Walter H. Capps: The Public Scholar

Walter H. Capps

Walter H. Capps headshotFrom 1964 to 1996, Walter Holden Capps (1934-1997) 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.

As a scholar, Capps helped define the field of Religious Studies. He was one of the first hires 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 the first full-scale introduction 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, Capps published volumes on 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). Capps 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), M.A. (1963) and Ph.D. (1965) from Yale Divinity School. 

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,” which attempted to bridge the gap between generations of Americans. The course regularly drew 900 undergraduate students and was featured twice CBS’s "60 Minutes" program. His was the first televised class to be transmitted by satellite. 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. Capps 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. Later, Walter introduced a new course, “Voices of the Stranger,” which drew its title from an essay by the Trappist monk Thomas Merton. This course also became very popular. Using the new technologies of distance learning, Walter connected his classrooms with Washington, D.C. He was a beloved professor, and thousands of students took his courses.

Walter’s sustained contributions to the Center for the Study of Democratic Institutions and to the humanities in California and across the nation earned him praise as one of our nation’s most distinguished humanists. He was closely involved with the Center, including serving for a time as its Director. His well-known commitment to interdisciplinary dialogue lives on at UCSB in academic programs and research centers. For almost an entire decade he offered 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 the American polity. Capps was former 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. 

Capps was the first lay person to join the 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 Capps was very much a public intellectual, 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. He taught the community, but just as importantly, he learned from the community.

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 moving remarks at Capps' memorial service, click here.

To see video clips of Walter Capps as a candidate and as a congressman on C-SPAN, click here.

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


Selected Works 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: Molton 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 Wendy M. Wright, eds. Silent Fire: An Invitation to Western Mysticism. San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1978.


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.     

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