The religious and secular right have have been gunning for the mainstream Protestant churches in the United States, and around the world, for a generation. Through front groups — mostly associated with the Washington, DC-based Institute for Religion and Democracy (IRD), they have sought to foment internal division and generate external pressures, in order to neutralize, divide, and conquer the historic churches of mainline Protestantism that had become increasingly powerful and influential advocates for Christian notions of social justice.
Unfortunately, it has been as difficult for mainstream religious leaders to come to terms with this strategic assault, as it has been for most Americans to come to terms with the rise of the religious right in American politics. But we may have reached a turning point, thanks to Air America and a dedicated group of bloggers who also happen to be veterans of research and writing about the religious right.
On Sunday, May 21st, Air America’s nationally syndicated radio show State of Belief, “In conjunction with the website Talk to Action… takes an unprecedented look into the takeover of America’s churches, revealing the ugly truths, personal experiences, and exhaustive research of four leaders.”
“The Southern Baptist Convention was lost,” State of Belief host Welton Gaddy ruefully notes regarding the fundamentalist takeover of his own denomination, “not because of those trying to take it over, but because of people arguing that it wasn’t a big deal.”
The program will air on about 40 stations around the country, XM Satellite Radio, and over the internet via streaming audio, as well as via podcast. Visit the State of Belief web site for details on how to hear the show.
The State of Belief press release briefly introduces the three Talk to Action bloggers featured on the show:
Dr. Bruce Prescott, Executive Director of Mainstream Oklahoma Baptists is, like Welton, a veteran of the purges that marked the conservative takeover of the Southern Baptist Convention. The strategy, says Prescott, is to keep mainstream denominations in turmoil over wedge issues such as gay marriage, so that conservative leaders can be free to achieve their political and religious goals.
Dr. John Dorhauer, minister for the St. Louis Association of the United Church of Christ, has seen congregations around him descend into in-fighting, provoked by right-wing propaganda. Dorhauer explains, “What the politically motivated achieve is the silence of the religious conscience voice that has historically led this country….If you take out the 45 million people that are represented by the National Council of Churches, you are going to hollow out one of the cores of our nation’s democracy.”
Dr. Andrew Weaver, a United Methodist pastor and research psychologist, has traced the campaign against mainline Protestantism largely to the Institute on Religion and Democracy a think-tank funded by uber-conservative industrialists such as Richard Mellon Scaife and the Adolph Coors family. Weaver says that the IRD and so-called religious “renewal” groups are funneling money in “a systematic effort to undermine mainline churches that still have democratic, transparent processes.” The problem in countering these efforts, he says, is that “All of these traditions have niceness at the core; while we’ve been thinking it’s touch football, they’ve been playing tackle.”
Talk to Action, (of which I am the co-founder), made reporting on and discussion of the attacks on the mainline churches a focus not only because they are the targets of a sustained war of attrition, but because media coverage, even progressive and religious media, has been spotty at best. That is starting to change, but the need for sound reporting and analysis will continue for the foreseeable future. From the standpoint of the leaders of the religious and secular right in America, the final victory of a permanent marginalization of the hated mainstream churches, seems within their grasp.
Here are some excerpts:
“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.
People outside of the churches may wonder, why they should care? Methodist minister Andrew Weaver, who has researched the Institute and its satellite groups, explains that the member churches of the National Council of Churches account for about 25% of the population and half of the members of the US Congress. “NCC church members’ influence is disproportionate to their numbers,” he says, “and include remarkably high numbers of leaders in politics, business, and culture…. Moreover, these churches are some of the largest landowners 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.”
What is more, the institutional moral authority, leadership, and resources of the churches have been vital to major movements for social change throughout the 20th Century–from enacting child labor laws, to advancing the African-American civil rights movement, to ending the war in Vietnam.
For much of the 20th century, the mainline Protestant churches maintained a vigorous “social witness.” That is what these Protestants call their views on such matters as peace, civil rights and environmental justice. While there was certainly conservative opposition to the development of these views, and to the activities that grew out of them, the direction of mainline Protestantism was clear. The churches became powerful proponents of social change in the United States. They stood at the moral and political center of society with historic roots in the earliest days of the nation. Indeed, they epitomize the very idea and image of “church” for many Americans. In retrospect, it seems inevitable that powerful external interests would organize and finance the conservative rump factions into strategic formations intended to divide and conquer–and diminish the capacity of churches to carry forward their idea of a just society in the United States–and the world.
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 IRD in 1980 as a Washington, DC-based agency that would help network, organize, and inform internal opposition groups, while sustaining outside pressure and public relations campaigns.
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. 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.
…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 and its agents in all of the major denominations have indeed used the internal church judicial system to create division while seeking to enforce their versions of orthodoxy. The Presbyterian Church USA, for example, has seen many judicial battles over, among other things, ordination of gay clergy and the carrying out of same sex commitment ceremonies during this period.
You can read the entire article at the web site of The Public Eye.