Waking-Up the Mainline Churches: Second Cup of Coffee
Frederick Clarkson printable version print page     Bookmark and Share
Sun Jul 29, 2007 at 09:05:34 PM EST
Thanks to Rebecca Sharpe of the the ever-nefarious neonconservative Institute on Religion and Democracy for reminding me about a post I did late last year that was overdue for an update.

The war of attrition being waged against the mainline protestant churches by the religious right and allied agencies has been going on 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 during all this time, 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 did some homework in an effort to try to understand what in the world has happened to the Episcopal Church, pieces of which had 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.

Last 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 60 Minutes and Readers Digest hits were big news at the time, the whole affair 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 clergy. 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 full-time staffers sought to organize conservative factions into a disruptive and cohesive force, and to force some denominations into schism, will likely be the subject of doctoral theses in church history in years to come. It is already well-ocumented that covert, and later, overt efforts to move the Episcopal Church and the United Methodist Church into schism, have been 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 last year, as are several current staffers. 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; Hardball on Holy GroundSteven Swecker, ed. and United Methodism @ Risk:  A Wake-Up Call, by Leon Howell; and most recently Steeplejacking: How the Christian Right is Hijacking Mainstream Religion, by Sheldon Culver and John Dorhauer.

A 25 minute film titled Renewal or Ruin: The Institute on Religion and Democracy's Attack on the United Methodist Church, was released in March.

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.  

Jim 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, has (along with several Methodist colleagues) written a series of articles at Talk to Action, Media Transparency, and elsewhere, addressing the attacks on his denomination. (Talk to Action's Bruce Wilson, has done a partial anthology of Weaver's work.

Rev. Dr. John Dorhauer, an Associate Conference Minister in the United Church of Christ has, unlike the rest of us, 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 a weekly blog post at Talk to Action. 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.

He has also published a feature article in the Summer 2007 issue of The Public Eye: Churches Under Seige: Exposing the Right's Attacks on Mainline Protestantism.

The basic facts and analysis put forward so far by those of us who have published in this area have gone unchallenged. But it is also true that what we have published has also been largely ignored, at least in public, by those most responsible for the health and survival of their churches. The good news is that this may be changing.

Rev. John Thomas, the current president of the United Church of Christ said last year:

"Groups like the Evangelical Association of Reformed, Christian and Congregational Churches and the Biblical Witness Fellowship, 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. 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," said 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."

I am not aware of mainline leaders rallying to Edgar's call. However, an annual conference of the United Methodist Church has overwhelmingly passed a resolution in June that does just that. No doubt they will not be the last church body to do so. Indeed, taken together, all this could be the beginning of an authentic grassroots movement of mainline Protestants determined to end the war of attrition that has been waged against them for so long.




Display:
this resource list could be expanded.  It should be; and ways found to distribute it more widely.

by Frederick Clarkson on Sun Jul 29, 2007 at 10:43:43 PM EST

Apropos of Fred's article comes this from OneNews.Now, a news service of the American Family Association:

Allie Martin, OneNewsNow.com, July 30, 2007

The United Methodist Church is being blasted for partnering with a Muslim group that is blatant about its mission.

The United Methodist Committee on Relief, or UMCOR, recently announced a partnership with Muslim Aid, a British-based relief organization. The Muslim group is "very clear about its Islamic mission -- and on its website there are numerous references to the Koran and the false god, Allah," says Mark Tooley with the Institute on Religion and Democracy (IRD).

"In its materials and on its website, it talks about the need to serve Allah," he continues, "and one of its programs is to help Muslims around the world fulfill their Islamic obligations, which include an annual animal sacrifice, which Muslim Aid will assist them with."

Tooley expects the denomination to spend more than the $15 million dollars already proposed on joint relief projects worldwide. "Even prior to this recently announced partnership, they had been working together in Sri Lanka in relation to tsunami victims there," the IRD spokesman observes.

Tooley points out that while Muslim Aid is vocal in its beliefs, UMCOR has virtually no mention of God, Jesus Christ, or the Bible on its website. "No wonder there is such easy agreement between them," he comments.

UMCOR's operating budget last year was nearly $90 million, according to Tooley. He suggests that United Methodists and others might want to "ponder" why one of its denominational agencies appears hesitant to mention Jesus Christ, but seems to have no problem affiliating with a Muslim group that freely professes its service to Allah.

 

by Bill Berkowitz on Mon Jul 30, 2007 at 05:44:52 PM EST



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