Gazing out his huge office window that overlooks the Schuylkill as it snakes through West Conshohocken, Arthur Schwartz, executive vice president of the John Templeton Foundation, might be forgiven for dwelling regularly on God's handiwork - for feeling, well, a bit empowered.

After all, from that office at 300 Conshohocken State Rd., Schwartz, under the aegis of Dr. John Templeton Jr., son of founder Sir John Templeton, runs an internationally focused philanthropy with an endowment of $1.5 billion and a special interest in bringing science and religion together.

Yet, the mighty Templeton Foundation does not own 300 Conshohocken State Rd. It rents, as it always will.

"Sir John forbade us from ever owning property," confides Schwartz. "He wanted us to be lean and mean and nimble."

Any wonder that five years ago, when the foundation launched its intellectually daring, signature publication - In Character: A Journal of Everyday Virtues - it began with an issue on "Thrift"?

"He was a man of thrift," remarks Schwartz, "very much like Warren Buffett."

Presumably, Sir John (1912-2008) would have liked that first issue. A Tennessean, Yale graduate, and Rhodes scholar who rocked the world of investing by thinking globally and buying stock at "points of maximum pessimism" (when shares hit rock-bottom), he reportedly flew coach despite becoming a billionaire.

That debut "Thrift" issue mixed first-rate articles by scholars such as economist Deirdre McCloskey with a New York Times journalist's report on thrift shops, an interview with Steve Forbes, and a survey of Americans' saving habits.

It set the tone for a unique publication, nationally distributed three times a year, that combines a magazine's pizzazz and bold graphics with a scholarly journal's intellectual heft and authority.

Subsequent issues over the years have zeroed in on such concepts as "Loyalty," "Generosity," "Honesty," "Compassion," and, most recently, "Courage." On deck is "Grit." Some pieces appear in prestigious anthologies such as Best Spiritual Writing.

"These virtues are perennial," notes Schwartz, who was a researcher in moral development at Harvard before coming to Templeton in the mid-'90s. "They're universal. . . . We thought it would be nice to shed light on them."

"What I want to do with this magazine," explains Charlotte Hays, In Character's new editor, "is to make virtue as interesting as vice. Not to preach virtue, but to examine it."

"Virtues obviously have a real root in history and in Aristotelian thought," she notes, chatting in Templeton's Capri Room, which offers yet another fine vista on the river. "I'd like to bring that out without being preachy."

Hays, who took over "in the middle of 'Compassion,' " as she puts it, brings an unusual sensibility with her. An ex-reporter for the National Catholic Register, she also wrote gossip columns for the Washington Times and New York Observer. She likes a friend's description of her: "A recovering gossip columnist at home in the world of ideas."

To jazz things up, Hays has added a "Top Ten List." Number One among "Ten Great Moments in Forgiveness History" was ancient Sabine women imploring Sabine men not to attack their Roman rapists (whom they'd married).

Hays' issues have revived the interview and added a feature called "Devil's Advocate," in which a writer challenges the virtue at hand. (The "Courage" issue offers Judy Bachrach's "Run! Run! Run for Your Life!," on the benefits of cowardice.)

Hays has also organized feisty roundtables that have asked tough questions. The fall 2008 "Forgiveness" issue gathered nine intellectuals, including Rabbi Shmuley Boteach and Rwandan genocide survivor Immaculee Ilibagiza, to debate, "Must We Forgive the Unforgivable?" The "Courage" issue brings together NYU Islam expert Irshad Manji, Johns Hopkins psychiatrist Paul McHugh, and others to ponder, "Were the 9/11 Terrorists Brave?"

Hays says the roundtable sometimes turns around her own views. Historian Robert Royal, for example, argued that 9/11 hijackers couldn't be considered brave because any virtue detached from all others ceases to be one. That convinced Hays. Similarly, she began answering "Yes" to "Must We Forgive the Unforgivable?" but now agrees with Ilibagiza that evildoers should be punished, forgiveness or not.

"Every time I edit an issue," Hays concludes, "I learn so much."

According to Kimon Sargeant, Templeton's vice president of human sciences, In Character began when Jack Templeton asked Schwartz to "make the case" for "some of the character traits his father, Sir John, would stress." Schwartz came up with a magazine focused on one virtue at a time.

Gary Rosen, Templeton's chief external-affairs officer, says In Character enables Templeton to take "interesting things we're doing on the research side" and bring it to a wide audience.

To that end, the foundation sends about 6,000 copies of In Character to "opinion-makers," a list that at one time included every member of Congress. Others can subscribe for $27 a year.

All connected with In Character say it's meant to express Templeton values without imposing them. "Obviously, it's pro-virtue," remarks Hays. But like the rest of In Character's team, she rejects any reflex identification of the magazine with right-wing or conservative positions.

"If you got the writers for this magazine in a room together," says Hays, "they wouldn't agree on anything." Schwartz adds, "We don't want to be pigeonholed."

Sargeant echoes the lack of "ideological marching orders," but mentions that the editorial team works hard to make sure views from scientific, business, and spiritual communities - communities that Sir John believed should work together - are included.

Rosen agrees that Templeton wants the virtues "to shine," but says ideological constraints would be counterproductive because "the idea was to widen the discussion of virtue and make it seem less ideologically and politically charged."

Will Templeton ever run out of virtues and have to shut the magazine? Benjamin Franklin, after all, managed only 13 on his list.

Rosen and Sargeant promise not to stoop as low as "Punctuality" or "Wakefulness." Hays replies, "We are not bound by any classical list."

Which leaves a final question: Must the editor of In Character be virtuous herself?

Hays pauses to think it over: "Actually, that's funny. Yeah, I probably am more virtuous. I feel like I can't tell a fib now."

Contact staff writer Carlin Romano at 215-854-5615 or cromano@phillynews.com.