Wednesday, April 30, 2008

The IRD and Its Connection to the UMC: Research Conclusions

So, I can’t yet relinquish the Institute for Religion and Democracy (IRD) and its attempt to control the United Methodist Church’s path in the 21st century. This subject fascinates me for all kinds of reasons—autobiographical, theological, scholarly.

And so, more ruminations and research . . . . In what follows, I want to offer two sets of reflections on the IRD and its attempted takeover of the future of United Methodism:

  1. Some conclusions about IRD and its connection to contemporary Methodism;
  2. And some totally unsolicited suggestions, from a theologian sympathetic to but outside the Wesleyan tradition, whose life experience has multiple connections to Methodism, about how the United Methodist Church might better withstand such attacks from political pressure groups in the future.

I’ll offer these in a diptych of postings, so that readers who have the patience to wade through either of them won’t be worn out or forced to read material that doesn’t capture their attention, in case they are interested in one rather than the other topic.

IRD and Its Connection to Contemporary Methodism

As I continue researching the IRD and its attempt to control the conversation within contemporary Methodism, I find that researchers repeatedly confirm a pattern I tracked (also citing research) in my two previous postings. The IRD employs techniques including the following to try to infiltrate worldwide Methodism and eliminate the social witness of the United Methodist Church:

Stealth and behind-the-scenes manipulation;

Attempts to co-opt the progressive social agenda of United Methodism, to represent itself as genuinely concerned about inclusivity and social justice (when it’s not), as a divide-and-conquer way of setting Methodist progressives against those resisting the Social Principles;

Disingenuous profession of support for token representatives of some marginalized groups, coupled with unethical use of money to consolidate the loyalty of those groups (e.g., Christians of the global South, people of color, women), while setting these groups against other marginalized groups (e.g., LGBT people) to produce a schism that the IRD seeds, at the same time that it predicts schism if the UMC becomes truly inclusive of LGBT people;

Illicit use of dirty money to play hard-ball political games within UMC institutions by bullying institutions that try to fulfill the Social Principles with threats of cutting off funding sources influenced by IRD and its donors;

Deliberate dissemination of lies and misinformation to seed and exploit discontent among groups who have or believe that they have marginal status within the UMC—in particular, dissemination of lies and misinformation in well-funded stealth campaigns targeting Methodists of the global South, to engender suspicion of and contempt for LGBT believers and their allies in the global North, as well as resistance to women’s leadership in the church;

▪ Through this well-funded disinformation campaign, an attempt to create a poisonous intra-ecclesial climate in which the truth is systemically distorted, such that plain truth is so consistently pitched against outright lies, that people both within and outside the church are led to believe that the truth is somewhere between the lie and the plain truth;

Adroit dissemination of media soundbites to ill-informed (and sometimes either lazy or corrupt) media sources to aid and abet the creation of a climate of systemic distortion of the truth within the church;

Attempts to poison the traditional Wesleyan method of democratic consensus in decision making and of holy conferencing via such systemic distortion of the truth, in which outright lies set a spurious boundary for conversation, so that the church is kept forever in a situation of stasis between a false alternative and a viable one—and so that the UMC cannot move forward with its mission and ministry in the 21st century.

The following are some useful sources I’ve just discovered, documenting the points above:

Andrew J. Weaver, et al., “IRD/Good News: How the Right Wing Targets United Methodist Women” (17 Nov. 2005), noted that the IRD has made adroit use of United Methodist church membership mailing lists sent to it over the years (often illicitly) by members of individual churches (see, citing D. Stanley and M. Tooley, 1999 “Letter to United Methodists,” UMAction).

In 2004, when Republican Party operatives used this technique in the presidential campaign, it was roundly criticized as unethical by 10 leading professors of ethics, including evangelicals such as the Rev. George G. Hunter III of Asbury Theological Seminary and Richard V. Pierard of Gordon College (citing A. Cooperman, “Pastors Issue Directive in Response to Reelection Tactic, Washington Post, 18 August 2004).

IRD claims, in fact, to have the largest mailing list in the UMC, with a declared goal of eventually obtaining a million church member addresses (citing M. Tooley, “UMAction Briefing,” Spring 2005).

An exceptionally useful resource site maintained by a United Methodist minister, Rev. Steven D. Martin, who is Executive Director of Vital Visions Incorporated, at, further documents the use of unethical stealth tactics by the IRD to take over local and international structures of the UMC.

Rev. Martin reports that his concerns about the activity of the IRD within local Conferences stems from an incident that occurred at an Annual Conference meeting of his own Conference, the Holston Conference, at which the IRD sought to elect slates of candidates sympathetic to it and its goals to control the Conference. On one occasion a Sunday School class within the Conference presented the Holston Conference with resolutions lifted verbatim from the IRD website—but with no acknowledgement of their source.

Martin also notes that the Coalition for United Methodist Accountability (CUMA), an organization comprised of the IRD, Good News, and the Confessing Movement, has joined to finance legal expenses for five individuals who are seeking to control the General Board on Church and Society’s (GBCS) use of the United Methodist Building Endowment Fund. This follows a vote at the 2004 General Conference that defeated a resolution “to cripple the financing and mission” of GBCS.

According to Martin, the five individuals filing suit have only a tenuous connection to the GBCS, and all were recruited and are being funded by Mark Tooley, Director of the IRD’s UMAction, and/or his law firm in Arlington, Virginia, Gammon and Grange—though several of the litigants have stated that they do not know how their legal action is being financed. One of the litigants, John Patton Meadows, has admitted in a deposition that he had received confidential legal documents belonging to the GBCS prior to or during the 2004 General Conference.

Martin concludes that the IRD functions as a strategy center, not as a renewal group; in Weaver’s view, the “IRD is a secular-funded right-wing political organization unaffiliated with any church.”

Martin’s site contains links to resolutions of two Annual Conferences about the IRD and its activities, both of which appear to have been brought to the 2008 General Conference. One of these resolutions was passed by the 2007 NY Annual Conference.

Based on its assessment of the activities of the IRD within the United Methodist Church, the NY Annual Conference concludes that the IRD agenda is “to effectively eliminate the UMC’s social witness,” and the IRD distorts and is not grounded in authentic Wesleyan theology and its vision of the church.

Based on its observation of the activities of IRD, the NY Annual Conference Resolution judges that IRD uses “hardball tactics” within the UMC to accomplish the following: using controversial issues, including homosexuality, as wedge issues; seeking to drive out persons they do not agree with, including calls for liberals to leave the church; misrepresenting their distorted, inflammatory, sensationalized, and sometimes deceptive commentaries as factual news accounts of issues and events in the Church in a way intended to mislead and manipulate their audience; and using a piece written by Mark Tooley to attack the 2006 session of the New York Annual Conference and characterize it as “more like a rally than a church convention.”

Condemning “the hardball, deceptive and divisive tactics of the Institute on Religion and Democracy and its UMAction Committee,” the NY Annual Conference resolution calls on “all United Methodists not to support the IRD and to reject the agenda it works to impose on the UMC and the tactics it uses to advance them.” The resolution also asks the “IRD to disband its UMAction committee and cease its efforts to impose its agenda on the UMC.”

In similar fashion, based on its dealings with and observation of the IRD, the Desert Southwest Annual Conference asks the 2008 General Assembly to accept a report prepared for its 2003 Annual Conference, which found that “the agendas of the Institute on Religion and Democracy and its subcommittee UM Action, were inconsistent with the mission, nature, and theology of the United Methodist Church.”

The Desert Southwest Conference also calls on the GBCS to create and distribute study materials on the IRD, its agenda and tactics, for the use of all United Methodist Annual Conferences, as well as the Council of Bishops, the Commission on the Status and Role of Women, the National Council of Churches of Christ, and the World Council of Churches.

The unholy financial alliances of IRD and its affiliates are well-researched by Andrew J. Weaver et al. in an article I cited in a comment on my blog yesterday--the 11 Aug. 2006 "Neocon Catholics Target Mainline Protestants" (see Weaver notes that the founders of IRD are “paid political operatives who work ceaselessly to discredit mainline Protestant leaders and their Christian communions” (my emphasis; citing S. Swecker, Hard Ball on Holy Ground, 2005; and Weaver et al., “The Radical Right Assault on Mainline Protestantism and the National Council of Churches of Christ,” Talk to Action, 2005).

Weaver notes that prominent Catholic leaders who have had key leadership roles within IRD—including Richard John Neuhaus, Michael Novak, George Weigel, Mary Ellen Bork, and Mary Ann Glendon—“confer their prestige and considerable power to encourage right-wing donors to finance IRD" (my emphasis). In his assessment, these neoconservative political leaders are “key links to the patrons of IRD,” who include Richard Mellon Scaife, Howard Ahmanson, and the Bradley, Coors, Smith-Richardson, Randolph, and Olin Foundations (citing (Media Transparency, “The Money Behind Conservative Media: Funders,” 2006).

As Weaver points out, Michael Novak, who is a co-founder of IRD, has been “a well-paid activist at the American Enterprise Institute (AEI) for more than two decades” (my emphasis). Other influential figures at AEI include Lynne Cheney and Newt Gingrich. According to Weaver, between 1985 and 2004, AEI received $42,342,101—largely from right-wing funders. In the same time frame, Novak received $1,527,397 from the Olin and Bradley foundations (citing Media Transparency, “The Money Behind the Media: American Enterprise Institute,” 2006).

According to Weaver, between 1985 and 2004, the Ethics and Public Policy Center, where George Weigel is a key player, received $12, 535, 574—largely from the same people who fund IRD (citing Media Transparency, “The Money Behind the Media: Ethics and Public Policy Center,” 2006).

In Weaver’s judgment, “All of these benefactors have a common political aim, which is to neutralize and overturn the social justice tradition of mainline Protestant churches because they are in tension with unfettered capitalism” (citing National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy, “Conservative Foundations Prevail in Shaping Public Policies,” 1997; Swecker, Hard Ball, 2005; and F. Clarkson, “The Battle for the Mainline Churches,”Public Eye Magazine, Spring 2006).

Dirty money, dirty goals, and dirty tactics: Weaver notes that the IRD has used its power, its influence with wealthy right-wing donors, and its media connections, to smear and disseminate rumors about (among others) Archbishop Desmond Tutu; Rev. Jim Wallis; Rabbi Michael Lerner; Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams; Bishop Mark Hanson, Presiding Bishop of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, etc.

Weaver’s “IRD/Good News: How the Right Wing Targets United Methodist Women” (cited above) documents the IRD’s dissemination of outright lies about gay people—a tactic that has earned the IRD “the endorsement and encouragement of a terrorist group, the American White Knights of the Klu Klux Klan(my emphasis; citing “KKK kkk Ku Klux Klan jew Jew kkk KKK Judaism,” Queers on Fire, 2005; F. Clark, “Krusaders for Krist’s Kingdom, Slacktivist Weblog, 2005; and C. Currie, “Ku Klux Klan Joins Republican Party, Aligned with Institute on Religion and Democracy in Protesting Church Conference,” 2005).

Weaver notes as well that the website of the IRD-affiliate Good News/RENEW links to the website of the Un-Official Confessing Movement (which invites disgruntled United Methodists to leave the church and take UMC property with them), on which materials making bogus claims linking Nazism to homosexuality appear. Specifically, the Confessing website cites the Pink Triangle, which falsely claims that the Nazi party was controlled by gays (though Nazism executed thousands of gay people).

These claims are characterized by Stephen Feinstein, Director of the Center for Holocaust and Genocide Studies at the University of Minnesota, as akin to flat-earth science. Feinstein attributes these lies about the connection of Nazism to homosexuality to “a right-wing Christian cult” (citing S. Feinstein, “Letters from Readers,” Star Tribune, Minneapolis, 20 March 2003).

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