrieved February 1, 2013.
- Steve Kolowich, Is the Research All Right?, Inside Higher Ed, July 13, 2012
- "University of Texas at Austin Completes Inquiry into Allegations of Scientific Misconduct". UTAustin. University of Texas at Austin. Aug. 29, 2012. Retrieved December 3, 2012.
- NFSS FIOA Amato Wilcox
- Resnick, Sofia. "Goal of UT parenting study was to influence SCOTUS decisions on gay marriage, docs show". The American Independent. Retrieved 31 October 2013.
- Gates, Gary & al. "Letter to the editors and advisory editors of Social Science Research". Social Science Research. Retrieved 31 October 2013.
- A Social Scientific Response to the Regnerus Controvery
- An Academic Auto-da-Fe
- Sherkat, Darren. "The editorial process and politicized scholarship: Monday morning editorial quarterbacking and a call for scientific vigilance". Social Science Research. Vol. 41, issue 6, November 2012. Retrieved 2 November 2013.
- "Suspect 'Science,'" Intelligence Report, Summer 2013, Issue 150, Southern Poverty Law Center, splcenter.org, accessed 29 May 2013.
- "An Academic Auto-da-Fé: A sociologist whose data find fault with same-sex relationships is savaged by the progressive orthodoxy" Chronicle of Higher Education, July 23, 2012 accessed 7 June 2013.
- "An Academic Auto-da-Fé: A sociologist whose data find fault with same-sex relationships is savaged by the progressive orthodoxy" accessed 7 June 2013.