Walter H. Capps: The Public Scholar

Walter H. Capps (1934-1997)

Walter H. Capps headshotWalter Holden Capps II was born in 1934 in Omaha, Nebraska. He earned bachelor's degrees from Portland State University and Augustana Theological Seminary, and graduate degrees from Yale Divinity School and Yale University. From 1964 to 1996, Walter was a professor in the Department of Religious Studies at the University of California, Santa Barbara. In 1996, he was elected as a Democrat to the United States House of Representatives, where he served from January 1997 until his untimely death in October of that year. Walter and his wife Lois had three children: Lisa, Todd, and Laura.

As a scholar, Walter helped define the field of Religious Studies. He was the second full-time faculty member hired in the new Department of Religious Studies at UCSB, and his pathbreaking scholarship articulated the interdisciplinary range of the field, from his early anthology Ways of Understanding Religion (1972) to his magnum opus Religious Studies: The Making of a Discipline (1995). The latter book was one of the first full-scale introductions to the history, theories, and methods of Religious Studies, and remains a foundational text in the field today. His early works, such as The Future of Hope (1970), Time Invades the Cathedral (1972), and Hope Against Hope (1976), explored hope as a theological category. During this period, he also published two co-edited volumes on the psychology of religion, The Religious Personality (1970) and Encounter with Erikson (1977), and a co-edited volume on Native American religions, Seeing with a Native Eye (1976). Later in his career, Walter published volumes on Christian mysticism and monasticism, including Silent Fire (1978), The Monastic Impulse (1983), and Thomas Merton (1989). He also turned to moral and political concerns, particularly with The Unfinished War (1982), The Vietnam Reader (1991), and The New Religious Right (1990). Walter earned a B.S. (1958) from Portland State University and a B.D. (1960) from Augustana Theological Seminary, and he earned an S.T.M. (1961) from Yale Divinity School and an M.A. (1963) and Ph.D. (1965) in Religion from Yale University. 

Over the course of his career, his teaching and research steadily moved in the direction of the role of ethics in contemporary American public life. In 1978, Walter initiated his celebrated course on “The Impact of the Vietnam War on American Religion and Culture,” popularly known as "Religion and the Impact of Vietnam" or "The Impact of the Vietnam War," which attempted to bridge the gap between generations of Americans. The course regularly drew over 900 undergraduate students, filling Campbell Hall, UCSB's largest lecture hall. Over 10,000 students took the course. It was featured three times on CBS’s "60 Minutes" program, first in a 1987 segment called "Vietnam 101," and his was one of the first televised courses to be transmitted by satellite. Famous speakers included Bob Kerrey, George McGovern, Eugene McCarthy, Gary Hart, Charlie Plum, Jack Wheeler, Jan Scruggs, Lewis B. Puller, Jr. In addition, regular speakers included Shad Meshad, William Mahedy, Wilson Hubbell, and James Quay. For many Vietnam War veterans this course provided the first opportunity to tell their stories, and Walter’s class soon became part of the healing of our nation. Walter was among the leaders of a nationwide effort to establish Vietnam War veterans’ centers in every major city of the United States. He journeyed with veterans to the Soviet Union in 1988 and to Vietnam in 1991.

In 1982, Walter developed another popular course, “Religion and Politics in America Today,” initially co-taught with George McGovern. The course featured an array of notable politicians and political activists, including Eugene McCarthy, Jerry Brown, Paul Weyrich, Cal Thomas, and Robert Billings. It enrolled over 500 students in its first year, and captured the attention of local news and the Santa Barbara community, many of whom audited the course. Among other themes, the course explored the rise of the new Religious Right, about which Walter published a book.  

In 1988, Walter introduced a new course, “Voices of the Stranger,” which drew its title from an essay by the Trappist monk Thomas Merton, who said that truth comes most profoundly from a person from whom one does not expect to receive the truth. The course introduced students to ethnic and cultural diversity, and helped them understand the experiences of oppressed and excluded minorities in the United States. Topics included race, gender, sexuality, AIDS, disabilities, drug addiction, homelessness, incarceration, and immigration. This course also became very popular and began filling Campbell Hall in its third year, when it was also broadcast on local cable television. Both courses relied on guest speakers to share their experiences, providing powerful testimony for students that augmented class readings and lectures. Using the new technologies of distance learning, Walter connected his classrooms with Washington, D.C. He was a beloved professor, winning several campus teaching awards, and tens of thousands of students took his courses. He also mentored many graduate students, several of whom became renowned scholars in their own right.

Walter’s sustained contributions to the humanities in California and nationally earned him praise as one of our nation’s most distinguished humanists. He was closely connected with the Center for the Study of Democratic Institutions, including twice as its director. He also served as the director of the Institute for Religious Studies at UCSB. His well-known commitment to interdisciplinary dialogue lives on at UCSB in academic programs and research centers. For nearly a decade he led summer institutes, funded by the National Endowment for the Humanities, for high school and college teachers on issues related to religion and public life in America. Walter was president of the National Federation of State Humanities Councils and chairman of the California Council for the Humanities. When he was president of the Council for the Study of Religion, he led it to join the National Humanities Alliance. Today, in partnership with UCSB, the National Humanities Alliance presents a Capps Lecture series at its annual meetings, honoring individuals for their contributions to the humanities, particularly those who pursue integrity in public life, believe in the power of stories, and are committed to the inclusion of all voices, particularly those at the margins of society. In 1997, Walter won posthumously the Martin E. Marty Award for the Public Understanding of Religion from the American Academy of Religion, becoming only the second person to win this prestigous award. 

Walter was the first non-Catholic person to join La Casa de Maria’s Board of Directors and he maintained his involvement in this unique institution for more than three decades. It was the educational engagement of the Sisters of the Immaculate Heart that attracted his attention in the mid-1960s, and it was in this context that he learned the power of collaboration between academics and community members.

Walter was very much a public scholar, a builder of bridges between the academy and community, and a translator of the values of one to the other. He believed that the values of diverse religions could enrich public life and that the energies of the university and the public could forge a new civility that would enrich the community and nation. Walter often said, "Democracy is born in conversation." He also often said that "we are human first," an idea he credited to Danish philosopher N. F. S. Grundtvig. Walter believed that dialogue is vital in a diverse society, and that realizing our common humanity can help forge shared values. He taught the community, but just as importantly, he learned from the community. Walter Capps personified the highest ideals of the humanities and of public service.


For more about Walter Capps and the Capps Center's founding, see the History of the Capps Center and this 2008 article in the Santa Barbara Independent.

For Lou Cannon's eulogy for Walter Capps in the Washington Post, see here. For Quang X. Pham's eulogy, see here. To read President Bill Clinton's statement on the death of Walter Capps, click here, and to read Clinton's moving remarks at Capps' memorial service in the U.S. House of Representatives, click here.

To see video clips of Walter Capps as a candidate and as a congressman on C-SPAN, click here. To see Congress' tribute to Walter Capps, along with President Clinton's remarks, click here.

For Capps' scholarship and archival materials, see our Archives page.

The Walter H. Capps papers are housed in the UCSB Library's Department of Special Research Collections.   


Books by Walter H. Capps

Capps, Donald, and Walter H. Capps, eds. The Religious Personality. Belmont, Calif: Wadsworth Publishing Co., 1970.

Capps, Donald, Walter H. Capps, and M. Gerald Bradford, eds. Encounter with Erikson: Historical Interpretation and Religious Biography. Missoula, Mont.: Scholars Press for the American Academy of Religion and the Institute of Religious Studies, University of California, Santa Barbara, 1977.

Capps, Walter H. Ways of Understanding Religion. New York: Macmillan, 1972. 

___. Time Invades the Cathedral: Tension in the School of Hope. Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1972.

___. Hope Against Hope: Moltmann to Merton in One Decade. Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1976.

___. The Unfinished War: Vietnam and the American Conscience. Boston: Beacon Press, 1982.

___. The Monastic Impulse. New York: Crossroad, 1983.

___. The New Religious Right: Piety, Patriotism, and Politics. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1990.

___. Religious Studies: The Making of a Discipline. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1995.

Capps, Walter H., ed. The Future of Hope. Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1970.

___, ed. Seeing with a Native Eye: Essays on Native American Religion. New York: Harper & Row, 1976.

___, ed. Thomas Merton: Preview of the Asian Journey. New York: Crossroad, 1989.

___, ed. The Vietnam Reader. New York: Routledge, 1991.

Capps, Walter H., and Kjell O. Lejon, eds. Anders Nygren's Religious Apriori. Linköping, Sweden: Linköping University Electronic Press, 2000. 

Capps, Walter H., and Wendy M. Wright, eds. Silent Fire: An Invitation to Western Mysticism. San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1978.


Selected Works about Walter H. Capps

Chidester, David. "Mobility." In Religion: Material Dynamics, 152-165. Oakland: University of California Press, 2018.

Duranti, Alessandro. "The Voice of the Audience in Contemporary American Political Discourse." In Georgetown University Round Table on Languages and Linguistics 2001: Linguistics, Language, and the Real World: Discourse and Beyond, edited by Deborah Tannen and James E. Alatis, 114-134. Washington, D.C.: Georgetown University Press, 2003.

___. "Narrating the Political Self in a Campaign for U.S. Congress." Language in Society 35, no. 4 (2006): 467-497.

Memorial tributes held in the House of Representatives of the United States together with memorial services in eulogy of Walter Holden Capps, late a Representative from California, One Hundred Fifth Congress, first session. Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1997.     

Remus, Harold. "For Such a Time as This: The Council of Societies for the Study of Religion, 1969-2009." In Reinventing Religious Studies: Key Writings in the History of a Discipline, edited by Scott S. Elliott, 1-30. Bristol, CT: Acumen, 2013.

Wieneke, Bryant. Winning Without the Spin: A True Hero in American Politics. Huntington, NY: Kroshka Books, 2000.