Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Further Digging: The UMC and the IRD

After yesterday’s posting about the activities of the Institute on Religion and Democracy (IRD) re: the United Methodist Church, I’ve been digging. I’m trying to resist saying that I’ve been digging in the dirt, but that’s surely what it feels like, the more I inform myself about the IRD.

First, it’s important to note that the IRD is overtly political. It’s “Republican-party aligned” and was organized and funded by Republican operatives. According to United Church of Christ minister Mark Curry in an article entitled “Mark Tooley’s Election-Year Lies” (28 July 2006),

Tooley's IRD was set-up and is funded by voices in the Republican Party that hope to undermine the mainline Christian tradition of prophetically speaking out on issues of war, peace and economic justice. God is not a Republican or a Democrat, as Jim Wallis likes to say, but IRD confuses the Gospel message with the Republican Party platform on each and every issue—see http://chuckcurrie.blogs.com/chuck_currie/2006/07/mark_tooleys_el.html.

Mark Tooley is Director of the IRD’s UMAction committee. As his biography on the IRD website notes (see www.theird.org), prior to joining IRD, Tooley worked eight years for the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). In addition to serving as Director of UMAction, Tooley serves as a board member of Good News, part of the cluster of well-organized right-wing pressure groups within the United Methodist Church involved in the distribution of cell-phones to African delegates at this year’s General Conference.

Tooley’s CIA ties, and his lack of theological training, are noted in a 16 May 2006 article entitled “Hardball Tactics, The Mainline and IRD” by Christian Century writer Jason Byassee (www.christiancentury.org/article.lasso?id=2060). The article is a review and discussion of Steven Swecker’s Hard Ball on Holy Ground: The Religious Right v. the Mainline for the Church’s Soul.

Byassee’s analysis of Mark Tooley’s overt political agenda and lack of theological background is incisive. He asks,

And precisely who is Mark Tooley to pass such judgment on the Methodist Council of Bishops? A former CIA operative with no formal theological training. Journalists often use Tooley's material when they report on church squabbles, since he offers a "conservative" soundbite to balance the bishops' "liberal" voice.

Byassee notes that since its founding by neo-conservative Republican political operatives, IRD “has been monitoring mainline churches for political statements that are out of step with the views of rank-and-file members.” It focuses primarily on the United Methodist Church, the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) and the Episcopal Church.

In its attempt to curb the use of scripture and traditional social teachings within these churches to critique contemporary American culture (and, in particular, conservative American political leaders), the IRD has previously “operated largely under the radar.” One of its most persistent tactics is the sending of unsolicited mailings to members of the three targeted religious groups, seeking to spread discontent with the direction the denominations have taken, insofar as it diverges from the Republican political agenda.

When the United Methodist bishops spoke out against the Iraq War, Tooley immediately sent faxes to the mainstream media, including Christian Century, attacking the bishops for meddling in political matters beyond their purview. As noted previously, the IRD has been very successful at seeding right-wing soundbites in the mainstream media. For some time now, these have dominated mainstream-media coverage of the activities of leading U.S. churches, and have allowed IRD operatives to suggest that their right-wing attack on the United Methodist, Episcopalian, and Presbyterian churches is an attempt to “balance” the “activism” of such churches.

According to Byassee, Swecker’s Hard Ball on Holy Ground exposes the thick connections between IRD, with its attempt to control the mainline churches in the U.S., and funders including Richard Mellon Scaife, Howard and Roberta Ahmanson, and the John Birch Society. The Ahmansons have expressed support for a “Christian Reconstructionist” agenda that would impose Levitical law on America. In the view of Hard Ball on Holy Ground, “the bottom line [of such IRD funders] is support for neoconservative economic policy, by which they mean the shredding of governmental regulation of business and of any social safety net, as well as the elimination of almost all taxation.”

I take this to mean that the real concern of IRD and its funders is not the church’s theology, per se, or ethical questions like the place of gay and lesbian persons in church and society. The real bottom line is money. And that makes the callous, cynical, calculated use of the real lives of real gay human beings in the money- and power-oriented agenda of the IRD all the more cruel and unjustifiable. How can any Christians accept such dirty money, or buy into an agenda that in any way justifies the IRD as yet another among many competing voices that can claim authenticity in Christian debates?

Byassee concludes that, “[t]he IRD's tactics often seem based more on Tooley's CIA experience than on Christian behavior.” To illustrate the point, he cites a section of Swecker's book which notes that, at the retirement dinner of United Methodist Bishop Joseph Sprague, a favorite target of the IRD, Mark Tooley’s assistant John Lomperis showed up to tape record comments and snap pictures of all participants.

Mark Tooley’s CIA background, his use of CIA-style tactics in his position as Director of UMAction, and the deep pocket-funding that supports the covert activities of the IRD, are also noted in a 28 April press release of Reconciling Ministries about General Conference (see www.generalconference2008.org/2008/04/united-methodis.html). This press release notes that according to a 25 February 25 2004, investigative report by Matt Smith in the San Francisco Weekly, the IRD had spent up to $4 million by that year in financing conservative political groups within the three denominations it has targeted.

The reference to John Lomperis in Jason Byassee’s article is fascinating to me, since, in tracking the ties of the Florida UMC bishop with whom I have had dealings—Bishop Timothy Whitaker—to the IRD, I find that in November 2007, Bishop Whitaker gave an interview to Mr. Lomperis. The interview is on the IRD website at www.theird.org/NETCOMMUNITY/Page.aspx?pid=295&srcid=183. The IRD (along with a number of the affiliate right-wing groups in the United Methodist Church) have published and promoted Bishop Whitaker's work, including a letter he wrote critiquing Bishop Sprague for his political activities as a bishop.

It is interesting to note that, in the interview, Bishop Whitaker offers criticisms of the cultural captivity of progressive Christians very similar to those set forth in his essay on homosexuality and the church. In my open letter to Bishop Whitaker posted on this blog at http://bilgrimage.blogspot.com/2008/04/open-letter-to-bishop-timothy-w_16.html, I note my concern with the Bishop Whitaker’s suggestion that, in defending the full inclusion of gay and lesbian human beings in the church and acknowledging the full humanity of these brothers and sisters in Christ, the church is capitulating to cultural norms.

In my view, precisely the opposite is the case. In seeking to defend LGBT believers against social oppression that is widespread—and can result in loss of jobs for no reason other than one’s sexual orientation, in housing and employment discrimination, in being turned away from a hospital where one’s partner is receiving treatment, or in manifold forms of violence—in seeking to defend LGBT human beings against such widespread social oppression, the church is speaking a countercultural word of hope and salvation to the culture at large.

Because I believe that the church pays a price—the price of costly grace—in standing with the oppressed, including LGBT persons, I am not convinced by Bishop Whitaker’s argument in his IRD interview with Mr. Lomperis. Bishop Whitaker states,

My main concern with a lot of the voices of progressive Christianity is the quality of the theological discourse that comes from them. They seem to presuppose that certain assumptions embedded in modern Western societies and cultures represent reality, and they don’t recognize how ethno-centric those assumptions can be. And then they think that the purpose of theology is to express in religious form the presuppositions of the culture. There doesn’t seem to be a seriousness of theological purpose in their discourse. And I think that that makes it difficult for others to take their thinking as seriously as they would like.

I’m sorry to say so, but something in this argument seems a bit disingenuous to me. Both here and in his essay on the church and homosexuality, Bishop Whitaker asks for serious theological dialogue about issues such as homosexuality.

Once again, I have to ask Bishop Whitaker in response to this suggestion: How can serious theological dialogue about homosexuality occur in the United Methodist Church when openly gay believers are not invited to the table at General Conference?

How can serious theological dialogue about homosexuality occur in the United Methodist Church when openly gay employees, including theologians, do not have job security in United Methodist institutions?

How can serious theological dialogue about homosexuality occur in the United Methodist Church when openly gay employees can be fired without job evaluations, in United Methodist institutions that have no stated non-discrimination policies, in right-to-work states that permit at-will firing?

After reading Bishop Whitaker’s interview with Mark Tooley’s assistant John Lomperis, I can understand a bit better some of the issues at stake in my unjust firing at a United Methodist institution

When a group such as IRD is so well-funded by powerful wealthy donors who have access to political power as well, it takes courage and conviction for church institutions to stand up to power, to speak truth to power. There is a price to be paid when the church refuses to dance with the devil. That price is the path of costly grace. Where money is involved, where dirty money coalesces with behind-the-scenes power grabs, discipleship is costly.

But it is only when the church speaks out of the experience of costly discipleship that it will be heard. In his interview with John Lomperis, Bishop Whitaker addresses one of the pet themes of the IRD and other religious conservatives: the purported demise of mainstream Christian churches.

In the view of Lomperis et al., the churches are in decline because they have not held a countercultural position regarding “traditional values.” Lomperis, Tooley, and their allies including Bishop Whitaker, propose that returning the churches to “traditional” gospel stances on family life, marriage, and so forth will cause people to stream back to the mainline churches.

In my view, such theological and sociological analysis of the departure of many young people from the churches today is misplaced—it is flatly wrong. Young people today are leaving the churches because they do not see the churches standing courageously for human rights in the cultural contexts in which the churches find themselves, at this point in history.

The churches could do nothing more prophetic today, nothing more countercultural, than to invite everyone to their table. If the churches abolished the lesser table and provided unambiguous witness to the unity and welcome of all believers, including LGBT believers, around the one table of the Lord, they would speak a clear, unambiguous word to culture that would, in my view, do much to rehabilitate the churches among younger church members.

Why keep telling this story, harping on these themes? Thirst for retribution? Unrighteous rage?

I hope not, though those whom the churches treat with the conspicuous injustice often doled out to LGBT human beings will hunger and thirst for justice. It is human (and I would suggest, holy as well) to do so—and in doing so, to include in one’s quest for justice all those to whom one is linked in the experience of injustice.

No, I keep speaking out not because I want retribution, but because I have to do so. It is only in telling our stories that we re-claim our humanity, when that humanity is denied in acts of gross injustice. We have no choice to speak except from where we’ve been placed.

My experience at the United Methodist university

has become the starting point for my attempt to unravel the plot of a portion of my own life narrative, insofar as that narrative now intersects with Bishop 's

life, with the life of his church, with the life of the university

We are called as followers of the Christ to ponder our lives as stories of grace, to make sense of them in light of the gospel.

When we are subjected to injustice, particularly by institutions that profess to value justice, we try in every way possible to understand: to read, to research, to deliberate—to make sense of the gross injustice we have experienced. Many of us eventually arrive at the conclusion that our experiences of pain and dispossession at the hands of the church are actually gifts, opportunities to give witness—to the saving love of a God who despises no one, and who, in particular, embraces the least among us; and to the power of the gospel proclaimed by the church, when the church refuses to sell its soul to the wealthy and powerful, and when it looks at its cultural world not through their eyes but through the eyes of the dispossessed.

We keep on keeping on, from where the church has placed us. And we eventually discover that this place, and our stories, are full of grace, despite the church’s refusal to recognize this grace.


colkoch said...

Bill, thanks for all the info in the last two posts about the workings of the IRD. As I was reading through these posts I couldn't help but reflect back on the work I did researching right wing Catholic groups like Opus Dei, the Legionaires, and the Knights of Malta. In every single case one winds up with CIA or MI6 connections, and tons and tons of money.

It now appears the world wide spokesman for these reactionary agendas in the world of ecumenism will be Tony Blair. Once bought, always bought.

William D. Lindsey said...

Colleen, you're pointing to an important connection. The political ties between right-wing believers in these mainline Protestant churches and the Catholic church are exceptionally strong. Both are in the pocket of the same funders, who have the same political agendas.

The IRD website makes a lot of the "ecumenical" consensus that the organization supposedly reflects. Founding figures and board members who loom large in IRD include prominent Republican neocon Catholics such as Richard John Neuhaus, Michael Novak, George Weigel, Mary Bork, and Mary Ann Glendon.

As Andrew Weaver says in a 2006 article entitled "Neocon Catholics Target Mainline Protestants," "Fewer still realize that these Catholics direct a group of paid political operatives who work ceaselessly to discredit mainline Protestant leaders and their Christian communions (Swecker, 2005; Weaver et al, 2005). The Washington-based think tank that they lead is the Institute on Religion and Democracy (IRD - website)" (see www.mediatransparency.org/story.php?storyID=142.

Weaver notes, "These prominent Catholics confer their prestige and considerable power to encourage right-wing donors to finance IRD. They are key links to the patrons of IRD which include Richard Mellon Scaife, Howard Ahmanson and the Bradley, Coors, Smith-Richardson, Randolph, and Olin foundations with whom these Neoconservative Catholics have had a long working relationship (Media Transparency, 2006a)."

As he also maintains, "All of these benefactors have a common political aim (National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy, 1997), which is to neutralize and overturn the social justice tradition of mainline Protestant churches because they are in tension with unfettered capitalism (Swecker, 2005; Clarkson, 2006)."

Dirty money, dirty goals: as a Catholic, I am deeply ashamed of these folks. At our best, our tradition transcends all political alliances, and never apotheosizes one political option. At its best, it shows a preferential concern for the downtrodden, and does not cozy up to the rich and famous of the world when those folks oppress the poor.

I find E.J. Dionne a far more attractive spokesperson for the political significance of the Catholic tradition. As he notes in Souled Out, “The culture war exploits our discontents. The task of politics is to heal them” (p. 70).

That's Catholicism at its best. That's authentic Christianity.