Liberal Journalists at New York Times Spot IRD Black Helicopters Heading for Presbyterian General Assembly
Excerpts from the New York Times:
May 22, 2004
by Laurie Goodstein and David D. Kirkpatrick
As Presbyterians prepare to gather for their General Assembly in Richmond, Va., next month, a band of determined conservatives is advancing a plan to split the church along liberal and orthodox lines. Another divorce proposal shook the United Methodist convention in Pittsburgh earlier this month, while conservative Episcopalians have already broken away to form a dissident network of their own.
In each denomination, the flashpoint is homosexuality, but there is another common denominator as well. In each case, the Institute on Religion and Democracy, a small organization based in Washington, has helped incubate traditionalist insurrections against the liberal politics of the denomination's leaders.
With financing from a handful of conservative donors, including the Scaife family foundations, the Bradley and Olin Foundations and Howard and Roberta Ahmanson's Fieldstead & Company, the 23-year-old institute is now playing a pivotal role in the biggest battle over the future of American Protestantism since churches split over slavery at the time of the Civil War.
The institute has brought together previously disconnected conservative groups within each denomination to share resources and tactics, including forcing heresy trials of gay clergy members, winning seats on judicial committees and urging congregations to withhold money from their denomination's headquarters.
Although the institute has an annual budget of just less than $1 million and a staff of fewer than a dozen, liberals and conservatives alike say it is having an outsized effect on the dynamics of American politics by counteracting the liberal influence of the mainline Protestant churches.
"It's pretty clear that the church elite in the mainline denominations are to the left of the people in the pews," said Diane Knippers, the institute's president and an Episcopalian who helped found the American Anglican Council and now sits on its board.
The group has often called on conservatives to change the liberal denominations from within, especially in the relatively more conservative Methodist and Presbyterian churches. But Mrs. Knippers said she could support the notion of divorce for irreconcilable differences, albeit perhaps with liberals leaving. "Rather than be embroiled in legal battles in church courts over sexuality, let's find a gracious way to say, 'we will let you leave this system because you believe it violates your conscience.'"
More liberal Protestants argue that the institute's financial backers are interfering with the theological disputes mainly for broader, secular political reasons. "The mainline denominations are a strategic piece on the chess board that the right wing is trying to dominate," said Alfred F. Ross, president and founder of the Institute for Democracy Studies, a liberal New York-based think tank which produced a research report in 2000 on the Institute's influence in the Presbyterian Church.
"It will give them access to three important pieces," said Mr. Ross, a lawyer and former official with the Planned Parenthood Federation. "One is the Sunday pulpit. Two is millions of dollars of capacity internally, with control of church newsletters and pension funds. And three is foreign missions," the agencies that dispense missionaries, and with them their brand of Christianity, around the world.
Ms. Knippers, who spoke during two interviews in the last three months, said that during the 1980's the institute's initial budget of about $300,000 came entirely from a few conservative foundations, including the Scaife family foundations, the Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation, the John M. Olin Foundation as well as from the Ahmansons' philanthropic arm Fieldstead & Company.
Bill Schambra, director of the Bradley Center at the Hudson Institute and a former director of the Bradley Foundation, one of the biggest conservative donors, said the foundations' supported the institute as part of a broader effort to build a conservative infrastructure after decades of liberal ascendancy had shut out the right.
"The I.R.D. is a kind of parallel universe that upholds the conservative standpoint in the world of religion," Mr. Schambra said. "It is no different in that sense from what the National Association of Scholars is for University Professors or the Federalist Society is for lawyers," he said, referring to two other groups backed by the same foundations.
Now, as Presbyterians prepare for their General Assembly, Alan Wisdom, the institute's Presbyterian director, said that representatives of the institute will be there in force, calling attention to any liberal positions coming out of the church, distributing position papers to delegates and lobbying them in a conservative direction.
Mr. Wisdom said the institute does not support the idea of Presbyterian breakup, and almost no one expects a split at this year's General Assembly. But some conservatives are already drawing up a plan they call "Gracious Separation" to divide the church's assets. "If we don't see significant changes in the next two General Assemblies, I suspect we we are going to see some manifestation of separation," Mr. Williamson of the Lay Committee said. "I hope and pray it would be gracious."
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