Missing the Story of the Attack on the Mainline Churches Email Print

You wouldn't know it to read the mainstream media, (or to listen to those who wring their hands over the alleged efforts by as yet unnamed secularists to drive also unnamed people of faith from public life) that the rightist Institute on Religion and Democracy (IRD), the inside the beltway, neoconservative agency has waged a war of attrition against the historic mainline protestant churches in the U.S. You wouldn't know about the ways the agency and its satellite groups have spent millions of dollars to destablize and even dismember these churches like they were a third world country whose government was disliked by the United States. You wouldn't know that the group has been bankrolled by the leading strategic funders of the conservative movement and the religious right such as Richard Mellon Scaife and Howard Ahmanson, and cheer-led by The Washington Times newspaper, which is owned, controlled and bankrolled by the Unification Church of Rev. Sun Myung Moon.

So when there is news about the IRD, the slant on the story can be most peculiar. Today was no exception.

The Washington Post has a story, which while not generally a bad story (one can only ask so much of one newspaper story) offers up one the most extraordinary examples of false equivalence I have have ever seen in a newspaper.  Here is the lede:
Two influential Christian nonprofit organizations questioned each other's finances yesterday, each suggesting that the other is beholden to big donors with partisan political motives.

The two "organizations" in question were IRD and the National Council of Churches.

The National Council of Churches (NCC)is an ecumenical agency that is operated by elected representatives of the member national denominations whose membership comprises 45 million Americans in 100,000 churches. It serves many functions in organizing and in expressing the views of, historic, mainline protestantism. It is a representative body, whose direction is set by the member denominations to which it is accountable, and operates with transparency.  

This stands in stark contrast to the IRD, whose leadership is unelected and self perpetuating; which operates in secresy, and whose agenda and activities seek to utilize the democratic politics of the mainline denominations in order to foment dissention and division, and to undermine the National Council of Churches itself.  

The occasion for all of this was a press conference held by IRD to announce the release of a report showing that the NCC has received about half of its budget from major foundations and some other groups this past year.IRD's purpose was to allege that the NCC has a politial agenda out of snych with its members, and to deflect attention from reports in the past year or so documenting how IRD's agenda is directly connected to the political motives of its funders. The Post mostly played it as a finger pointing tiff between groups with competing politial agendas, rather than the tip of the iceberg of one of the biggest missed stories in the history of American protestantism.

As Andrew Weaver has reported, at Media Transparency,

Six of the 17 current members of IRD's board of directors, a full 35 percent, are prominent conservative Catholics...  Few people realize that these Catholics direct a group of paid political operatives who work ceaselessly to discredit mainline Protestant leaders and their Christian communions... have built and sustained an organization that has consistently labored to generate suspicion and hostility about mainstream Protestant leaders, not a penny has been spent nor staff member assigned to attempt to change anything about the Catholic Church. This conduct constitutes the single greatest breach in ecumenical good will between Roman Catholics and Protestants since Vatican II.

Additionally, for all of the IRD's purported emphasis on mainline "renewal," when it came to hire a new president last year, they hired a minister with no experience in the mainline denominations, rather. Rev. James Tonkowich is a member of a schismatic Presbyterian denomination that split from mainline presbyterianism in 1973. Tonkowich's small splinter denomination, among other things, does not believe in the ordination of women.

So, an organization led by people who are not even members of mainline protestant churches, and is bankrolled by the financial architects of the conservative movement in the United States presents itself as a legitimate internal reform group -- and the mainstream media treats it like that is so.

Here is a more illuminating part of the Post's report:

James Tonkowich, the institute's president, said that about 60 percent of its roughly $1 million in annual revenue comes from individual donors and about 40 percent from conservative foundations, such as the Scaife, Bradley, Coors and Smith Richardson family charities.
Tonkowich also acknowledged that his organization has made public less information about its funders than the NCC has.

In separate interviews, (IRD staffers, John] Lomperis and [Alan] Wisdom said they wrote the report largely in response to earlier criticism of the institute's funding from the council's general secretary, the Rev. Bob Edgar, a former Democratic congressman from Pennsylvania who is also a Methodist minister. In his 2006 book, "Middle Church," Edgar wrote that the institute's fundraising list "reads like a Who's Who of contemporary conservatism."

Edgar's book was the latest of several articles and books by liberal Protestants accusing the institute of fomenting divisions in their churches. In an article posted last year on the Web site of the Episcopal Diocese of Washington, the diocese's spokesman, Jim Naughton, said the IRD has received at least $4.6 million from conservative foundations since 1985, allowing the institute and a "small network" of fellow conservatives "to mount a global campaign that has destabilized the Episcopal Church."

Edgar, 63, who is stepping down as head of the NCC at the end of the year, did not speak at the institute's news conference. But he stayed afterward to shake hands with the report's authors and to thank them for recognizing that he has turned around the finances of the council, which was running a $5.9 million deficit when he took over in 2000 and has now balanced its budget for five years in a row.

"I was brought in to do three things: raise money, raise money and raise money," he said. "Thank you for highlighting that secular as well as religious organizations now recognize the importance of the National Council of Churches."

The Post portrayed the battle as a tit-for-tat spat between religious groups. But the false equivalence of the lede, and the general thrust of the story, trivializes the struggle that has been going on in the churches -- the outgrowths of which are given splashy and prominent coverage as the right uses isues of marriage equality, among other matters as wedge issues to accomplish their divisive, externally financed and directed agendas.

Whatever one may think of the National Council of Churches, an organization that is representative of, and accountable to its membership --  it is in no way like the agency that is bent on its destruction.


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this article about Moon's $3B propaganda machine, written by Robert Parry.

Thanks for this story. I didn't know this side of it, the destabilization effort.

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