Institute on Religion and Democracy

An interesting article from the NY Times:
Conservative Group Amplifies Voice of Protestant Orthodoxy
May 22, 2004
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 and 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
rescources and tactics, including forcing heresy trials of
gay clergy, winning seats on judicial committees and
encouraging congregations to withhold money from their own
denomination’s headquarters.
When the Episcopal Church elected an openly gay bishop last
summer, the institute organized and housed a conservative
secessionist group called the American Anglican Council,
which still occupies an office down the hall. When a
conservative Methodist minister floated a breakup proposal
at a private breakfast earlier this month, an institute
staff member transcribed the speech and posted it on the
institute’s Web site, where it instantly became a rallying
cry for disaffected Methodists.
At the Presbyterian Church’s assembly last year, the
institute helped block a policy statement that said whether
parents were single or gay made no difference to the moral
status of a family, and in the process it won the
appointment of one of its staff members to a committee to
rewrite the policy for this year’s meeting.
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.
Together, the Methodist, Presbyterian and Episcopal
churches have 12.5 million members, and for decades they
and other mainline denominations have provided theological
backbone and foot soldiers for liberal causes like abortion
rights, racial and economic equality, the nuclear freeze,
environmentalism and anti-war movements.
For their part, the institute and its allies say they are
saving the denominations from themselves by agitating for a
return to Biblical orthodoxy. They argue that the churches’
liberalism has contributed to their steep decline over the
last 30 years even as more conservative evangelical
churches have grown.
“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.
Rev. Robert Edgar, a former Democratic congressman who is
general secretary of the National Council of Churches, an
ecumenical alliance that is dominated by the mainline
churches and a principal target of the institute’s
criticism, argued that it spoke for only about a third of
mainline churchgoers. “They have caused so many internal
issues that some progressive leaders are afraid to take the
courageous positions they would have taken a few decades
ago because a third of their parishioners would cut their
legs off.”
But in an interview last week, Roberta Ahmanson, a member
of the institute’s board and the wife Howard Ahmanson, a
banking heir from California, contended that the
institute’s orthodoxy resonated far more widely.
In addition, she argued that the liberal churches were
often operating off of endowments left by previous
generations who were unlikely to share their modern views.
“The Christian community isn’t just who is alive,” Mrs.
Ahmanson said. “Christians believe that we are in communion
with the living and the dead. We pray each week for the
living and the dead, and most of the previous generations
are in disagreement with a lot of this stuff.” She
continued: “If you take the weight of Christianity for
2,000 years, all that weight is on the orthodox side.”
Mrs. Knippers and Mrs. Ahmanson both noted that the impetus
for the founding of the institute came from a labor union
activist, not right-wing financiers. Mrs. Knippers said the
initial idea came from David Jessup, a staunchly
anti-communist union activist and Methodist who objected to
church aid to Vietnam and Nicaragua under their leftist
The Rev. Richard John Neuhaus, a Roman Catholic priest and
former Lutheran minister, wrote its founding statement and
other neoconservatives joined an advisory board. (In
addition to Father Neuhaus, the institute’s board of
directors currently includes Mary Ellen Bork, wife of Judge
Robert H. Bork, Fred Barnes of the Weekly Standard and Fox
News, and Michael Novak of the American Enterprise
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
James Piereson, executive director of the Olin Foundation,
said his foundation saw the institute as a Protestant
counterpart to the conservative magazine Commentary for
Jews or the Father Neuhaus’s journal First Things for
Catholics. “If no one commented on and criticized the
churches’ political activities, it would appear that this
was an unobjectionable religious position that was being
brought to bear instead of a controversial position,” he
said, adding that “the sexuality issues and the liturgical
issues in the churches have never been of great interest to
But Mrs. Ahmanson, who is Presbyterian, said she and her
husband, who is Episcopalian, were motivated mainly by
theological concerns. “My husband and I are what we call
classical Christians,” Mrs. Ahmanson said, explaining their
view that Christians should stick to the the fifth century
St. Vincent of Lerins’s orthodox standard of “what has been
held everywhere in every time by everyone.” She added, “It
is only in the last hundred years or so that there has been
an elite, if you will, who have argued with that.”
After the fall of communism, Mrs. Knippers said, the
institute’s focus on policing the churches’ support for
leftists abroad faded away. “We talked about whether the
I.R.D. should just fold up,” she said.
Instead the institute turned more of its attention to
social issues closer to home. “In the seminaries, what
replaced the liberation theology of the 80’s was a radical
feminist theology,” Mrs. Knippers said, noting that in 1993
the Presbyterian Church organized a conference encouraging
women to “re-imagine” God in a new way. “And if feminism
was the theology du jour on many campuses in the 90’s, now
it is homosexuality that is the issue.”
Feminism and homosexuality are also subjects that make for
much more effective fund-raising appeals than foreign
policy, marketers say. And in recent years the institute
has broadened its direct-mail fund-raising to cover roughly
60 percent of its annual budget, Mrs. Knippers said.
By 1989, fundamentalists had recently taken over the
Southern Baptist Convention. And in the liberal mainline
churches, the conservative Presbyterian Lay Committee and
the Methodist group Good News were already growing. “We
have had for a number of years a good number of renewal
groups,” Parker Williamson, chief of the Lay Committee
said. “But the I.R.D. and Diane Knippers have been a
wonderful help.”
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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