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The quarter century war of attrition that has been waged by elements of the religious and political right against the mainline Protestant churches in America, has gone largely unchronicled.

To read the mainstream press, you would think that people were so upset about homosexuality that they want to divide their historic churches into little warring camps. But these conflagrations have been far from spontaneous -- and have always been about much, much more than homosexuality.

A magazine article I wrote recently on this subject has just been posted online. The Battle for the Mainline Churches appears in the Spring issue of The Public Eye.

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 1.7 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.

Originally posted to Frederick Clarkson on Thu Mar 30, 2006 at 11:46 AM PST.

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Comment Preferences

  •  This is an ongoing story (10+ / 0-)

    We have made analysis and ongoing reporting on the battle for the mainline churches a major focus at Talk to Action.

    I want to underscore, that even those who are not members of mainline Protestant churches have much at stake in their survival as viable institutions at the center of American life, culture, and politics.

  •  A gentle suggestion. (3+ / 0-)

    I've been reading your diaries for a while. It took me about 9 months to finally sit up and pay attention and trot over to Talk2Action for full immersion. I'm a lapsed reform Jew agnostic, so religion stuff was a 'move along' for me. Now I realize what a mistake that attitude is. The environmental leader's response to troutfishing, as reported in his diary comment this morning shows that even people who are a lot more active politically than I am just don't get it.....at all. Soooo.... There must be another or several other ways for you and your colleagues to offer diaries here that will get more of a discussion going and awaken more of us to this menace.

    SteveG's diary   of this morning may provide another avenue to bring consciousness around to your cause. I was pleasantly surprised by the discussion it generated. You could use similar material to connect the dots to the IRD.

    Another angle could be comparing the NSA/CIFA snooping on peace/church/vegan groups to the 'Hunt For Red Menace' series at Public Eye (which I only discovered this morning, and have no time to read, because I'm about to go out of town).

    Two years ago I remember listening to the Bishop Eugene Robinson coverage on NPR, but have no recollection of any mention of the organized attack on the mainline churches as being behind the ruckus. Maybe a recap of that from your perspective will draw in the GLBT crowd.

    One last note: thanks for posting this during the day!

    •  Thanks for the thoughts (4+ / 0-)
      I dunno tho.

      I have had lots of diaries on the rec list here.  I have been on national televsion and radio, been quoted in major newspapers -- written for them too.  

      At the risk of sounding glib, I tend to think this is mostly a matter of you can lead a horse to water, but you can't make 'em drink.

      One of the hardest things for people to do, is to change. And changing how people relate to the matter of the role of religion in society is a biggie, as it was for you.

      Our side is losing, the short term 2006 election situation not with standing, in very considerable part because we cannot address these things in any kind of a coherent and organized fashion. My diaries come and go like everyone else's. But the general culture is largely unchanged including on this site.

      I am doing what I can.

       

    •  Some thoughts (0+ / 0-)

      I appreciate these diaries very much, but I too would like to see more people aware of what is going on.  The thing is, those who do not participate in organized religion do not see the attack on mainline churches as having much to do with them. I think they are wrong about that.

      From my own experience, I've seen that some of those involved in the so-called religious right are motivated by political, economic, and social agendas rather than by their religious convictions.  I've suspected that this is not an isolated phenomenon, but I've had no proof of that.  Your diaries help to reveal a larger pattern of organized activity, but it's still going to seem like inside baseball to many folks.

      However, kossaks are good at connecting the dots and following the money.  By tapping into that strength, we who are concerned about the attack on the mainline churches might get some valuable new insights -- as might those who think what's happening with the churches has little relevance to the issues they care about.

      Do you have information about how gaining control of churches allows the so-called religious right to redirect the financial resources of those churches in ways that have social or political consequences?  If so, what about doing a diary on it with a title like "The Right-Wing's New Cash Machine" and including in that diary a request for help from bloggers to do additional digging and connecting of the dots?

      I used to live in the United States of America. Now I live in a homeland.

      by homeland observer on Thu Mar 30, 2006 at 01:18:10 PM PST

      [ Parent ]

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