IRD Blows Smoke in Response to Expose Film
Frederick Clarkson printable version print page     Bookmark and Share
Wed Apr 16, 2008 at 02:04:01 PM EST
The oxymoronically named Institute on Religion and Democracy for a generation has sought to disrupt and divide the major denominations of mainline Protestantism, as well as the wider ecumenical communions, the National Council of Churches and the World Council of Churches.  Even more remarkably perhaps, while presenting itself an agency dedicated to reform and "renewal" of the churches, IRD's leadership and staff have been substantially populated by men and women who are not even members of any of the churches they say they seek to "renew."  

I mention all this, because IRD Methodist program staffers Mark Tooley and John Lomperis recently issued (and sent to all UMC General Conference Delegates) a sliming of Steven D. Martin's DVD discussion of the agency:  Renewal or Ruin:   The Institute on Religion & Democracy's Attack on the United Methodist Church.  Martin has written:

I was able to produce "Renewal or Ruin?" using only personal funds. I wanted to avoid the accusation that it had been made by someone with an agenda. I wanted to be as fair, and as firm, as I could be. You can see the results of the project by visiting www.ird-info.com, and by viewing the trailer  for the video.

The sliming of Martin, the film, and those of us who were interviewed for it is a study in distortions, ad hominem attacks and perhaps most remarkably, the vainglorious knocking down of straw men. This post is a response to their screed.

You can read the entirety of their March 7, 2008 e-mail newsletter on the IRD web site. I cannot possibly address all of the points raised by these professional propagandists.  So let's ignore the distractions and get to the heart of the matter.

Tooley and Lomperis:  

The film alleges that over $70 million dollars had been funneled by far right-wing foundations through Roman Catholic IRD board members to undermine mainline Protestant denominations.  Over its 27 years, IRD's annual budget has rarely exceeded $1 million.  Our ecumenical board includes Catholics, but none of our major funding sources are Catholic.
 

While the screen does mistakenly assert that the 70 million was deployed against the churches, actually, Andrew Weaver speaking in the film does not make this claim. Rather, the key neoconservative Catholics in the IRD leadership, notably Fr. John Richard Neuhaus and Michael Novak are part of institutions that have received $70 million from the same funding agencies.

Weaver's point in the film, is that these (and others over the life of the organization) are the guys with the connections to the big money, not the ostensibly mainline Protestants. (IRD knows this.) It is worth noting that rather than dicussion of renewal or reform of the mainline churches,  in several cases the grants to IRD from these foundations are for the express purpose of "countering the religious left."

In a scholarly article published at Media Transparency, Weaver documented how prominent Catholic neoconservatives have played a leading role in IRD from the beginning. (J. Budziszewski, the Catholic board chair quietly and inexplicably resigned in the wake of Weaver's article.) And I have reported on how the current IRD president Jim Tonkowich is a minister in an evangelical Presbyterian schism of the mainline Presbyterian Church (USA) that IRD is purportedly seeking to reform. The record shows that IRD is primarily funded by neoconservative and religious right foundations and financiers who view the churches as obstacles to their regressive and sometimes theocratic political agendas.

Weaver writes:

Dr. Randall Balmer is an evangelical Christian, editor-at-large of the conservative Christianity Today magazine, and Professor of American Religion at Columbia University. He conducted researched on IRD for his new volume entitled Thy Kingdom Come: How the Religious Right Distorts the Faith and Threatens America.

Balmer made these observations about IRD:

What has really impressed me in the course of writing this book is the kind of infrastructure that the neo-cons have built over the past decades. IRD is an important element in that infrastructure. I don't think it's overstated to say it's a conspiracy.

The former senior vice president at the Heritage Foundation, Burton Yale Pines, has referred to think tanks like IRD as "the shock troops of the conservative revolution". There are now dozens upon dozens of these right-wing "think tanks" waging ideological war on our society, especially in Washington, DC.

Most of the funding for these groups comes from the same sources that fund IRD. What is unique about IRD is that it is a Catholic-directed attack on Protestant churches.

Imagine the outcry from Catholic leaders, a fully justified response, if a highly influential group of Protestants obtained a million dollars a year from left-wing sources to generate a propaganda campaign against the leadership of the Catholic Church over the issues of the ordination of women and divorce. Moreover, this Protestant-directed group constantly sought to undermine Catholic leaders and missions through twisted and demeaning distortions of what they said, while seeking no reforms in their own communions. This is exactly the situation we have at IRD.

IRD constitutes the most grievous breach in ecumenical good will between Roman Catholics and Protestants since the changes initiated by Vatican II.

 

The current 17 member IRD board includes prominent Catholics: Neuhaus, Novak, Mary Ellen Bork and Robert George.  As Weaver stresses in his article, the Catholics involved in the leadership of IRD are not obscure or uninfluential, and the issue is not just money.   One recent example will suffice:

Former longtime IRD advisory board member, Harvard Law Professor, Mary Ann Glendon was recently appointed and confirmed as the U.S. Ambassador to the Vatican.

Speaking to the press in both English and Italian, Glendon said: "I am very pleased to be here today in Rome in a city that has long been like a second home to me. And I'm especially pleased to be here to present my credentials to His Holiness Pope Benedict XVI.

"President George W. Bush and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice have honored me greatly with this appointment and I'm very grateful to them. As many of you are aware, for many years I've worked closely with the Holy See."

After listing some of the many posts in which she has served the Holy See in both diplomatic and academic capacities, Glendon continued: "It is my hope, my conviction that those experiences will serve me well as I now take up the responsibility of advancing the relationship between the United States and the Holy See.

Tooley and Lomperis:  

Clarkson inaccurately claims that IRD has received funding from the openly theocratic reconstructionist movement

Actually, money from the Reconstructionist movement does as I say in the film "find its way to IRD." What I meant by this, is what I have written elsewhere, as IRD knows -- is that Howard Ahmanson, heir to a large fortune, had been a major financier and director of the premier think tank of the theocratic Christian Reconstructionist movement, the Chalcedon Foundation. Ahmanson and his wife Roberta (current IRD board chair) have also underwritten the IRD, and especially its Anglican schism organizing committee, the American Anglican Council, which at one time was housed at IRD headquarters, as then-IRD president Diane Knippers staffed both agencies.  

The Ahmansons were the principal funders of the strategic plan to organizer for schism in the American Episcopal Church, as was detailed by journalist Max Blumenthal in an article at Salon.com.

In the summer of 2000, a group of frustrated Episcopalians from the board of the American Anglican Council gathered at a sun-soaked Bahamanian resort to blow off some steam and hatch a plot. They were fed up with the Episcopal Church and what they perceived as a liberal hierarchy that had led it astray from centuries of so-called orthodox Christian teaching. The only option, they believed, was to lead a schism.

But this would take money. After the meeting, Anglican Council vice president Bruce Chapman sent a private memo to the group's board detailing a plan to involve Howard F. Ahmanson Jr., a Southern California millionaire, and his wife, Roberta Green Ahmanson, in the plan....

It was a logical pitch: As a key financier of the Christian right with a penchant for anti-gay campaigns, Ahmanson clearly shared the Anglican Council's interest in subverting the left-leaning church.

Soon, the money came rolling in to the Anglican Council, with more than $1 million in donations from Ahmanson in 2000 and 2001. And the newly flush Anglican Council redoubled its anti-gay campaign, climaxing in November when the Episcopal Church consecrated its first openly gay bishop, the Rt. Rev. Eugene Robinson. With its war chest full and its strongest pretext yet for a schism, the group cranked up a smear campaign against Robinson, falsely accusing him of sexual harassment and administering a bisexual pornography Web site, prompting three wealthy dioceses to split with the Episcopal Church and join the Anglican Council's renegade network. Now more dioceses and parishes are poised to follow, a prospect that threatens to weaken the progressive Episcopal Church's political influence -- 44 members of Congress are Episcopalian -- and provide an important new tableau for right-wing political organizing.

Regarding Ahmanson, Reconstructionism and the IRD, I wrote in The Public Eye.

Part of the backdrop of all of this is Howard Ahmanson's broader involvement with the religious Right, which began when he became a disciple of the leading theocratic theologian of the 20th century, R.J. Rushdoony, founder of the Chalcedon Foundation in Vallecito, CA. Rushdoony was the seminal thinker of the Christian Reconstructionist movement that seeks to eventually create a theocracy based on "Biblical Law" in the United States, and around the world. Ahmanson reportedly contributed $1 million during his many years of service on the Chalcedon board. In 1985, he told the Orange County Register, "My goal is the total integration of biblical law into our lives."

Since then, he has distanced himself from some of Rushdoony's ideas. For example, he told Max Blumenthal in an email interview that he disagreed with Rushdoony that homosexuals should be executed. But how far Rushdoony's disciple fell from the Reconstructionist tree is hard to measure. The Ahmansons were at Rushdoony's bedside when he died. When Blumenthal asked Roberta Ahmanson, who serves as her husband's spokesperson, if they still seek to implement biblical law, she replied: "I'm not suggesting we have an amendment to the Constitution that says we now follow all 613 of the case laws of the Old Testament ... But if by biblical law you mean the last seven of the 10 Commandments, you know, yeah."

Whatever Howard Ahmanson's personal differences with Rushdoony on aspects of Biblical Law, he has put his money where his mouth once was. He finances attacks on the mainline Protestant churches that support religious pluralism and separation of church and state and are major obstacles to the theocrats' long range vision, as well as to the short term goals of Christian Rightists in the Republican Party. The Ahmansons helped bankroll such organizations as Focus on the Family and the Traditional Values Coalition; state level antigay and pro-school voucher ballot initiatives, and funneled millions of dollars into electoral politics in California.

Tooley and Lomperis:  

IRD  "encourage(s) church members to remain within United Methodism."
 

In fact, as I wrote in The Public Eye,

The IRD Methodist affiliate, Good News, not only has organized for schism but its leaders Rev. Scott Field and Rev. James Heidinger told Christianity Today "institutional separation is all but inevitable."

Weaver and Seibert note that in 2002, a foundation controlled by Richard Mellon Scaife "gave $225,000 to the IRD for its "Reforming America's Churches Project"-- among whose stated goals is the elimination of the Methodists' General Board of Church and Society, the church's voice for justice and peace, as well as discrediting United Methodist Church pastors and bishops with whom they disagree by instigating as many as a dozen church trials over the next few years.

The longtime director of IRD, the late Diane Knippers was, according to Salon.com's Max Blumenthal, "the chief architect" of an initiative "to `restructure the permanent governing structure' of `theologically flawed' mainline churches... in order to `discredit and diminish the Religious Left's influence."

IRD no longer lists on its web site, its longtime affiliate members of the Association for Church Renewal, which included the Methodist faction, Good News. However, Rev. James Heidenger and other Good News leaders have served, and continue to serve, on the IRD board.  Meanwhile, the IRD Episcopal program is now "Anglican," and several IRD staffers are members of schismatic congregations no longer affiliated with the Episcopal Church.

The Reforming America's Churches Project description can be read here.   Here are a few quotes from this document,  written circa 2000:

IRD's three denominational committees are Episcopal Action, United Methodist Action and Presbyterian Action. All three empower conservative church members with reporting about their church structure that they will not otherwise hear. IRD is giving special attention to reform of the United Methodist Church, America's third largest religious body, and the largest denomination under Religious Left control.

Association for Church Renewal/Next Generation Project -- We are a chief organizer of this coalition of conservative/evangelical renewal groups in all the major mainline churches. The association allows us to synchronize strategies across denominational lines and to counteract the influence of liberal ecumenical groups, such as the National and World Councils of Churches. Key to the longer-range success of the church reform movement is recruiting a younger generation of reformers. The IRD has the experience, expertise, connections and vision to recruit and train young church members for this task.

Organizing -- We will annually prepare resolutions for local and regional church conventions in the three major denominations. These resolutions will call attention to egregious behavior by radical church leaders and will be important tools for grassroots organizing. They will also focus on positive, proactive initiatives that unite traditional religious believers and discredit the Religious Left. Working with other renewal organizations, we will identify electable conservative candidates for national church conventions. We will help train elected delegates to be effective at church conventions. We also will assist conservatives who serve on the boards of key church agencies so as to have direct influence over the permanent staff.

The mainline churches -- the bulwark of the Religious Left -- have been a powerful influence in American life throughout the 20th Century. They have also been declining in membership for almost 40 years. For nearly the last 20 years, the IRD has worked to discredit and diminish the Religious Left's influence and we have experienced significant successes in our efforts.

Beginning in 2001, we will emphasize training conservatives and moderates for the debates on marriage and human sexuality. We intend to conduct invitation-only training seminars and consultations for church leader, covering biblical, theological, scientific, psychological and sociological aspects of human sexuality. Participants will develop pro-marriage arguments for discussions in churches in the civil society, including effective media strategies. Our trainees will promote our legislation at their local and regional church conventions in preparation for the larger battles at national church conventions in 2001-2004. In addition we will persuade churches to adopt official policy statements opposing same-sex "marriage" or "domestic partner benefits" in civil society. Too often conservatives in mainline churches focus on internal church policies regarding marriage, while ignoring the larger witness to society. IRD is helping to change that attitude. We are assisting the new Alliance for Marriage in its outreach to the Protestant communities.

The IRD continues to be the sole, unified voice of resistance to the Religious Left. The IRD is the only organization that offers a unified vision of what renewal would look like for the mainline churches in America. And the IRD is one of the few groups that foster practical cooperation among conservative mainline Protestants, Evangelicals, and Roman Catholics. We will continue to expose Religious Left Extremism, organize conservatives at mainline church conventions, and challenge the claims of liberal church officials when they purport to speak for millions of church members.

The IRD acts as the publicity and program arm for the Association for Church Renewal (ACR), which is comprised of executives of major conservative renewal organizations throughout the mainline denominations, including Episcopalians, Presbyterians, United Methodists, American Baptists, Evangelical Lutherans, United Church of Christ, Disciples of Christ and others. ACR leaders meet twice a year, issue press releases and statements, share research materials, and cooperate on special projects.

Film maker Martin has done the United Methodist Church a great service by shining a light on the IRD and related groups. He has raised fair concerns about this disreputable outside agency that has sewn such discord for a generation. It is unsurprising, therefore, that IRD would employ the same tactics against Martin et al, that they have used against the denominations for all of these years.

Finally, I want to underscore a point beyond my response to Tooley and Lomperis, but is important for anyone thinking about what all this means.  Back in 2005, Hartford Seminary published what it described as "the largest national survey of congregations ever conducted in the United States." The study zeroed-in on the factors influencing church growth. (Pastordan discussed it in a post over at Street Prophets, which is where I first learned about it.)  The study showed that, contrary to the assertions of IRD, that the relative liberalism or conservatism of a church are not significant factors in church growth or decline.  There are other factors at work. The one that leapt out at me was this:

Congregations that have experienced major conflict are quite likely to have declined in attendance. The strongest correlate of growth is the absence of serious conflict.

This is signficant because IRD is in the business of the manufacture, escalation and sustaining of conflict in the mainline Protestant churches. Martin's film helps explain why that is so. And that is why IRD is once again, blowing smoke.

Update [2008-3-25 19:40:54 by Frederick Clarkson]: I have made two corrections to this post. One is that there is a screen in the film that is at odds with what Andrew Weaver says in the film. IRD focuses on the screen and pretends that Weaver did not say something different. The other correction is to say that IRD mischaracterized one of my quotes. After reviewing the film, I have clarifed what I mean by money from the Reconstructionist movement finding its way to IRD.




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