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The recent smear of prominent Christian journalist Cynthia Astle by a staffer at the nefarious Institute on Religion and Democracy was a stark reminder that the war of attrition against the historic mainline Protestant churches, continues. It was also a reminder that there is more to the story than the culture war and other controversies at summer meetings of The Episcopal Church, the United Methodist Church, the Presbyterian Church USA, and the United Church of Christ.  

For example, Rev. Jim Tonkowich -- who had never even been a member of one of the churches IRD trollishly claims it wants to "renew" -- nevertheless served as the organization's president from 2006-2009.  Tonkowich, then a member of a schismatic evangelical Presbyterian sect -- who ran covert and not so covert campaigns to foment division and discord in the mainline churches which he characterized at the time as marked by "division, polarization, and discord" -- has now become a Catholic. What's more, he now says that the best way for Protestant Churches to solve their problems is to also become Catholic.  (Unsurprisingly, IRD still promotes Tonkowich as an "expert" to the media.)  

IRD's quarter century campaign to neutralize the social justice witness of the mainline churches has been largely underwritten (PDF) by the same conservative foundations that brought us such institutions as the Heritage Foundation, the neo-conservative Ethics and Public Policy Center, and The American Spectator.  The churches had earned the ire of conservative interests through their principled and growing opposition to the excesses of American foreign and military  policies, as well as those of major corporations; and advocacy of the civil rights of African Americans, women and increasingly LGTBQ people.  Unsurprisingly, a coalition of rightist elements have sought for decades to displace the mainline churches from the center of American culture.

Early in his tenure, as president of IRD, Tonkowich published a revealing sneer in the neo-conservative magazine, The Weekly Standard (the executive editor of which, Fred Barnes, is and was a member of the IRD board.)

For those who are shocked by the crack-up of the Episcopal Church, let me explain:  The answer was on a T-shirt I saw last month while traveling to the Presbyterian Church USA General Assembly in Birmingham and the Episcopal Church General Convention in Columbus.  It read, "I'm Making It Up As I Go."  Exactly.
One of the differences between the historic Protestant churches and the Roman Catholic Church is that they are democratic institutions that elect their leaders and set their course through democratic processes.  Of course, the success of any democratic institution depends on people's commitment to democratic processes, and their respect for democratic outcomes.  But they are always also vulnerable to anti-democratic interests intent on undermining the integrity of both the process and the targeted institutions themselves.

IRD's sustained attack on the mainline churches has been led by outside interests including top American Catholic neo-conservatives.  They have certainly wreaked the havoc they sought:  Dividing denominations against themselves; pitting Christians against Christians, and contributing to the decline of these churches as a constructive presence in American public life.

The brazenness has sometimes been astounding, but that does not mean that IRD has been entirely oblivious that the leadership role of prominent Roman Catholics in a campaign to "reform" Protestant churches, can be a sensitive matter.

In one remarkable episode the name of a Catholic convert named Dr. J. Budziszewski was quickly scrubbed from IRD web site following the 2006 expose by the late Methodist minister, Rev. Dr. Andrew Weaver et al on the leadership role of prominent Catholic neo-cons at IRD. Budziszewski chaired the IRD board.  

One of the most troubling aspects of the IRD is that, while powerful figures in the right-wing of the Roman Catholic church have been among its leaders from its inception, there is no program, staff or budget for changing the Catholic church. There are only programs, staff and budget for changing Protestant churches (IRD, 2005).  According to their IRS filings, the IRD's millions have been spent to change the NCCC and several of its constituent churches (GuideStar, 2005).   At the same time, 6 of the 17 current members of the board of directors, a full (35 percent), are prominent conservative Catholics. They include founders Father Richard John Neuhaus (American Enterprise Institute) and Michael Novak (The Institute on Religion and Public Life) along with Robert P. George (Professor, Princeton University), George Weigel (Ethics and Public Policy Center)  Mary Ellen Bork (wife of Judge Robert Bork) and the chair of the board, and J. Budziszewski (Professor, University of Texas at Austin) (IRD, 2005).  This double standard of selecting only Protestant organizations and churches for change was challenged by a distinguished Catholic leader Msgr. George G. Higgins (Christianity and Crisis, 1984).  He served on the executive staff for the National Conference of Catholic Bishops from 1944 to 1980 and was Director of their Social Action Department, 1954-1967.  Msgr. Higgins was honored with the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest civilian honor, and with the University of Notre Dame's Laetare Medal as a tireless champion of the labor movement in the Roman Catholic Church (United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, 2002).  

In 1984, Msgr. Higgins was quoted as saying that the IRD's leaders "undoubtedly know that numerous non-Marxist Catholic leaders in the third world, including a number of cardinals and bishops, are, if anything even more `radical' than some of their counterparts in the WCC and the NCC (Christianity and Crisis, 1984). He asked why the IRD had refrained from attacking the Catholic Church whose social teachings were radical by IRD standards. He said "under the guise of defending democracy" the IRD was in danger of "becoming a partisan apologist for a conservative or neoconservative brand of American-style free enterprise ...." (Christianity and Crisis, 1984).

Current Catholics on the board include Thomas F. Farr of the Berkley Center for Religion, Peace, and World Affairs; Graham Walker, president of Patrick Henry College; and William L. Saunders, vice president of Americans United for Life.  They join a group, still comprising mostly evangelicals and relentlessly schismatic mainline Protestants, some of whom have already left the targeted denominations; some of whom are still working from the inside.

The war of attrition against the mainline Protestant churches, continues.

Crossposted from Talk to Action

Originally posted to Street Prophets on Sun Jun 02, 2013 at 07:00 PM PDT.

Also republished by Pro Choice.

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