Episcopal Newspaper Exposes Rightwing Agencies Email Print

The Washington Window, the newspaper of the Episcopal Diocese of Washington has joined a growing number of publications inside and outside mainline Christianity to publish exposes of the efforts of rightist agencies to destabilize the historic mainline Protestant churches in the U.S.  

The two-part series by former Washington Post and New York Times reporter James Naughton examines, according to a press release, the network of conservative groups, "their donors and the strategy that has allowed them to destabilize the Episcopal Church.... The groups represent a small minority of church members, but relationships with wealthy American donors and powerful African bishops have made them key players in the fight for the future of the Anglican Communion "to warn deputies that they must repent of their liberal attitudes on homosexuality or face a possible schism."

The expose, which demonstrates the unambiguous motives of rightwing activists to foment a permanent schism in the Episcopal Church in the U.S. and in the world Anglican Communion, comes in the run-up to the American church's annual meeting in Columbus, Ohio in June.

In a feature article in the current issue of The Public Eye magazine, I reported that the war of attrition against the mainline churches, bankrolled with millions of dollars from rightwing foundations, has been underway for a generation. The targeted churches include the major member denominations of the  National Council of Churches and the World Council of Churches, (international ecumenical agencies that have also been under attack), inclding the Episcopal Church, the United Methodist Church and the Presbyterian Church (USA). Smaller denominations, notably the United Church of Christ, have also been systematically undermined from within by a network of self-described "renewal" groups associated or aligned with the Washington-based Institute on Religion and Democracy, the hub of the network.  

In that article, I offer a wider context for the battles of the churches, each of which can seem like the most arcane matters of inside baseball to many or reduced simply to issues of homosexuality to others, as is often the case in the media.

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.... 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.

The mainline churches affiliated with the NCC, are among the bulwarks standing in the way of the theocratic agenda of much of the religious right, as I detail in Eternal Hostility:  The Struggle Between Theocracy and Democracy. These churches not only favor of separation of church and state, but it is important to recall that leading members of these historic churches were overwhelmingly, the men who wrote the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. Reflective of this democratic tradition they helped to shape, these churches maintain highly democratic internal systems of governance that are being abused by outside politically motivated agencies covertly bent on the destruction of the churches themselves. The difference between these churches, and those preferred by the powerful funders of the right, is underscored by the role of philanthropist Howard Ahmanson, a major funder of Christian Right organization such as James Dobson's Focus on the Family, as well as explicitly theocratic projects, notably the seminal think tank of Christian Reconstructionism, the Chalcedon Foundation on whose board he sat for many years, while contributing a reported $1 million.

Naughton's series will be published on Monday, May 1, but is already available online.  

The press release states:  

The first part of the series, "Investing in Upheaval," draws on Internal Revenue Service Forms 990 to give a partial account of how contributions from Howard F. Ahmanson, Jr., the savings and loan heir, and five secular foundations have energized resistance to the Episcopal Church's decision to consecrate an openly gay bishop and to permit the blessing of gay and lesbian relationships.
The article sets contributions to organizations such as the American Anglican Council (AAC) and the Institute on Religion and Democracy (IRD) in the context of the donors' other philanthropic activities which include support for conservative political candidates, think tanks and causes such as the intelligent design movement.

The second article, "A Global Strategy," uses internal emails and memos from leaders of the AAC and IRD to examine efforts to have the Episcopal Church removed from the worldwide Anglican Communion and replaced with a more conservative entity. The documents surfaced during a Pennsylvania court case. The article also explores the financial relationship between conservative organizations in the United States and their allies in other parts of the world.

Here are a few excerpts from Following the Money:

Since the 1970s, charitable foundations established by families with politically conservative views have donated billions of dollars to what the National Committee on Responsive Philanthropy, a watchdog group, has called "an extraordinary effort to reshape politics and public policy priorities at the national, state and local level."

Five foundations are of special note for the magnitude of their donations to political and religious organizations. They are: the Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation; the Adolph Coors Foundation; the John M. Olin Foundation, which ceased operations last year; the Smith-Richardson Trust and the Scaife Family Foundations. Much of the foundations' largesse supports institutions and individuals active in public policy, including think tanks such as the Heritage Foundation, the American Enterprise Institute and the Hoover Institute and individuals such as William Bennett, Charles Murray ( The Bell Curve ) and Dinesh D'Souza ( The End of Racism ).
However, the foundations' activities also extend into the nation's churches-particularly its mainline Protestant churches. The foundations have provided millions of dollars to the IRD 2 which, in a fundraising appeal in 2000, said it sought to "restructure the permanent governing structure" of "theologically flawed" Protestant denominations and to "discredit and diminish the Religious Left's influence."

The IRD was established in 1981 by neo-conservative intellectuals hoping to counter the liberal public policy agendas of the National and World Councils of Christian Churches.

When the General Convention of the Episcopal Church meets in Columbus next month it will do so in a politically charged atmosphere, created in some measure by conservative organizations supported by a small number of wealthy donors.

Filings made by several of these organizations give a partial accounting of the donations received and expenditures made by the AAC, INFEMIT and the IRD. But the groups do not observe the standards of transparency and accountability practiced by the Episcopal Church and its dioceses, whose budgets must be approved in public meetings by elected representatives. Nor are the groups or their donors required to give a fuller accounting of their transactions, as would be the case in secular U. S. politics.
In addition, two key conservative organizations, the Ekklesia Society and the Anglican Communion Network, are not required to file Forms 990 because they are classified as religious institutions.

As a result, the bishops and deputies to General Convention will be left to guess at the intentions and resources of the American conservatives and bishops from the developing world who are pressing the Church to change its course or pay a price.

The Dromantine Retreat and Conference Center , a 19th Italianate mansion sits in stony isolation on a hilltop outside Newry , Northern Ireland . The center is home to a Catholic seminary, but it played host to a distinctively Protestant drama in February 2005. For five days, the Primates of the Anglican Communion assembled in its meagerly-furnished meeting rooms to determine whether the 77-million member body could be preserved despite bitter disagreements over homosexuality.

For the previous 15 months, the leaders of several conservative Episcopal organizations had been working secretly with their allies among the primates to remove the Episcopal Church from the Communion for consecrating a gay man with a male partner as bishop and permitting the blessing of same-sex relationships. Failing that, they aimed to establish a parallel American province for Episcopalians who differed with their Church on the nature of same-sex relationships.

At the Dromantine conference, the Americans and their international allies collaborated with an unprecedented openness, in an attempt to force Rowan Williams, the Archbishop of Canterbury, to take a harder line against the Episcopal Church.
Among the primates who backed this effort were Peter Akinola of Nigeria , Henry Orombi of Uganda and Gregory Venables of Argentina . Working with them were the leaders of the American Anglican Council, the Anglican Communion Network, the Ekklesia Society and the Institute on Religion and Democracy.

Those groups, backed by five politically conservative U.S. foundations, and Howard F. Ahmanson, a benefactor of numerous conservative ballot initiatives, candidates and think tanks, had been cultivating relationships with evangelical leaders in the developing world since the mid-1990s. But at Dromantine, the Americans' role as the principal strategists for the movement against their church came into focus.

There is much, much more -- reported in the calm, understated manner of a veteran reporter, who also serves as the Director of Communication of the Episcopal Diocese of Washington (DC).

The articles make the skullduggery of the righwing agencies, the "renewal" leaders, and their international cohort evident to any reasonable person -- and will undoubtedly be much read and much discussed in mainline Protestant circles and beyond. [Crossposted from Talk to Action]


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and one of the most important, underreported stories in the history of American Protestantism.

by Frederick Clarkson on 04/29/2006 02:47:12 PM EST