History of the Capps Center

The Capps Center was officially established in October 2002 with an inaugural lecture by historian Garry Wills of Northwestern University at the Victoria Street Theatre in Santa Barbara. Wills’ lecture was entitled “Citizen Believers” and emphasized the crucial importance of people’s involvement in the democratic process as essential to sustaining a vital and responsible political system, a belief that Walter H. Capps also held throughout his career both as a professor and as a frequent speaker at civic organizations and political gatherings. Serious, ongoing engagement with important social, political, and ethical issues within in our nation and world was from the beginning the stated primary mission of the Capps Center.

Walter H. Capps: The Man

From 1963 to 1996, Walter Capps was a professor in the Department of Religious Studies at the University of California at Santa Barbara, the last two years serving as chair of the department. Over the course of his career his teaching and research moved in the direction of greater emphasis upon the role of ethics in American public life. In 1978, he initiated his course on “The Impact of the Vietnam War on American Religion and Culture,” a highly-celebrated course noted for its attention to veterans and the conflicts and ethical issues the war created within the country; the course drew huge numbers of students over many years and was featured twice on CBS’s “60 Minutes” program. Another course of his also received considerable attention – “Voices of the Stranger” – premised on the need to understand ourselves in relation to the “Other” and the importance generally of dialogue within our diverse and ideologically-driven nation. He was associated with, and for a time served as director of, the Center for the Study of Democratic Institutions, which for a while was housed on the UCSB campus. He was also President of the California Council of Humanities where he became quite widely known both within state and across the country as an advocate for the humanities. He was appointed a member of the Advisory Committee of the National Humanities Center. Ultimately, his interests in social and political issues led him to seek political office, and in 1996 he was elected to the United States House of Representatives, where he served from January 1997 until his untimely death in October of that year.

Serving the University and the Community

Programmatically, the Capps Center’s mission is two-fold: one, to promote public discussion of social and political issues, stressing the importance of ethical values and principles as they bear upon our lives at all levels — local, national, and global; and two, to try to bridge the worlds of academia and the larger public. As a professor, Walter Capps himself lived and worked in this in-between space – seeking on the one hand to enrich public discussion by bringing to it the resources of the university, especially the insights of the humanities and social sciences; and likewise concerned to bring the issues of the community, nation, and world to the classroom for critical reflection. In effect, he was an early proponent of what today is often described as “public humanities,” i.e., the conscious effort of trying to pull these two rather disparate worlds of experience and conversation into a more meaningful and ethically engaging whole.   


In the immediate years after Walter Capps’ death in late 1997 there were conversations both within the Department of Religious Studies and the larger community about how best to memorialize his life and legacy. In 1998 and again in 1999 faculty in regular departmental meetings discussed what should be the mission of a center named in his honor, and why it should be located within the Department of Religious Studies at UCSB. Capps had spent his career as a professor in this department and his courses, particularly on the Vietnam War and "Voices of the Stranger," were shaped by his view of religion as broadly understood in social and political contexts, i.e., as ethics, beliefs, values, and humanitarian perspectives supportive of that which is right, good, and civil in human experience and community. It was agreed that the new center should have an Advisory Committee drawn mainly from university faculty but also including representation from the community, reflecting Walter's own spheres of social interaction as well as symbolizing the importance of the town-and-gown connection important not just to him but to the university. Indeed, it was this latter concern especially that played heavily in our decision to stress public humanities as central to our endeavor. 

But four years actually passed before there was any really serious effort at establishing a center or even of securing the finances to support it. In July 1999, Wade Clark Roof was appointed Chair of the Department of Religious Studies and soon afterward was asked by the Dean of Humanities and Fine Arts, David Marshall at the time, to assume leadership for further planning of a Capps Center and initiating efforts for securing its core funding. Given Walter's training in the humanities and as a faculty member in Religious Studies, and our commitment to public humanities, it seemed natural that we should explore funding from the National Endowment for the Humanities. Fortunately for us, the NEH already knew a great deal about the work and contributions of Walter Capps in advancing the humanities. More than just his leadership and his widely-celebrated course on Vietnam, he had also received funding from the NEH over several years for the support of a summer seminar he taught at UCSB designed to assist public school teachers in addressing religion as a topic of discussion in the classroom. At the time there was considerable concern among teachers following the controversial Schempp decision of the Supreme Court (1963) which ruled that religion could be taught historically and descriptively (as opposed to theologically) within public schools without violating the principle of legal separation of church and state. And for all these reasons the NEH rather quickly invited us to begin a conversation about establishing a center in honor of Capps, one that would in effect extend discussion of religion beyond the classroom into the larger public arena. The fact that UCSB’s Department of Religious Studies was widely-known and respected no doubt helped as well in gaining the NEH’s support. Roof assumed responsibility for drafting the proposal, drawing upon considerable help from Dean Marshall, the Development Office, faculty members, and Lois Capps, who won her late husband's seat in Congress in 1998 and held it until she retired 2017.

Later in 1999, when a draft of the proposal was completed and Roof had made a trip visiting with officials at NEH to discuss issues, people both at the university and within the community reviewed it and offered helpful comments. Once we settled upon a final version and were ready to submit it officially to the NEH, letters of support were received and attached to the quite-lengthy NEH proposal from Henry T. Yang, Chancellor, UCSB; John M. Wieman, Vice Chancellor, UCSB; David Marshall, Dean of Humanities and Fine Arts, UCSB; Senator Bob Kerrey, Nebraska; Hal Conklin, Mayor of Santa Barbara; Marty Bloom, former Mayor of Santa Barbara; Laura Capps, family member; Martin E. Marty, University of Chicago; Robert N. Bellah, UC-Berkeley; Sara Miller McCune, CEO,  Sage Publications; and Catherine L. Albanese, Richard D. Hecht, Mark Juergensmeyer, R. Stephen Humphreys, and Giles Gunn, all professors at UCSB.  

There was considerable enthusiasm within the Santa Barbara community about the prospects of a Capps Center carrying forward Walter’s legacy by providing programming in public humanities in the community and at UCSB.   

  • April 2001: Largely as a result of the efforts of the Capps Family, the Office of the President at the University of California budgeted $100,000 to assist with establishing a program honoring Walter Capps’ role in advancing the humanities (even earlier at the time of Walter’s death the Department of Religious Studies had received many small gifts and remembrances, including one from President and Mrs. Clinton).
  • June 2001: Santa Barbara resident Eulah Laucks, who much earlier had worked closely with Walter pursuing her studies of religion, donated $50,000.
  • August 2001: The United States Congress awarded the center $500,000. Respected in Congress on both sides of the aisle, the decision to honor Capps and his legacy was unanimous. Dean David Marshall, Nicole Klanfer from Development, and Wade Clark Roof attended the Congressional reception in Washington, D.C., hosted by later-Speaker Nancy Pelosi and attended by many members from the House of Representatives, to receive the award and to extend our appreciation. (See article in the Lompoc Record about this funding.)

But it was not until a year later that developments fell into place for building the center’s core endowment and programs:

  • November 2002: The NEH awarded the center a 3-to1 Challenge Grant of $500,000 and thus calling upon us to raise an additional $1.5M in order to create a permanent endowment of $2M. Bruce Cole, then Chair of the NEH at the conclusion of our efforts, wrote in his letter of congratulation (January 15, 2003) that the NEH was very impressed with the Capps Center’s plan for  “contributing to American understanding of the place of religion in public life,” and for the center’s proposed efforts for the “strengthening of humanistic activities at the University of California at Santa Barbara,” noting as well that at the time “our center was the only one of its kind on the West Coast and the only one based at a public university.” He emphasized the importance of the latter noting the use of public funds for programming in a public university.
  • Dean Marshall and the Development Office (particularly Nicole Klanfer and Leslie Gray) led the way in identifying potential large-scale donors who might help us in meeting the NEH Challenge. In several instances Marshall and Roof met with potential contributors and assisted with raising the funds. With all the major gifts we were concerned to make sure that the types of programs to be endowed were appropriate to the Capps Center’s central mission in promoting the public humanities and that the programs established would be important to both the Santa Barbara community and UCSB. Soon afterward Leonard Wallock, who for several years had served as Associate Director of the Interdisciplinary Humanities Center, was appointed by Dean Marshall to join the Capps Center as Associate Director in 2003. He assisted with fund-raising to meet the NEH match in the early stages and continued in the years following in raising additional programming funds and assisting the Director in program planning.  

Two years later, in September 2005, the NEH Challenge campaign completed its goal of raising the matching funds for the NEH award with the establishment of three important, newly-named programs:   

1) The Martin E. Marty Lecture on Religion in American Life

2) The Henry Schimberg Endowment in Ethics and Enterprise

3) The Steve and Barbara Mendell Graduate Fellowship in Cultural Literacy          

Five years later, in April 2010, Sara Miller McCune established the McCune Endowed Internship and Public Service Program with a $500,000 gift. For several preceding years she had expressed interest in an internship program and had supported a few interns who were sent to UC-Washington Center, but with this larger award she formalized a larger program that would support interns at UC-Santa Barbara, UC-Washington Center, and UC-Sacramento. The UCSB program was more fully developed, including a seminar on nonprofits and their role in American society in the fall plus assignment to intern at a particular nonprofit in the winter and spring quarters. (For more on McCune's gift, see this announcement in the Santa Barbara Independent.)

Combined, the NEH-inspired and McCune gifts plus a planned charitable gift of nearly $1M from the estate of Leinie Schilling Bard, provided a core $3M-plus permanent endowment for support of the center’s major programs. A complete list of people and/or organizations who contributed $25,000 or more in the early years for the creation and ongoing support of the center is as follows: Leinie Schilling Bard, Gary and Mary Becker, Stephen and Susan Cooper, Jamal and Saida Hamdani, Roger Himovitz, Mitchell Kauffman and Joanne Moran, Eulah Laucks, Sara Miller McCune, Jon and Lillian Lovelace, Sage Publications, Steve and Barbara Mendell, Henry Schimberg, Marjorie Layden Schimberg, and Robert and Marlene Veloz.

With the Capps Center officially established in 2002, two advisory committees were created: a National Advisory Committee consisting of Lois Capps, U.S. House of Representatives; Robert Bellah, UC- Berkeley; Mahar Hathout,  Muslim and interfaith Leader in Los Angeles; Diana Eck, Harvard University; Martin E. Marty, University of Chicago; Sara Miller McCune, Sage Publications; and Henry Schimberg, former CEO of Coca-Cola; plus a Local Advisory UCSB Committee consisting of Catherine L. Albanese and Richard Hecht, Religious Studies; Giles Gunn, English and Global Studies; and R. Stephen Humphreys, History.

Both committees were helpful particularly in the early years when we were deciding upon our program initiatives in keeping with the NEH 3-to-1 Challenge Grant and possible speakers to bring to Santa Barbara.  While we did not have funds to bring together members of the National Advisory Committee for a meeting in Santa Barbara, they did provide helpful advice to the Director and Associate Director about programming and topics appropriate for developing in lectures and conversations, many of which later on we did in fact develop. Over time there were replacements on both committees: Karen Armstrong, religion scholar; Jim Lichtman, ethics columnist; and Jamal Hamdani, Santa Barbara businessman, joined the National Advisory Committee. Other members of the UCSB faculty later on joining the Local Advisory UCSB Committee include Kathleen Moore in Religious Studies, Mark Juergensmeyer in Global Studies, Alice O’Connnor in History, Tommaso Treu in Physics, and Gaye Theresa Johnson in Black Studies.  


Following the opening event with Garry Wills in October 2002, we brought a distinguished and well-known set of speakers to the community and university during the following year. This was by design on our part since we knew we would have to raise considerable funds to establish an active and flourishing center, and thus we sought to develop a strong, visible presence for the new center with important speakers. In that first year, 2003, we brought to the community Daniel Ellsberg (“Iraq, Terrorism, and the Danger of Nuclear War”); Eugene Kennedy (“The Unhealed Wound, Still Unhealed”); Gustav Niebuhr (“Religious Pluralism: America’s Continuing Challenge”); and Sister Helen Prejean (“Dead Man Walking: The Journey Continues”).  The speakers were known to be authorities on their subjects and the topics they addressed were of deep concern to Americans – which helped to solidify rather quickly the Capps Center’s reputation as an important forum for public conversation.

No doubt for this reason, it soon became apparent that the center’s title did not fully give justice to what we sought to do, and indeed did, in our first public lectures. At the beginning the center’s official title had been the Walter H. Capps Center for the Study of Religion and Public Life, but clearly there was an important word missing -- “Ethics.” People wanted to hear more about the values and principles that informed ethical decision-making, and we realized that it was important that we give more attention to these fundamental considerations. In 2005, the center was renamed as the Walter H. Capps Center for the Study of Ethics, Religion, and Public Life. “Ethics” more so than “Religion” united the interests of our audiences and served us well both in future planning of programs as well as with subsequent fund-raising. The new title gave us a clearer focus in connecting our programming to the humanities’ traditions and their ethical values and principles.   

Helping the center to gain visibility early on, too, was that UCTV chose to cover almost all of our major lectures both downtown and in Campbell Hall on campus, thus extending our public reach. By making our programs far more visible across California, UCTV helped to validate the NEH’s claim at the time about ours being the only West Coast center they funded with a central focus upon public humanities. Capps Center lectures could now be watched not just throughout California but also through extended media outlets elsewhere within the country and abroad. Our visibility expanded as well to the nation’s capital: The Capps-Emerson Program of Memorial Lectures for Bi-Partisan Bridge-Building was created in Washington, D.C., to memorialize two deceased representatives, one a Democrat (Walter Capps) and the other a Republican (William Emerson from Missouri). Lois Capps and Emerson’s widow were primarily responsible for getting these lectures established. The Capps Center was invited to co-sponsor and assist in financing these lectures, which we did for the eight years when this program received sustainable funding from people within the Washington area to keep it alive. The Capps Director attended many of these lectures and while in the area sought to cultivate a Capps Center presence at UC-Washington Center by showing UCTV-covered lectures followed by conversations with interns there at the time.  

Simultaneously, the Capps legacy was kept alive on the UCSB campus through our programming on ethical topics of interest to graduate and undergraduate students. On campus almost from the beginning, the center co-sponsored humanities’ discussions with the Interdisciplinary Humanities Center and occasionally when invited with academic departments on campus. Within months after the center’s establishment, Chancellor Yang invited the director of the center, Roof, to address the Board of Regents about the mission of the newly-established center at one of its regular meetings on the UCSB campus. On a second occasion when the McCune Internship Programs was created, one of our impressive interns was invited to speak to the Regents. Given that Walter Capps’ legacy as a popular teacher was well-known by the UC Regents, they welcomed what was being done to extend his work. Particularly important for them was the program’s commitment to outreach within the community through lectures and internships, and more broadly, noting that such efforts were integral to the mission of a public university. This latter point, including particular mention of the Capps Center, is clearly noted in the university’s lengthy long-range plan — the “UC-Santa Barbara Strategic Academic Plan, 2005-2025.” (For a very good journalistic account of these early years when the center’s offering of programs particularly in Santa Barbara were taking shape, see Jerry Roberts’ article “Keeping Representative Walter Capps’s Legacy Alive at UCSB” in the Santa Barbara Independent, April 10, 2008.)

As the center’s scope of programs and financial resources expanded, so too did the center’s staff. In 2007, Kelli Coleman Moore, an advanced graduate student, joined the staff assisting the Director and Associate Director in virtually all aspects of the center’s activities; in 2009, Gregg Jarrett was appointed by Dean Marshall as an Instructor in Ethics which led to the creation of additional courses in bio-medical, environmental, and social ethics; and in 2013, Nonie Hamilton joined the center as Academic Coordinator of Capps Internship Programs, making it possible to have a  better-developed and integrated set of internship programs particularly at UCSB but also at UC-Washington Center and UC-Sacramento.

-- Written by Wade Clark Roof in 2017


History of the Capps Center since 2017

Wade Clark Roof, the founding Director of the Capps Center, retired in 2017, as did Associate Director Leonard Wallock. Kathleen M. Moore, Professor of Religious Studies at UCSB, became Interim Director and Maeve Devoy, who earned a PhD in History at UCSB, became Associate Director. Sadly, Wade Clark Roof died in 2019. That year, he won the Martin E. Marty Award for the Public Understanding of Religion given by the American Academy of Religion in recognition of his extraordinary contributions in this area.  

In 2019, the University hired Greg Johnson as the second Director of the Capps Center and as a Professor of Religious Studies at UCSB. Greg came to UCSB from the University of Colorado at Boulder, where he was Associate Professor of Religious Studies, Core Faculty in the Native American and Indigenous Studies Program, and Affiliated Faculty with the Department of Ethnic Studies and the Center for the American West. With Professor Johnson’s expertise in Indigenous traditions, the Capps Center became involved in a number of initiatives related to Native American issues, including repatriation of ancestral remains at UCSB and implementing the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. 

The Covid-19 pandemic that hit the U.S. in early 2020 led to moving most of the Capps Center’s programming online through winter 2022. In 2021, the Capps Center co-sponsored the creation of the Civic Engagement Scholars Program, led by Associate Director Maeve Devoy, Assistant Vice Chancellor and Dean of Students Katya Armistead, and Director of Civic and Community Engagement Viviana Marsano. In 2022, Dusty Hoesly, who earned his PhD in Religious Studies at UCSB under the direction of Wade Clark Roof, became the third Associate Director of the Capps Center. His research focuses on American religions and secularism, specializing in how new religious movements, Asian American religions, and the religiously unaffiliated shape modern American culture. At the Capps Center, Hoesly has organized several events related to Asian American communities, including Asian American activism, responding to anti-Asian hate, and Asian American religious freedom.