The Battle for the Mainline Churches
By Frederick Clarkson
“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.”1
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.2
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. But as it happens, individuals such as civil rights leader Rev. Andrew Young and antiwar leader Rev. William Sloan Coffin, for example, are much better known than their denomination, the United Church of Christ.
The good news is that in recent years, new efforts to understand the IRD, its affiliates, and allies are accompanied by efforts to share that understanding and respond both inside and outside the targeted churches.
The Origins of IRD
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.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.4
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.
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 target the NCC, and the World Council of Churches. For example, interim IRD president Alan Wisdom personally attended the recent World Council of Churches (WCC) meeting in Brazil, issued critical dispatches for the IRD web site, and sound bites for the press.
One Association for Church Renewal (ARC) member group, The Presbyterian Layman, a nationally circulated publication edited by Parker Williamson, has been notable for being particularly caustic and divisive. At a press conference sponsored by ARC in connection with the 50th anniversary meeting of the WCC in Zimbabwe in 1998, Parker declared, for example, “Rhodesian blacks were in no position to run this sophisticated and highly efficient
infrastructure… Theirs had been a tribal life, governed by a worldview that could not easily comprehend ideological assumptions on which the Rhodesian economy was based.”5 Most recently, Williamson joined Alan Wisdom, (a Presbyterian renewal leader), at the WCC meeting in Brazil, from which he posted critical reports in The Presbyterian Layman Online.
Although much of what they do is conducted quietly, arguably covertly, renewal groups pop-up in response to matters they don’t like. For example, the leader of the IRD affiliate, Biblical Witness Fellowship, was outraged at the historic stand taken by elected delegates to last year’s biannual General Synod of the UCC. When the synod voted overwhelmingly to endorse marriage equality for same-sex couples, Rev. David Runion-Bareford declared that the UCC “has arrogantly supposed to speak for God”—and suggested that the UCC was no longer a Christian denomination.
“This resolution does not validate same sex relationships but only invalidates and de-legitimizes the UCC as a religious body,” he said. “We are deeply saddened by this tragic day in the history of our church that once had a faithful witness for Jesus Christ.”6 What he didn’t say was that the resolution was really a recommendation to the individual churches, not a policy. The outspoken Runion-Bareford was widely quoted in the mainstream press before, during, and after the synod.
Mainline or Evangelical?
Afew years ago, the Protestant National Council of Churches, struggling with budget problems and political gridlock, almost shut down. Coincidentally, the 50th anniversary of the NCC came during this still-troubled period. “Rather than a birthday party,” said IRD President Diane Knippers in a March 27, 2001 press release, “the NCC should be given a funeral service.” The release was headlined: “Mainline Reform Leaders Call for Dissolution of the National Council of Churches.” The IRD’s best efforts not withstanding, the NCC has reorganized under the leadership of Rev. Bob Edgar and appears poised to once again be an influential body in public life.
The IRD presented its people as “mainline” reformers in calling for the dissolution of the NCC. But when convenient, it will change clothes and become aligned with the National Association of Evangelicals. For example, in a recent press release, IRD announced: “At the urging of evangelical leaders, including the IRD’s interim president [Alan Wisdom], the National Association of Evangelicals (NAE) has decided NOT to endorse campaigns or legislation regarding global warming.”
Similarly, leaders of IRD and its affiliated Association for Church Renewal hold critical press events at NCC and denominational events —but ARC holds its own annual meeting in tandem with the National Association of Evangelicals.
Divide and Conquer or Denominational Unity?
IRD and its member groups also try to have it both ways when it comes to whether they seek unity or schism, which would split them formally from the main church bodies. While they usually say they favor denominational unity, in fact they have been secretly working for broad scale schism for years. Schisms are not unusual in the history of mainline Protestantism – but such targeted, politically motivated, and externally funded and organized campaigns may be unprecedented in American history.
“The IRD is affiliated with no denomination and is accountable only to its own, self-perpetuating board of directors,” write Andrew Weaver and Nicole Seibert, “[and it] focuses its principal expenditures and most of its efforts on the United Methodist Church.”
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.”7
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.’8
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.9
The public gamesmanship over schisms gets quite interesting. Knippers told the New York Times that liberal Methodists should leave in response to the discord generated by church trials: “Rather than be embroiled in legal battles in church courts over sexuality, let’s find a gracious way to say, ‘we’ll let you (liberals) leave this system because you believe it violates your conscience.’” 10 That gambit didn’t work, however. In 2004, Good News drew up a schism resolution—which it didn’t introduce due to the overwhelming enthusiasm for a unity resolution at the Methodist General Assembly.
A similar schism campaign targeting the Episcopal Church had its origins in 2000. Members of IRD’s American Anglican Council solicited funding for the effort from Howard and Roberta Ahmanson— who had already contributed hundreds of thousands of dollars over the years to IRD.
Bankrolled with more $1 million from the Ahmansons in 2000 and 2001, and with Roberta Ahmanson now on the IRD board, the group eventually targeted the appointment and consecration of the Rt. Rev. Gene Robinson, the Episcopal church’s first bishop to be openly gay when elected. “With its war chest full and its strongest pretext yet for a schism, the group cranked up a smear campaign against Robinson,” Blumenthal wrote, “falsely accusing him of sexual harassment and administering a bisexual pornography Web site.” This encouraged wealthy dioceses and congregations to split with the Episcopal Church and join the Anglican Council’s renegade network.
In September of 2004, IRD quietly organized a campaign to divert funds away from the church and towards “orthodox” Anglican groups. Tom Donnelly, one of the principals of The Jefferson Group, a Washington, DC lobbying firm, personally handled funding solicitations for the “United Anglican Fund” which he and two others incorporated in response the consecration of Bishop Robinson. “Since the goal of the UAF,” wrote IRD staffer Lauren Whitnah, “is to provide a safe mechanism for giving, there are no ties between it and any entity of the Episcopal Church.” By “safe,” she means ensuring that “the funds stay out of the control of hostile dioceses…” and to fund “orthodox” projects “in North America and the world.”11
Since Robinson’s consecration, a number of dioceses affiliated with the Anglican Council have threatened schism and have increasingly aligned themselves with conservative Anglican churches in Africa and Asia. Indeed, Rev. Dr. Stephen Noll, Vice Chancellor of Uganda Christian University, a keynote speaker at a recent conference in South Carolina (“dedicated to the memory of Diane Knippers”) declared, “Liberal Anglicanism is reaping the harvest of unbelief,” and, “The gates of hell will not prevail against His Church…The present order is passing away.”12
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.13 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; statelevel antigay and pro-school voucher ballot initiatives, and funneled millions of dollars into electoral politics in California.
Denominations Emerging from Denial
Mainline denominational leaders who seek to defend their faith and the institutions they lead need to look at the wider context of the internal struggles in which they are engaged. To fail to look beyond individual denominational dissidents is to miss the forest for the trees. The Right aims to march through the institutions it sees as controlled by liberals, disrupt them, or take them over. That means higher education, public schools, and, yes, churches.
Rev. John Thomas, the current president of the United Church of Christ, sees the forest.
“Groups like the Evangelical Association of Reformed, Christian and Congregational Churches and the Biblical Witness Fellowship,” he said last year, “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.”15
Perhaps people will hear Thomas better than they did Avery Post.
Frederick Clarkson is a member of the editorial board of The Public Eye. He is the author of Eternal Hostility: The Struggle Between Theocracy and Democracy, and is co-founder of the blog Talk to Action (www.Talk2Action.org)
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