Rev. John Thomas, President of the United Church of Christ, Denounces IRD Attacks on Churches
Frederick Clarkson printable version print page     Bookmark and Share
Tue Mar 14, 2006 at 04:12:57 AM EST
An historic battle is unfolding for the future of mainstream Protestantism in the U.S. and in the world. You might have read press reports about the battles over gay ordination and the threats of walk-outs by hard line conservatives. But that is only a small part of one of the biggest, and most underreported, religion stories in American history.  

But the see-no-evil press coverage may be about to change. While this has been building for some time, the increasingly forceful and public stands of Rev. John H. Thomas, president of the 1.3 million member United Church of Christ may be the story that can no longer go untold. Thomas is standing-up for his church. He is speaking-up. He is speaking-out. He is making it clear that he won't back-off; and he won't back-down.

Speaking recently at Gettysburg College, Thomas blasted the 20-year war of attrition aimed at the mainline churches by a key grantee of neo-conservative foundations. The Washington, DC-based Institute on Religion and Democracy is the hub of a national network of conservative factions operating inside mainline churches -- and seeking to bend them to their will or break them apart.

Rev. Thomas is not the only mainstream minister in a fight-back mode. There is a fight-back movement spreading rapidly through the mainline churches -- most visibly in the blogosphere.

Here is an excerpt from Thomas' speech:

The IRD - the Institute on Religion and Democracy - is a sophisticated "inside the beltway" organization well funded by conservative foundations and closely aligned with a neo-conservative political agenda.  IRD includes on its board intellectual and media figures like Michael Novak, Richard John Neuhaus, George Weigel, and Michael Medved.  IRD's stated purpose is "Reforming the Church to Renew Democracy."  It describes itself as "an ecumenical alliance of U.S. Christians working to reform their churches' social witness in accord with biblical and historic Christian teachings, thereby contributing to the renewal of democratic society at home and abroad," (emphasis added).  The political agenda becomes even clearer when the Mission Statement goes on to say that the IRD believes "that Western representative democracy is, on balance, a good worthy of advancing."  The echoes of the Bush administration's foreign policy are not hard to hear.  

If the IRD were merely a think tank on the nexus of religion and politics from a neo-conservative perspective, there would be little to complain about even from those who disagree sharply.  But the agenda is far less benign.  IRD's president describes some of their activities:

IRD monitors denominational agencies and leaders who often claim to speak for millions but really represent only an extreme view.  We report our findings to churchgoers who want to reclaim their denominations from politicized ideologies.

IRD helps church members battle for renewal within their denominations, arming them with facts.

The target is the Mainline churches whose leaders, they allege, "pursue radical political agendas, throwing themselves into multiple, often leftist crusades - radical forms of feminism, environmentalism, pacifism, multi-culturalism, revolutionary socialism, sexual liberation, and so forth."  And, as a recent book about their activities puts it, they "play hardball on holy ground."

The IRD supports and encourages campaigns of disruption and attack in Mainline churches through its Alliance of Church Renewal.  IRD has committees specifically focused on the United Methodist Church, the Episcopal Church, and the Presbyterian Church (USA), committees which provide support for so-called renewal groups within each of these denominations - the Presbyterian Lay Committee, Good News, and Anglicans United.  More recently the United Church of Christ, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, the American Baptist Churches, and the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) have increasingly come into their sights as well.  The IRD pursues its political agenda in the churches through three strategies:  campaigns of disinformation that seek to discredit church leadership, advocacy efforts at church assemblies seeking to influence church policy, and grass roots organizing which, in some cases, encourages schismatic movements encouraging members and congregations either to redirect mission funding or even to leave their denominations.  Indeed, the Mainline churches are facing hardball tactics.

In a forthcoming article in The Public Eye magazine about the attacks on the mainline churches, I summarize the origins and purpose of IRD:

When the strategic funders of the Right, such as Richard Mellon Scaife, got together to create the institutional infrastructure of the Right in the 1970s and 80s - they underwrote  the founding of the Institute on Religion and Democracy (IRD), a Washington, DC-based agency that would help to network, organize and inform internal opposition groups, while sustaining outside pressure and public relations campaigns.  

IRD was started in 1980 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 CDM 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."

IRD 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 takeover 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.  

IRD's program is currently focused on the NCC's three largest denominations, together comprising 14 million members: the United Methodist Church; The Episcopal Church and the Presbyterian Church in the United States of America (PCUSA).  They also find the time to zero-in on the NCC, and the World Council of Churches. For example, interim IRD president Alan Wisdom personally attended the recent WCC meeting in Brazil, and issued critical dispatches for the IRD web site, and sound bites for the press.

Meanwhile, a number of UCC clergy are also fed up with the internal and external attacks on their church and are organizing in the blogosphere.  Rev. Dr. John Dorhauer is posting on this subject every week here at Talk to Action.

Rev. Dan Schultz, who operates the national blog site Street Prophets, is also taking aim at the misrepresentations of his denomination.

Chuck Currie, a recent seminary graduate and veteran blogger has written much about the IRD and related matters.

Another prominent minister who is fighting back is Rev. Dr. Andrew Weaver, who with a number of Methodist colleagues has written a book called Hardball on Holy Ground, and has posted several pieces at Talk to Action as well as numerous articles on the general subject over the past few years.  

The book follows the publication in recent years of United Methodism @ Risk: A Wake-up Call, by Leon Howell, and A Moment to Decide: The Crisis in Mainstream Presbyterianism, by Lewis Daly. These books have played catalytic roles within the mainline churches, informing the gathering movement that has has emerged from the realization that the churches have been subject to a unprecedented campaign of divide and conquer for two decades. The realization has come slowly and with great difficulty. But these most mainstream of American institutions -- the mainline Protestant churches -- may be responding at last.

in the history of protestantism in the U.S.  If that seems like a grandiose thing to say, ask yourself, or anyone else you might care to ask, this: Can you think of any leader of American Protestantism that has publicly stood up to the IRD and its tentacles in the mainline denominations in public in this way?  And by "this way," I mean a public event that goes to the heart of the matter, names names, offers specifics, and then publishes the speech?  Ask around.

Rev. John H. Thomas. Even more than for his support for marriage equality, I believe he will be remembered for this.

by Frederick Clarkson on Wed Mar 15, 2006 at 03:36:11 AM EST

I am truly proud of our General Minister and President, John Thomas. He has shown consistent courage and clear conviction in the face of some pretty strident opposition. This is significant on so many levels. It is of course important that someone with his stature and credibility enter the fray and speak about the IRD: those of us who have been doing this from the fringes sound less fantastic and more on point. Pastors who have been deeply wounded by attacks take heart to know that their leader is willing to fight for them in this engagement. Other denominational leaders may themselves find their own voice as they hear one of their colleagues gain his. And perhaps our local pastors, soothed by his courage, will begin to stand up and speak out in moments when otherwise they would have felt intimidated into silence by bullies who can, and who have in the past, effected such silence with their abusive tactics.
Shalom, Rev. Dr. John C. Dorhauer "Time makes ancient good uncouth; we must onward still and upward who would keep abreast of truth." from Lowell, "The Present Crisis"
by John Dorhauer on Wed Mar 15, 2006 at 07:43:08 AM EST
True leadership takes this sort of courage.

by Bruce Wilson on Wed Mar 15, 2006 at 08:45:14 AM EST

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