Yo, Mainline Churches: Wake-Up and Smell the Coffee
Frederick Clarkson printable version print page     Bookmark and Share
Tue Dec 19, 2006 at 09:22:08 PM EST
The war of attrition being waged against the mainline protestant churches by the religious right and allied agencies has been going on now for a generation. Many readers, however, may be new to the subject and be wondering what all the fuss is about. Here is a recap of the basic story, and some resources for further research.
But as we begin, I want to point out that for a generation, few in the mainline churches have managed to acknowledge or address the nature of the war being waged against them. This is one reason why what is clearly an externally organized campaign of divide and conquer has worked so well, so fast.  I have wondered about the lack of curiosity of some, and the apparent inability of others to face this adversity. This stands in contrast to, for example, the noted blogger Digby, who is not even religious, but who recently did a bit of homework in an effort to try to understand what in the world has happened to the Episcopal Church, pieces of which have recently broken off.

Suffice to say it is long past time for the leaders and members of mainline American protestant churches to wake-up and smell the coffee.

Earlier this year, I wrote an overview for The Public Eye magazine. It started out like this:

"Make no mistake," wrote Avery Post, the national president of the United Church of Christ in 1982, "the objectives of the Institute on Religion and Democracy are the exact opposite of what its name appears to stand for. The purpose of its leaders is to demoralize the mainline denominations and to turn them away from the pursuit of social and economic justice.
"We must not wait for this attack to be launched in the congregations of the United Church of Christ. I urge you to move quickly to tell the ministers and members of the churches in your conference about this campaign to disrupt our church life and to explain to them how and why the National Council of Churches has been chosen to be its first victim and the opening wedge for attacks on the denominations themselves."

Post's letter to regional leaders of the 1.3 million-member church followed the Institute of Religion and Democracy's (IRD) media attacks against the National Council of Churches (NCC) and its member denominations in Readers Digest and on 60 Minutes. Both were smear jobs, alleging that money from Sunday collection plates were financing Marxist guerrillas. 60 Minutes producer Don Hewitt told TV talk show host Larry King in 2002 that it was the one program he truly regretted in his career. Twenty years late, but at least he acknowledged the error.

Avery Post was prophetic in his warning. Unfortunately, he was not widely heeded. Although the episode was big news at the time, it seemed to drift from people's consciousness. These days, the battle lines are drawn over such issues as same sex marriage and ordination of gay and lesbian priests and ministers. But as important as these matters are, the stakes are far larger. They go to the extent to which the mainline churches will continue to play a central role in American public life, or the extent to which they will be marginalized, perhaps forever.


That the churches have generally kept their heads in the sand, while the IRD with a large annual budget and a full-time staff sought to organize conservative factions into a disruptive and cohesive force, and to force denominations into schism, will likely be the subject of doctoral theses in church history in years to come. It is already well documented that covert, and later, overt efforts to move the Episcopal Church and the United Methodist Church into schism, have been well underway for many years. The effort has been primarily bankrolled by the same network of rightist foundations that built major conservative institutions, such as the Heritage Foundation.

It is worth noting that the late IRD president Diane Knippers, had been a member of one of the Virginia Episcopal churches that went schismatic this past week. Her successor, James Tonkowich is a minister of a schismatic denomination that split with mainstream Presbyterianism in 1973.  

IRD was started as a project of the Coalition for a Democratic Majority (CDM), an organization of conservative Democrats (many of whom later defected to the GOP), who had sought to counter the takeover of the party by liberals associated with 1972 presidential candidate George McGovern. IRD was originally run by Coalition chief, Penn Kemble-a political activist who did not attend church.3 According to a profile by the International Relations Center, IRD received about $3.9 million between 1985 and 2002 from The Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation, Sarah Scaife Foundation, John M. Olin Foundation, Castle Rock Foundation, The Carthage Foundation, and JM Foundation.

The Institute remains a well-funded and influential hub for a national network of conservative factions called the Association for Church Renewal. The member organizations, called "renewal" groups, variously seek to neutralize church tendencies of which they don't approve; drive out staff they don't like; and seek to take over the churches, but failing that-taking as many churches and assets out as possible. The network's spokespersons are treated as credible voices of conservative dissent by mainstream media.

 Books have been written on the general subject, including A Moment to Decide: The Crisis in Mainstream Presbyterianism, by Lewis Daly; United Methodists @ Risk: A Wake-Up Call, by Leon Howell; and Hardball on Holy Ground, Steven Swecker, ed.

There have been significant articles as well.

Journalist Max Blumenthal discussed how religious right philanthropist Howard Ahmanson and his wife Roberta have bankrolled the schism campaign in the Episcopal Church, via IRD and its affiliates in a major piece on Salon.com.  

James Naughton, a former reporter for the Washington Post and the New York Times, published a further expose on the funding behind the attacks on the Episcopal Church in the newspaper of the Episcopal Diocese of Washington, DC.

Rev. Dr. Andrew Weaver, a retired United Methodist minster, has (along with several colleagues) written a series of articles here at Talk to Action, at Media Transparency, and elsewhere, detailing the attacks on his denomination. (Talk to Action's Bruce Wilson, has done a partial anthology of Weaver's work.

Rev. Dr. John Dorhauer, who is a full time Associate Conference Minister in the United Church of Christ, unlike the rest of us, has not looked at this so much as an investigator, but as a pastor who sees the effects of IRD organized or IRD inspired-organizing at the congregational level. He writes from the context of this body of literature along with his own information and analysis, and that of his colleagues. He tells of how he and his church are contending with all of this. In one of his early posts he wrote:

Today's wedge issue is homosexuality, and renewal groups have latched onto it as the most recent evidence of the church's apostasy. Their mission is to save the church from such heretical practices, and to `renew' and restore the church to its truer, more historic past.
The problem is that these groups have much more nefarious intentions. It is not the `renewal' of the church that they are interested in, but the destabilization and destruction of what has been throughout the history of the United States the most consistent, courageous, and clear voice of social reform and justice.

Their own words betray them.

In the Mission Statement found on the IRD website we read this lengthy quote:

"The IRD aims its reports and analyses at a broad audience of U.S. Christians. Its organizational work is concentrated in the Oldline Protestant churches and the National Council of Churches, where the problems are most serious. We have committees that unite reform activists in three denominations representing over 12 million persons.... The IRD trains activists, with topics ranging from issues to tactics. At national church meetings, IRD activists assist delegates in drafting legislation and framing arguments for debate. This work is done in cooperation with like-minded groups in seven major denominations (representing nearly 20 million Americans) through our Association for Church Renewal."

These are not renewal groups: they are trained activists intent on the demise, the destabilization, and the destruction of Mainline Protestant Christianity.

All of his posts may be found, here.

The facts and analysis put forward so far by those of us who have published in this area have gone unchallenged. Unfortunately, they have also been largely ignored by those most responsible for the health and survival of their churches. The exception that proves the rule is Rev. John Thomas, the current president of the United Church of Christ.

"Groups like the Evangelical Association of Reformed, Christian and Congregational Churches and the Biblical Witness Fellowship," he said last year, "are increasingly being exposed even as they are increasingly aggressive. Their relationship to the right-wing Institute for Religion and Democracy and its long-term agenda of silencing a progressive religious voice while enlisting the church in an unholy alliance with right-wing politics is no longer deniable. United Church of Christ folk like to be `nice,' to be hospitable. But, to play with a verse of scripture just a bit, we doves innocently entertain these serpents in our midst at our own peril.

Indeed. And the IRD has been aggressive in, among other things, seeking to discredit the UCC's television ads that have been central to its efforts to reverse the long term loss of membership. I discuss one excellent example, here.

UCC News editor J.Bennett Guess, outlined the IRD issue on the church web site last summer, in the context of several related issue of the role of the denomination in public life.  Rev. Bob Edgar, outgoing general secretary of the National Council of Churches spoke directly about the IRD's role:  

"They send people to every one of our governing board meetings," Edgar says. "They only pick up on negative comments and nothing in the positive sense. I do think it's time for those of us who have been the brunt of IRD attacks to not be silent."

"I'm very proud of what John Thomas has done," says Edgar. "It would be more helpful if more of our mainline leaders would do the same. There really is a need for other leaders to stand up and point out these conspiratorial organizations, like the IRD, that are intentionally corroding the integrity of faithful people and faithful churches."




Display:
and researched and written about these things, can only do so much. If mainline Christians say they want to preserve their institutions, they will have to come up to speed on the war of attrition; who is waging it, why, and what, if anything, they want to do about it.

Every denomination has a broad ideological range with in it. How people get along and reconcile their differences, or not, ought to be up to them. But what happens when there is an externally financed effort to exacerbate differences and to divide and conquer those denominations?  The answer to this rhetorical question is what we are seeing right now, in our time, in the mainline churches of America.

by Frederick Clarkson on Tue Dec 19, 2006 at 11:02:13 PM EST

Do you know of any similar attempts to split the Lutherans?


by justintime on Tue Dec 19, 2006 at 11:28:30 PM EST
Parent
there are IRD-tied factions in the ELC. You can see them listed as part of the Association for Church Renewal, listed on the IRD web site.

I have no information on their activities.

by Frederick Clarkson on Tue Dec 19, 2006 at 11:37:53 PM EST
Parent



I wonder what the long-term ramifications of these groups will be, though?  

If the latest set of Episcopal defections really does signal a catharsis (or just crisis) for the church, does it necessarily end in disaster for the mainline church?  I expect this frees the Episcopal church to pursue more radical change.  The reactionary "traditional values" of these breakaway segments seems likely to ultimately die out.  

Do you think this may ultimately be a case of 'creative destruction'?

by montpellier on Wed Dec 20, 2006 at 03:03:13 PM EST
Parent

...That these ultracon secessionist groups would wither on the vine; however, the ultracon split off of the PCUSA, the PCA church, is still in operation after 30 some odd years.

Oddly, I am sure these splitter groups "think" they are merely bringing back "biblical values," and trying to reform the mainline churches to those kind of values. Of course they are blind to the degree these word games are just camouflage for a political agenda.

by SharonB on Wed Dec 20, 2006 at 05:39:28 PM EST
Parent

sophisticated political attacks.  They are well aware that social justice agenda's of mainline churches will end if those churches don't have the resources to continue them.  Therefore, the IRD is more interested in rotting out the stability of mainline churches by attacking their financial stability.  

In some churches they do this fairly easily by taking over or bankrupting individual churches.  Hierarchical churches are more difficult to destroy.  In order to do that, the IRD knows they must attack the national conferences and conventions of those churches by taking over their governance. In that way they can determine the use of money and property now used to support and sustain the progressive agendas of mainline churches.

Andrew Weaver posted an extremely knowledgable article here about the mechinations of the IRD.

by tikkun on Fri Dec 22, 2006 at 12:19:28 PM EST
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