The Radical Right Assault on Mainline Protestantism and the National Council of Churches of Christ
The Radical Right Assault on Mainline Protestantism
and the National Council of Churches of Christ
By Andrew J. Weaver, Ph.D., Christopher G. Ellison, Ph.D.,
The National Council of Churches of Christ (NCCCC) represents 36 member communions - encompassing Protestant, Orthodox, Anglican, and African-American traditions - including more than 100,000 local congregations and 45 million persons in the United States. This 55-year-old ecumenical body has been a primary target of an orchestrated attack by determined right-wing ideologues since 1981 (Weaver and Seibert, 2004a,b; Howell, 2003).
The Institute on Religion and Democracy (IRD), a neoconservative-led Washington "think tank," has relentlessly used unethical propaganda methods to carry out the radical political agenda of a handful of secular benefactors opposed to Christian prophetic voice and social witness (Weaver and Seibert, 2004a,b; Howell, 2003). Although the IRD claims to be non-partisan (Smith, 2002), it is difficult to find anything other than right-wing causes that it supports (Swecker, 2005; McMullen, 2002; Tooley, 2001b; IRD, 2001b, c).
The IRD has doggedly sought to neutralize and overturn the social justice tradition of the mainline Protestant churches as well as the NCCC and the World Council of Churches. In the 20th century, mainline churches and ecumenical institutions played pivotal roles in advancing the civil rights of African-Americans (Findlay, 1993) and women, as well as opposing the Vietnam War and the anti-democratic policies of the Reagan administration in Central America and Southern Africa. More recently the NCCC has focused on issues of peace, poverty and pollution (NCCC, 2005).
In 2000 the IRD prepared a covert funding proposal (sent to one of the authors by a United Methodist bishop) to raise millions of dollars from radical right benefactors. In the proposal the IRD asserted, "A major priority during 2001-2004 year will be to push for the final dismantling of the National Council of Churches ..." It went on to boast, "IRD monitors most major gatherings of the National Council of Churches and, when possible, the World Council of Churches. We work to discredit these bodies' radical political advocacy and to weaken support for the councils..." (IRD, 2001a)
The IRD is primarily funded by a small group of secular ultra-conservative patrons. They include the John M. Olin Foundation, the Bradley Foundation with long-time family ties to the John Birch Society, the Smith-Richardson Foundation with CIA links in the early 1980s (Nation, 1981) and radical right billionaires Adolph Coors, Richard Mellon Scaife and Howard Ahmanson (Blumenthal, 2004; Cooperman, 2003; Media Transparency, 2004; Howell, 1995). In the early years of operation, 89 percent of the funds came from right-wing foundations (The Public Eye, 1989; Howell, 2003).
Howard Ahmanson (whose wife, Roberta, serves on the IRD board of directors) has been a major financial backer of Christian Reconstructionism, a movement that works to replace American democracy with a fundamentalist theocracy which advocates "stoning to death" (we are not joking) adulterers, homosexuals and rebellious children (Robinson, 2002; Olsen, 1998).
According to Christian Century, in the Reconstructionists' brave new America:
minimum-wage laws and Social Security for younger workers would be eliminated; most old-age security would be covered by personal retirement plans or by care from adult children; and the federal government would play absolutely no part in regulating businesses, public education or welfare....all inheritance and gift taxes would be abolished, while income taxes would be no more than 10 percent of gross income (and then only until government was shrunk further). Gleaning for the poor on private farms after harvesting would be encouraged (Shupe, 1989).
In hierarchical and authoritarian institutions like today's Roman Catholic Church and Southern Baptist Convention, debate and dissent are discouraged (Neuhaus, 2005). Mainline denominations are heir to forms of governance that are representative and transparent. It is the openness of the governance processes of these churches that the radical right has exploited to turn them into battle grounds in the culture wars (Swecker, 2005; Levin, 2003). Attacks on the NCCC and its constituent churches are meant to discredit the legitimacy of their democratic bodies and to impose rule by strict dogma and autocratic governance. This tactic is often on view when the conservative "renewal" factions in the mainline denominations working with the IRD foment internal dissent and generate conflict (Swecker, 2005; Daly, 2000). In some cases, unaware theologically conservative Christians seeking spiritual renewal are being used by the IRD and the "renewal" factions for hardball political power designs (Swecker, 2005; Howell,2003).
The question remains, why would Richard Melon Scaife (Kaiser & Chinoy, 1999) and other secular political operatives care about funding a multi-million dollar attack on mainline churches and the NCCC? Think about this: While the members of churches affiliated with the National Council of Churches account for about a quarter of the population, approximately half of the members of the U.S. Congress say they are members of these communions. NCCC church members' influence is disproportionate to their numbers and include remarkably high numbers of leaders in politics, business, and culture. The prevailing ethos of American culture is and has been shaped by the leadership and membership of theses churches. Moreover, these churches are some of the largest land owners in the U.S., with hundreds of billions of dollars collectively in assets, including real estate and pension funds. A hostile takeover of these churches would represent a massive shift in American culture, power and wealth for a relatively small investment (Howell, 2003: 1995). If this sounds far-fetched, one need only consider how right-wing groups during recent decades have taken over and now wholly control the Southern Baptist Convention.
The IRD was founded by several key leaders of the neoconservative movement that now dominates the George W. Bush administration, including Roman Catholics Father Richard John Neuhaus and Michael Novak and the religiously unaffiliated Penn Kemble (Clarkson, 1997). The IRD has steadfastly promoted the foreign and domestic policy agendas of the neoconservative movement that gave it birth. Its mission has closely tracked the neoconservative agenda over almost two and half decades - moving from militant anticommunism to post-cold war American global domination to radical anti-taxation for the rich, and destruction of the meager social safety net for the poor and middle-class (Howell, 2003; UMACTION, 2003).
In its early years, the IRD worked intimately with the Reagan White House, providing papers, speeches and even co-sponsoring a conference with the State Department. The conference was held at the State Department, and $44,000 was provided by a grant from the U.S. Information Agency (USIA). The IRD continually assailed the theological integrity of Christians ministering and living among impoverished peasants in Central America (Public Eye, 1989; Hyer, 1985). Richard John Neuhaus, one of the founders of the IRD, acknowledged that the IRD had a specific "political agenda" from the beginning - Central America and opposition to liberation theology were top concerns (Lernoux, 1989).
Using McCarthy-like tactics, it routinely challenged the patriotism of any Christians who did not share its goals, as it continues to do (Tooley, 2001a). Its favorite ploy in the 1980's was to try to identify the NCCC and its constituent member churches with alleged communist subversives - whether Marxist-influenced liberation theologians, anti-apartheid activists or international relief workers. Any religious group that dared to speak of assisting or empowering the poor was, in the eyes of the IRD, suspect and probably "communist" (Lernoux, 1989). The Cold War, for the IRD, was merely a proxy for its partisan struggle to portray American liberals as complicit in the sins of Soviet-style communism. It was, in other words, a kind of neo-McCarthyism. The close association between the IRD and the first-term Reagan administration earned the IRD the moniker of "the official seminary of the White House" (Lernoux, 1989).
Penn Kemble, a non-church member, signed the IRD's federal application for tax-exempt status in 1981. He was a key player in the Iran-Contra scandal, working as an agent between Oliver North and U.S. financial backers of the Nicaraguan Contras (Goshko, 1989; Massing, 1989). He had previously worked as a writer and producer in Washington, DC, for the conservative "Ben Wattenberg" series. A House of Representatives investigation of Kemble's activities during the Iran-Contra affair revealed that the IRD worked with the State Department's Office of Public Diplomacy for Latin America and the Caribbean. It was a special office supervised by the National Security Council, which produced propaganda supporting Reagan's Central America policies (House Foreign Affairs Committee, 1988).
Peter Steinfels, the respected Catholic scholar and New York Times former senior religion correspondent wrote an incisive appraisal of the group in its second year of operation (Steinfels, 1982). He observed that the IRD is "a conservative-neoconservative alliance intended to advance a distinct political agenda while claiming only a broad Christian concern" (Steinfels, 1982, p. 84). He noted " there is a certain comic quality to the IRD phenomenon. A highly political and partisan organization marches under the banner of church independence." Steinfels makes it hard to miss the irony when he observes that while the IRD is "asserting that the church should cherish diversity and disagreement about the means to social justice," it actively "manufactures an arsenal of vague and damaging allegations almost certain to cast aspersions on a broad band of church leadership" (Steinfels, 1982, p. 85).
The IRD's greatest exploit was a coordinated smearing of the NCCC in the early 1980's involving an article in Reader's Digest and CBS's 60 Minutes. In 1983, Reader's Digest, a popular magazine with a conservative bent, ran an outrageous hit piece by Rael Jean Isaac titled, "Do You Know Where Your Church Offerings Go?" Ms. Isaac was an odd choice for a supposedly reputable publication. Earlier in the Los Angeles Jewish weekly, Heritage, she had published in 1981, an article in which she declared without substantiation that "the National Council of Churches, including the major denominations that set its policy - the United Methodists, the United Presbyterians, the Disciples of Christ, the Episcopalians, the United Church of Christ - have become centers of activity directed toward eliminating the Jewish state." Not only were the accusations fictional, but their inflammatory character publicly undermined the NCCC's mission as an agent of reconciliation and peace.
In a 1981 article co-authored with Erich Isaac, Ms. Isaac took a handful of church programs out of context and proceeded to throw doubt on ecumenical work in general. The piece appeared in the May, 1981, American Spectator, a magazine funded by Richard Melon Scaife in the amount of $5.6 million from 1970-1997. (Broder and Conason, 1998). The article is titled, "Sanctifying Revolution: Protestantism's New Social Gospel; The Sword is My Shepherd." It defames the NCCC and its members by accusing them of financing terrorist organizations and totalitarian governments. Later in this same article, Ms. Isaac scurrilously characterized attitudes at the National Council as a "dislike for capitalism" and "hatred of the United States."
It was not surprising that Ms. Isaac repeated this pattern of distortions and falsehoods when she attacked the NCCC in Reader's Digest in 1983. The article insinuated that the NCCC was part of a world-wide Marxist-Leninist conspiracy. Again she made reckless claims while ignoring the NCCC's peacemaking work, both through their statements abhorring violence and actual programs through churches to create conditions of peace through development.
If one looks over the last decades at the resolutions of the National Council of Churches, the national assemblies of its constituent churches, and the groups the churches fund, it is hard to escape the conclusion that the view of those who control the bureaucracies of these churches is close to that of Osama bin Laden: the U.S. is the big Satan and Israel the little Satan.
A broadcast on CBS's 60 Minutes entitled "The Gospel According to Whom" a few weeks after the Reader's Digest article, amplified many of the baseless accusations, again with plenty of help from the IRD. One of the founders of the IRD, Roman Catholic priest, Richard John Neuhaus, opened the 60 Minutes segment saying, "I am worried - I am outraged when the church lies to its own people." The camera moved from a collection plate in a Methodist church in the Midwest to images of the Cuban dictator Fidel Castro and then marchers in Communist Red Square. The lengthy segment over and over suggested that the NCCC was using Sunday offerings to promote Marxist revolution.
60 Minutes executive producer Don Hewitt appeared on the December 2, 2002 edition of Larry King Live (CNN) and was asked whether he regretted any shows that he had done in his 36-year career. Hewitt named only one, the 1983 60 Minutes double segment on the NCCC and WCC. Hewitt told King that "we once took off on the National Council of Churches as being left wing and radical and a lot of nonsense. And the next morning I got a congratulatory phone call from every redneck bishop in America and I thought, Oh my God, we must have done something wrong last night, and I think we probably did."
The Washington Post observed during this time that the Readers Digest and 60 Minutes ignored the larger issues of what "the proper function of the church in society is" and simply "supported" the upstart IRD "bent on smearing its opponents." The writer concluded: " Its (IRD) grumblings about the council's replacement of "revolution for religion" are absurd, unless feeding, housing and educating the world's poor are revolutionary deeds" (McCarthy, 1983).
One of the most troubling aspects of the IRD is that, while powerful figures in the right-wing of the Roman Catholic church have been among its leaders from its inception, there is no program, staff or budget for changing the Catholic church. There are only programs, staff and budget for changing Protestant churches (IRD, 2005). According to their IRS filings, the IRD's millions have been spent to change the NCCC and several of its constituent churches (GuideStar, 2005). At the same time, 6 of the 17 current members of the board of directors, a full (35 percent), are prominent conservative Catholics. They include founders Father Richard John Neuhaus (American Enterprise Institute) and Michael Novak (The Institute on Religion and Public Life) along with Robert P. George (Professor, Princeton University), George Weigel (Ethics and Public Policy Center) Mary Ellen Bork (wife of Judge Robert Bork) and the chair of the board, and J. Budziszewski (Professor, University of Texas at Austin) (IRD, 2005). This double standard of selecting only Protestant organizations and churches for change was challenged by a distinguished Catholic leader Msgr. George G. Higgins (Christianity and Crisis, 1984). He served on the executive staff for the National Conference of Catholic Bishops from 1944 to 1980 and was Director of their Social Action Department, 1954-1967. Msgr. Higgins was honored with the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest civilian honor, and with the University of Notre Dame's Laetare Medal as a tireless champion of the labor movement in the Roman Catholic Church (United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, 2002).
In 1984, Msgr. Higgins was quoted as saying that the IRD's leaders "undoubtedly know that numerous non-Marxist Catholic leaders in the third world, including a number of cardinals and bishops, are, if anything even more `radical' than some of their counterparts in the WCC and the NCC (Christianity and Crisis, 1984). He asked why the IRD had refrained from attacking the Catholic Church whose social teachings were radical by IRD standards. He said "under the guise of defending democracy" the IRD was in danger of "becoming a partisan apologist for a conservative or neoconservative brand of American-style free enterprise ...." (Christianity and Crisis, 1984).
According to Richard John Neuhaus , Catholic Church teaching and the pope are sacrosanct and beyond questioning while non-Catholic Christian teachings and their leaders are not. Neuhaus, published an opinion piece in the Boston Globe in May 16, 2005 that supported the recent firing of respected editor Thomas Reese S.J. at America magazine. According to Neuhaus the problem at America "was a basic mistake in editorial policy. It was thought that being `fair and balanced; required publishing on an equal footing articles that supported and articles that opposed the church's teaching ...." Neuhaus argues in the piece that a Catholic publication should never print anything that disagrees with any pronouncement ever made by any official of the church. He continues: "The Society of Jesus decided it would be better for the magazine and for him if he moved into a different ministry. End of story. Unless, of course, one is interested in generating suspicion and hostility against the pope. Needless to say, no faithful Catholic would want to do that."
Richard John Neuhaus and other prominent Catholics who direct the IRD's board have conferred their prestige and considerable influence to an organization that has consistently labored to generate suspicion and hostility about Christian leaders who are not in their communion. This is indecent behavior, not acceptable among responsible people of faith. The leaders of IRD must be challenged, called to repent and told to sin no more against their brothers and sisters in Christ.
Theologically conservative Christians who are seeking spiritual renewal in mainline churches need to look carefully at the unchristian tactics of the IRD. The church needs spiritual renewal; what it does not need is more political hardball and takeover bids. If the IRD achieves a hostile takeover of mainline Protestantism along with the dismantling of the NCCC, they will have muted an important part of America's social conscience and significantly diminished its capacity for civic discourse. The soul of the church, our faith and the nation are at risk.
Andrew J. Weaver, M.Th., Ph.D., is a United Methodist pastor and a clinical psychologist living in New York City. He is Associate publisher of Zion's Herald an independent religious journal of opinion, news and reflection published by the Boston Wesleyan Association. He has co-authored 11 books including Counseling Troubled Teens and Their Families, Reflections on Forgiveness and Spiritual Growth, Counseling Families Across the Stages of Life , Reflections on Marriage and the Spiritual Journey, Counseling Survivors of Traumatic Events ,Reflections on Grief and the Spiritual Journey and Wells of Wisdom; Grandparenting and Spiritual Journeys .
Christopher G. Ellison, Ph.D., is an Episcopalian and the Elsie and Stanley E. Adams, Sr. Centennial Professor of Sociology at the University of Texas at Austin. He specializes in the study of contemporary American religion and spirituality, particularly its implications for health and well-being, mortality, family life, and civic engagement. He is currently the Principal Investigator of the National Survey of Religion and Family Life, funded by the Lilly Endowment, and he has authored nearly 100 articles and chapters in social science journals and other scholarly outlets.
Fred W. Kandeler, M.Div., D.D., is a retired United Methodist pastor affiliated with Travis Park UMC, San Antonio, Texas. His thirty-six years of ordained ministry included twenty-five in the North Texas Conference where he served ten years as founding pastor of Christ UMC, Plano, and as later as District Superintendent. His last eight years were served in the Central Texas Conference.
Richard L. Binggeli, Ph.D., Ph.D. holds a doctoral from UCLA in neuroscience and is emeritus professor of neurosciences at the University of Southern California School of Medicine where he taught and did research for 31 years. He has published in scientific periodicals such as Cancer Research and the Journal of Theoretical Biology. He holds a second doctoral in psychology and has been a licensed clinical psychologist for fifteen years specializing in psychological assessments for candidates for the ministry. He has been an Elder in the Presbyterian Church USA for forty years.
Fred Clark, B.A., MATS., was a staff member of Evangelicals for Social Action and an editor of Prism magazine from 1992-2000. Fred is a Baptist expatriate attending a Presbyterian (PCUSA) church. His blog, "Slacktivist" is at slacktivist.typepad.com."
The Radical Right Assault on Mainline Protestantism and the National Council of Churches of Christ | 5 comments (5 topical, 0 hidden)
The Radical Right Assault on Mainline Protestantism and the National Council of Churches of Christ | 5 comments (5 topical, 0 hidden)