Interview with Sean Fieler

The forthright social conservative on religious liberty, translating principles into policy, and the importance of saying what you truly believe.

Sean Fieler is not afraid to tell you he’s a social conservative. A successful investor and committed Catholic, he is involved with some of the most controversial issues in the U.S.—donating to groups involved in bolstering marriage and family integrity, and in reducing abortion levels. He launched his Chiaroscuro Foundation to invest systematically in education, family strengthening, humanitarian work, pro-life activities, religious liberty, evangelism, and more. The foundation has so far granted $34 million to these causes. Fieler also chairs the American Principles Project, an organization focused on introducing reasoned arguments into public policy, with distinct wings to take part in education and research, advocacy, and politics.

Philanthropy visited Fieler in New York to ask what it’s like to take hard stances as a donor, what’s next for the pro-life movement, how to protect faith and freedom of conscience, and other topics.

Philanthropy: What is your line of work?

Fieler: I run a hedge fund in New York City. In 1994 I took an internship with the firm I now manage. I didn’t think I’d still be doing this 25 years later! But to look at different businesses around the world and try to understand what makes them tick is an interesting line of work. Most of our work for the last decade has been overseas. We specialize in high-return on capital businesses that are well-governed and well-managed. 

Philanthropy: How did you get hooked on charitable work early in your life?

Fieler: I think charity is a virtue formed through habit. I didn’t trust myself to accumulate money for a long period of time and then give it away later. I think a person should practice generosity throughout life, instead of postponing it until later on the false idea that it’ll be easier then. There’s also a really good set of charitable opportunities right now. Those opportunities got me off the sidelines early in my career.

David Blankenhorn’s Institute for American Values was the first project that drew me into public-issue giving. I went to a conference he held on family law, and got a sense of how deep the problems were surrounding families in America, both in our culture and in law and policy. I ended up joining the board of his institute.

David was an expert witness in the Proposition 8 case in California, testifying against same-sex marriage. Watching the gay community come after him, then watching him change his position, was a formative experience for me. It really helped me distill my charitable priorities in defense of the traditional family. 

Philanthropy: You started the Chiaroscuro Foundation in 2009. What does the name mean?

Fieler: Reflecting God’s light in a dark world. We’ve focused on a handful of issues generally avoided by most philanthropists such as pre-conception pro-life work and Catholic funerary practice.

A starting point for our work is the very high percentage of Americans who begin life outside a stable married family. Over 50 percent of Americans conceived this year will begin life with an unmarried mother; at birth that figure is closer to 40 percent because abortion disproportionately affects the children of unmarried mothers.

As the data make clear, the stable married family is no longer the norm, and that creates all sorts of downstream issues for children, for parents, and for society that are very hard to deal with.

The pro-life movement is principally focused post-conception. Almost all the money is encouraging unwed mothers to carry pregnancies to term. That’s very important work. We’re very supportive of that. But we should also have a strategy that looks at the context, where half of Americans begin life without a married mother. That’s a really tough starting point.

When we began addressing the issue publicly, 41 percent of all viable pregnancies in New York City ended in abortion. In some boroughs, that number was north of 50 percent; in some population groups, quite a bit more than 50 percent. The statistics were shocking.

So we asked, “What can be done?” What could we do culturally, socially, legally, and politically to reduce that very high incidence of abortion?

Philanthropy: Do you have a geographic focus?

Fieler: Most of our work is in the United States, but we do some work internationally. Some of our projects have been focused on New York City. For example, we ran a local effort called NYC 41 Percent. The percentage came directly from New York City’s annual summary of vital statistics that contains the birth rates, death rates, and other health-care statistics for the city’s population. We used that report to calculate abortion rates by zip code, so we could see which communities were most affected.

Then using that data we launched a public-relations campaign, encouraging politicians and community members to ask what can be done. Even in New York, we can all agree that such a high incidence of abortion is unacceptable. What can we do as a community to reduce that very high incidence?

For a variety of reasons that campaign was not as successful as we initially hoped. Sensing a losing fight, New York City and State stopped providing us with the incremental data we needed to stay in the news cycle. Despite years of Freedom of Information Act requests, New York’s public officials remain entirely uncooperative. New York is a difficult place to discuss the issues we care most about.

Four years ago Governor Cuomo led a campaign to make abortion up until the moment of birth legal in New York State. It was part of a larger effort he bizarrely called his 10-Point Women’s Equality Plan. But it was clear from the outset that expanding abortion was the point of the plan he cared most about. Happily, Governor Cuomo’s plan was so extreme that he couldn’t get it passed in the New York State Legislature. We were involved in lobbying efforts, providing context and data so that reasonable people could push back against pro-abortion extremism, even in an extremely left-wing place like New York.

Philanthropy: Has your Catholic faith always been important to you?

Fieler: I was raised Catholic but coasted along for a bit and came back to the faith at Williams College and New York City, of all places.

In New York City, I fell in with the Dominicans. My mom is a very insistent woman and figured out how to get me going to church more regularly. I was living in Greenwich Village and she asked me, “What church are you going to?” I said, “Well, this one.” And she said, “I doubt you’re going there.” She then walked me over to the chapel at NYU, which was run by the Dominicans. We went to Mass together, and then she insisted that we talk to the priest, Father John McGuire. Not coincidently, it was Father McGuire who married me and my wife—whom I met at that parish after a Mass.

My mom did more than just get me to go to Mass. She called me from California and said, “You should go on a retreat.” I said, “Okay, Mom, I will go on a retreat.” And my mom said, “Good, I signed you up for one. It’s in two weeks.” I had to ask myself if it was going to be more work to go on the retreat, or to fight with my mom. So I went on the retreat. It was run by the Paulists, and on the second day, the leader told me, “We’ve had a lot of people on this retreat over the years, but we’ve never had anybody’s mom sign them up. We thought you were going to be really weird, and I want you to know that you’re less weird than we thought you would be.”

Philanthropy: Are there any particular thinkers or donors who have shaped how you give?

Fieler: There’s a good network I’ve gotten to know over the last decade or so, through boards or shared charitable interests, who have had a big effect on me—Frank Hanna, Tim Busch, and Leonard Leo for sure, and, most importantly, Luis Tellez of the Witherspoon Institute, Frank Cannon of the American Principles Project, and Robby George of Princeton University.

It was clear to me from the get-go that I wasn’t going to change the world all by myself. It’s really important to develop a community where you’re exchanging ideas. Especially a community of fellow travelers where you can share some of your experiences, talk about things that don’t work, things that do. That information is very valuable. You don’t want to make the same mistakes your friends made.

Philanthropy: What’s the temperature right now at Princeton in regards to free speech?
Fieler: Princeton has one of the most intellectually diverse campus climates in the Ivy League, in large part because of the work of Robby and Luis, but also President Eisgruber, who has done a great job making sure that there’s space on campus for free speech, in contrast to many of the other Ivy schools today. It is a big problem, though, not just on campus, but in society more generally.

We live in a society where we are always self-policing what we say. I think it’s profoundly unhealthy when most people obscure and falsify their preferences in public settings. We certainly shouldn’t be encouraging this sort of behavior on campus. We need to reverse this trend so people can, in public and private, feel more free to say what they honestly think.

Philanthropy: What do you think are some of the biggest challenges facing donors of faith today?

Fieler: There is a very direct threat to religious liberty in America and much of the Western world. In the United States, I see it as an effort to redefine the free exercise of religion into a narrower right to worship. You can have freedom within your place of worship, but no rights to bring religious principle outside, into your life, your business, the public square.

Over the years we have developed a very robust legal strategy for addressing that threat. But the big hole I see in the movement to preserve religious liberty is political. The Republican party does not have a clear religious-liberty agenda. After the Religious Freedom Restoration Acts became politically untenable in the face of ferocious opposition from the gay movement, and the First Amendment Defense Act was not even put up for a vote, the Republican Party hasn’t really put forward a vision politically of what it wants to do to protect religious liberty.

The Masterpiece Cakeshop decision was a step in the right direction. There’s lots more legal work to do, and I’d like to see those protections go further in future court rulings. But to really solidify what we mean when we say religious liberty, we need a political, not just a legal, solution.

Philanthropy: Given the hot-button nature of these issues, I was surprised at the level of disclosure about your grants on the Chiaroscuro website. Why are you so transparent?

Fieler: It goes back to being open about our mistakes. Hopefully open about some of our successes, as well. But putting it online seems like an expedient way to share information. It creates an opportunity to talk to other philanthropists about our priorities, find allies, and hone what’s worked and what hasn’t.

We need a bigger and deeper network of social-conservative philanthropists working together. We need to build a larger community so we can avoid being isolated or marginalized, and learn from each other. Too often one of us owns a project, and somebody else has a project, and those projects are related but not working together. We need much better coordination, and putting the information out there is part of an effort to do that.

We are very happy to defend or talk through anything that we’ve done. You can’t be afraid of what you believe.

Philanthropy: What can you tell me about the American Principles Project?

Fieler: The American Principles Project broadly understood refers to a c3, a c4, and a Super PAC. These are distinct legal entities, but all were founded on the idea that we can take core American principles and inject them into the public square and politics in a way that will win hearts and elections instead of being perceived as social and political liabilities.

Through our c3 we elevate policy arguments to the level of principle, and make a case for a policy or position grounded in serious scholarship.

With the media shutting down debate about the most important issues for conservatives, politics has become the best way to put conservative ideas into the public square. Many social conservatives have absorbed the wrong lesson from their engagement in politics. A dominant conclusion you’ll hear is that we participated in politics, it didn’t work, so now we’ve got to fix the culture. I think that’s wrong. If you look at the history, there has been a lot of social-conservative participation adjacent to politics, but not in politics per se. So we’d win elections, but wouldn’t get the policies we want. By clarifying social-conservative principles in campaigns, and making those principles central to voting, we will have more success in translating our ideas into policy.

For example, in December we released our “Contract with American Families.” Modeled on Newt Gingrich’s “Contract with America,” our contract is intended to provide elected officials with a politically attractive road map to support and strengthen America’s struggling families. 

Philanthropy: Have you gotten any blowback on your giving, and how do you process that?

Fieler: Either you can be confident and willing to articulate your beliefs in the public square, and live and give in accordance with that framework, or you can adopt a strategy of keeping your head down, and give in a surreptitious way so that people can’t track funding back to you because you’re worried about getting negative press. For people who are working in corporations that are hostile to traditional marriage and religious liberty, the costs associated with sticking their heads up are real.

But when I got involved with the marriage movement, it was clear to me that we were never going to succeed if we weren’t public and confident about what we were doing. The donors who are openly involved with this issue get attacked, but they’re willing and able to defend in the public square what they believe. You’re not going to win by hiding your views, saying things you don’t really believe, or hedging your words so carefully that people can’t figure out what you think.

Clarence Thomas gave a great speech about this in 2001 at AEI entitled “Be Not Afraid.” In it he warned about the temptation to always trim your sails and qualify what you’re saying to the point that you undercut the argument you’re trying to make. He doesn’t find that to be effective, and neither do I.