Changes in Store at Ethics Think Tank: Leadership Reins Soon Will Pass to Ex-Envoy Abrams

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The Ethics and Public Policy Center, a Washington think tank that does not shy from religious or political controversy, changes leadership next month in a way that touches on both topics.

The center's president, Catholic scholar George Weigel, will step down to be a fellow and write a biography of Pope John Paul II. Elliott Abrams, a neoconservative Jewish thinker and former State Department official, takes his place.

The center was founded in 1976 by a Protestant academic and churchman, Ernest LeFever.

In selecting Mr. Abrams to head an organization that reflects on ethics, religion and policy, the board of directors had to consider his guilty plea to misdemeanor charges of withholding information from Congress in the Iran-Contra affair of the 1980s.

"The board looked at it closely," Adm. Elmo Zumwalt, former chief of naval operations and chairman of the center's board, said in an interview. The board is "a little right of center, but not much so," he said. "We pick the kind of people who reflect that view."

In a statement regarding Iran-Contra, the retired admiral said: "Mr. Abrams has publicly acknowledged that, in trying to balance his duties to the secretary of state and the president with his duties to Congress, he made an error of judgment."

But the experience gave Mr. Abrams entree to real-world ethical debates, the statement said. "He wrestled with them every day."

Mr. Abrams, former assistant secretary of state for inter-American affairs, was pardoned by President Bush in 1992.

His reputation in politics rather than religion will cause some scholars to wait and see what direction the center's next conferences on religion will take, says Max Stackhouse, an ethicist at the Princeton Theological Seminary.

"It may make it less likely that ecumenical or evangelically oriented Christian ethicists will be in an enthusiastic dialogue with the center," says Mr. Stackhouse, who has joined past forums.

Mr. Abrams says the center's pattern of having presidents in three different religious traditions has its cultural logic. "This is the ideal of Will Herberg's America," he says, referring to that author's classic 1960 book, "Protestant-Catholic-Jew."

"The quality of work at the center is first-rate," adds Mr. Abrams. "I'd like to start out by getting it more recognition and therefore greater impact." He is now a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute, where he has written a forthcoming book on American Jews. …