Churches Under Seige
Exposing the Right's Attacks on Mainline Protestantism
By John Dorhauer
In February of the year 2000, in South St. Louis, Missouri, the 300-member Redeemer Evangelical United Church of Christ got a new pastor. His name was George Dohm. Soon after he arrived, he told select members whom he called his "disciples" that within five years he'd be able to take the church out of the denomination, which he considered degenerate for failing to embrace the inerrancy of the Bible or to attack gays. We know of his vow to remove Redeemer Evangelical from the denomination because the church organist happened to overhear his remarks.
In February 2003, Rev. Dohm resigned, but told his "disciples" that he would come back if they completed the takeover of the church. We know this because he was then working part-time as the UCC's regional youth director, and, when confronted about it at his last regional staff meeting, he admitted he'd made that promise.
Within five months, he was back preaching in the church as a guest supporting an upcoming vote of the members about leaving the denomination. In that sermon, which a congregant taped, he told the story of a father offering his children brownies cooked with a touch of dog poop as a way to teach them a lesson. The UCC, Dohm continued, is the dog crap cooked into Christianity-a little bit wrecks the whole thing.
In November, a majority of church members indeed voted to leave the denomination. Now with a diminished membership and restless congregation, the church has become a casualty of a 25 year-old campaign of right-wing conservatives to disrupt the mainline Protestant denominations and thereby diminish their power in support of social justice.
The Campaign Begins
It is not as if there was no warning.
On December 29, 1982, Avery Post, the President of the United Church of Christ, warned in a letter to every UCC minister in his denomination that a strange new adversary was emerging. It had already targeted the National Council of Churches (NCC), and it was not going away any time soon.
Rev. Post wrote: "We must not wait for this attack to be launched in the congregations of the United Church of Christ. I urge you to move quickly to tell the ministers and members of the churches about this campaign to disrupt our church life."
Hardly anyone took notice. We continue to pay a high price for that.
The Institute on Religion and Democracy is a well-funded, under the radar organization bent on fomenting dissent within and demoralizing from without Mainline Protestant denominations. Its allies have grown since Rev. Post wrote his letter, as has its power base. The IRD functions at the behest of funders like the Adolph Coors Foundation and the Scaife Family Foundation simply to keep those churches occupied and their prophetic voices silenced.1 It works by turning internal disagreements away from dialogue and into all out battles at which the very life of a congregation is at stake. Even if a church remains within a denomination, too often its social justice agenda is silenced.
IRD claims on its website to be able to reach and represent 2.4 million church members through publications, magazines, newsletters, and mailings produced by their built-in alliance with over thirty "renewal" groups. Renewal movements have theological disagreements with mainline churches - they are uncomfortable with debate about how to interpret the Bible, seeing religious truth as unambiguous. They emphasize a person's direct relationship with Jesus in the fashion of evangelicals, and so oppose the dominant Protestant church tradition of freedom of the pulpit and the freedom to express one's own theology without the constriction of a mandate from above. But with the support of the IRD, these renewal movements also are concerned with politics - conservative politics challenging economic justice, egalitarian family arrangements, reproductive rights, and other wedge issues.
Leading the organization is Jim Tankowitz, former director of convicted Watergate felon Chuck Colson's prison mission, and a member of the Presbyterian Church in America, which split from the Presbyterian Church USA over the ordination of women. Its board consists of people identified more for their right-wing politics than their theology: Robert Novak of the American Enterprise Institute; Mary Ellen Bork, wife of former Bush Supreme Court Nominee Robert Bork; Roberta Ahmanson, the millionaire philanthropist of the Christian Right; and Weekly Standard editor Fred Barnes. One of its principal founders was one Penn Kemble - a player in the Reagan-era Iran-Contra scandal.
What political heavyweights like Coors, Ahmanson, Mellon-Scaife, and others are looking for is the guarantee that a new Martin Luther King, Jr. will not emerge. What they entrust to the IRD is the task of creating a mechanism that effects the silence of the more timid, the marginalization of the more courageous, and the dampening of the collective will of the body to engage in matters of weight, import, and controversy.
In some ways, the United Church of Christ (UCC), where I serve as the equivalent of a "bishop" in the St. Louis area, is lucky because the IRD does not have dedicated staff people focused only on attacking us. The organization reserves that honor for the Episcopalians, Methodists and Presbyterians - the Protestant denominations with the biggest memberships and the biggest treasuries (see box). Still, the IRD has succeeded in putting our congregations and pastors on the defensive for supporting gay rights, abortion access, and economic justice - issues I feel are rooted in our history of preaching the social gospel. And the UCC's decentralized structure can make it difficult for our denomination to coordinate a response.
For over a decade, I have witnessed the fruits of these sustained attacks on both my denomination and the local churches that comprise it. When I started my work as a regional official over four years ago, I was immediately thrown into the cauldron of conflict and dissent that erupts in churches that have been targeted for attack by trained IRD activists. I have spent the last four years learning everything I can about the IRD, their alliance with renewal groups, their funding sources, their tactics, and their motivations. They have identified me as a target because of my work.2
Given the covert nature of the organization, discovering all the ways in which their tactics have reached into the hinterlands of this denomination has not been easy. The IRD's training sessions are by invitation-only and its allies within churches meet in secret. At best, we are able to present strong circumstantial evidence that what is happening in our local churches and to our denominational leaders is the direct byproduct of the covert tactics of the IRD and their trained insurgents.
We have few smoking gun moments: moments where the fomenters of dissent acknowledge their cooperation with or even awareness of the IRD. (In many ways, the IRD's ability to effect cooperation even from those who don't know they exist shows the success of its initiative.) But one smoking gun moment came recently when the executive summary of the IRD's four-year plan leaked out of its secretive networks into the hands of its enemies. Dating to late 2000 or early 2001, the summary outlined IRD's aim to "translate (recent) victories into real influence for conservatives within the permanent governing structures of these churches." The 11-page document predicts that the four-year cost "for influencing the governing church conventions" will be $3.6 million. The report states that the IRD briefing of just the Methodist church currently reaches 275,000 Methodist households, and is expected to grow to over 500,000 by the start of 2004.
And it confirms what pastors across Protestant denominations have long felt, that our denominations are being attacked in a coordinated fashion - that we are not just falling into conspiratorial thinking. There is a conspiracy. The document outlines how IRD's alliance with the Association for Church Renewal (ARC), a coalition of 30+ groups within various Protestant denominations promoting conservative theology, "allows us to synchronize strategies across denominational lines."
What strategies might those be? "Preparing resolutions for local and regional church conventions;" "focusing on positive proactive initiatives that unite traditional religious believers and discredit the Religious Left;" indemnifying "electable conservative candidates for national church conventions;" helping to "train elected delegates to be effective at church conventions;" assisting "conservatives who serve on the boards of key church agencies so as to have direct influence over the permanent staff."
A few pages later, the IRD names even more strategies, including the training of conservatives and moderates for the debates on marriage and human sexuality.
A little later they report that
Direct lines and links can be drawn from the known leaders of the IRD and every group in the Association for Church Renewal (ACR). "We are the chief organizer of this coalition [the ACR] of conservative/evangelical renewal groups in all the major denominations," states the Executive Summary. Press releases, fundraising letters, and letters written to elected officials on IRD letterhead often list the names and titles of every single ACR representative. The Executive Summary informs us that "ACR leaders meet twice a year, issue press releases and statements, share research materials, and cooperate on special projects."
Renewing the Church
Renewing the church sounds both noble and innocuous. It is neither.
"Renewing the church" consists of a mission to return the church to an image of better days, when the authorities got along and adhered to rigid moral codes generated by a unanimity of thought around key passages of scripture, all literally interpreted.
Renewal movements focus largely on highly controversial issues - we refer to them as wedge issues. In many of our churches today, the wedge issue is human sexuality, focusing primarily on homosexuality. In past years, activists have driven wedges with such issues as Communism, feminism (taking the form of intense debates over the ordination of women and what renewal activists refer to as "Goddess worship"), and abortion. In more recent days, both stem cell research and homosexuality have emerged as the item du jour.
Renewal groups are quick to argue that, with each wedge issue, there is really only one choice for people of faith: If you are pro-choice, if anything you do or say can be portrayed as sympathetic to communist or socialist agendas or causes, or if you support the full inclusion of gays and lesbians in the life of the church or the culture, you are then castigated as immoral, heretical, and apostate. You are not to be trusted, and you are publicly defamed and excoriated.
Trained activists distribute pamphlets, brochures, treatises, essays, and books arguing their case in local churches, and search out allies among the congregation. They then arrange secret meetings with members, where they brainstorm and recruit supporters. Then the outsiders use every argument to enrage them over the issue of the day. If enough of a coalition can be built, then recruits try out new tactics at the local church level that will begin to erode the spirit of a congregation. Together this creates an ethos of intolerance that breeds contempt of those whose thoughts and theologies cross over lines they have drawn, of boundaries they have established, of boxes they have constructed.
A perfect example of how this works is in the church in the South St. Louis that came under attack by a trained renewal activist during the summer and fall of 2003 and ended up voting to disaffiliate with the United Church of Christ in November 2003. The "wedge" driven between the members of the church and the denomination had to do with homosexuality.
Someone spread a rumor among congregants that they would not get financial support from the denomination unless they hired a gay pastor during their current search. Renewal activists printed that accusation in their newsletter – it was false, but it was very difficult to prove otherwise to a group of very angry and highly motivated people intent on fomenting dissent between their local church and their covenant partners.
In this church, we also saw another favored tactic: the research committee. Renewal movements use nuggets of controversy and take quotes out of context to create propaganda hoping to discredit the denomination and foment dissent. They publish this propaganda in renewalist newsletters and websites, in their occasional fundraising letters, or in pamphlets they hand out on speaking tours. You see it in press releases that they will coordinate with the IRD.
The renewalists in the south St. Louis church drew on this body of work for a 46-page "exposé" they published in the church newsletter attacking the denomination. Two UCC seminary professors earned their scorn - Dr. Steven J. Patterson of Eden Seminary, and Dr. Burton Throckmorton of Bangor Seminary. The article quotes Dr. Patterson as saying, "The Bible is relevant today because it tells us the religious conviction of the earliest Christians; but to say it is inerrant or infallible is simply absurd." Dr. Throckmorton is quoted as saying: "There is no reason... that I can see why the church can't add to its Scripture - delete from its scripture. I think the church can do with the scripture what it wants to do with the Scripture."
Four pages of analysis follow those quotes, arguing that the denomination is clearly out of touch with "Christ's use of Scripture," with the "Apostles," with "Christ and His Work," and other such topics.
When yet another church in eastern Missouri came under attack in 2005, its members formed a research committee to investigate the United Church of Christ teachings and whether to stay affiliated with the denomination. Some strong supporters of the church's historic ties to the denomination - for the first time in my own experience - actually took over the process from the agitators. Being very careful to actually research the questions being asked about the teaching of the denomination by consulting a variety of church officials and covenant partners, they produced their own 65-page research document. It looks very, very different from the findings of those churches whose research is handed to them by outside agents and trained activists.
Even before we read the IRD's memo, those of us on the receiving end of the two-decade attack on mainline denominations managed to identify the coercive tactics used over and over. A major tactic is the distribution of a chart comparing what it describes as the teachings of the local church, the denomination today and in the supposed past, and the Bible. We call it the Matrix.
We encounter it in almost every church where we partnered to quell disruptions and attacks or answered questions about positions taken by the wider church. As far back as fifteen years ago, the materials argued the denomination does not believe in the authority of scripture, the denomination does not believe in the Lordship of Jesus, and the denomination does not believe in the sanctity of life.
The first time I saw these themes emerge in print was at a church in western Missouri that eventually voted to leave the denomination in the early 1990s. The pastor later asked us to let him remain as a pastor within the United Church of Christ. We had a 20-plus page document denouncing the denomination, complete with his signature, which he had sent to congregants during their debate about whether to remain as a UCC church. When I asked him why he would choose to remain a part of a denomination that did not believe in God, Jesus, the Bible, or the sanctity of life, he admitted to us that not he but someone high up in the Biblical Witness Fellowship (the UCC's IRD-related renewal group) had written it.
Within months, we found ourselves encountering the same disruption at a church in eastern Missouri and similar documents. Over time, the screed changed its look but the content never changed as it passed through church after church. This document is "The Matrix."
It is a multi-page document that has at least four columns, sometimes more. In the left-hand margin is a list of "issues" that often include the following: authority of scripture, sanctity of life, homosexuality, lordship of Jesus, belief in bodily resurrection, belief in the virgin birth, etc. Across the top of the page are various categories that include: The Bible, The Historic Church, the name of the church in which "The Matrix" is being circulated, and The United Church of Christ.
Down each column then is either a "yes" or a "no," or sometimes a brief interpretation. If we read across the page, we would discover that column 1 tells us that the Bible itself upholds and believes in its own authority; in column 2 we would learn that the historic church does also; it would come as no surprise to us that column 3 indicates that the church in question believes in the authority of scripture; but column 4 is the shocker: it tells us the UCC does not believe in it. This goes on for row after row, issue after issue, sometimes for pages.
When we asked where these charts came from, the critics told us that someone in the church wrote it using information they downloaded from the Internet. The first time we heard this, we found it hard to believe. When church after church, in disparate parts of the state and even the country, were showing us roughly the same content in roughly the same format, it became obvious that someone, somewhere, was coaching these folks.
In almost every church under attack we saw trained renewalists forcing votes upon congregations concerning "wedge issues." They will not stop until a vote is taken, sides are chosen, and battles won. Regular disagreements expected within a congregation turn into church-destroying moments with a little IRD training.
The IRD trains people to conduct these votes as often as possible, and in as many venues as possible. Councils take votes to either support or denounce the actions of the wider church. Congregations take votes at annual meetings, or in more extreme cases in emergency meetings called to suggest that the matter at hand is so pressing it cannot wait. Congregations are forced to divide themselves and to debate issues that seem to emerge out of nowhere and which, to the surprise of many, now seem to be almost life and death matters.
We saw this most visibly after the UCC General Synod in Atlanta, Georgia voted in 2005 to support marriage equality for gays. Renewalists in churches across the denomination forced votes either to affirm or deny marriage equality.
This was directly out of the IRD's playbook. The IRD states on its own website, in their mission statement, that they exist to "unite reform activists," and admits that "the IRD trains activists, with topics ranging from issues (e.g., religious liberty abroad) to tactics (e.g., proper form for a motion). At national church meetings, IRD activists from outside the church assist delegates in drafting legislation and framing arguments for debate. This work is done in cooperation with like-minded groups in seven major denominations (representing nearly 20 million Americans) through the Association for Church Renewal."4
The IRD's four-year plan mentions this tactic. The IRD wrote of training activists to author and pass resolutions that are never intended to pass, and even names specific issues upon which they will focus - like marriage equality, the very same issues that churches and denominations find themselves fighting on every front. Remember the memo read: "We have crafted resolutions for our supporters to submit... These resolutions are supporting the Christian Declaration on Marriage... The process of submitting and supporting resolutions is an excellent training device for conservative activists, even if the resolutions are not approved..."
That last point is a crucial one. The IRD exists for one reason only. It is not to steal churches out of our denomination, nor to defrock ministers, not to establish certain religious, theological, or biblical principles. The IRD only exists to tie up churches and judicatories in dissent. That is it. So, its staff really doesn't care if the resolutions they are teaching their activists to present pass or not. They don't care if the church supports gay marriage or not. They don't care if the Bible is interpreted literally or not. They only care that activists keep pushing buttons, fomenting dissent, and tying up congregational, judicatory, and denominational leaders in one argument, one battle, one fierce debate after another as a way to weaken churches interested in social justice.
Some votes, however, go right after church treasuries. One commonly presented resolution asks the church to amend its by-laws so that if the church sells, closes, or disaffiliates from the United Church of Christ, its property does not revert to the UCC Conference.
I want to be clear about one thing: the church has always fought over controversial matters. And those on all sides of issues have written polemical materials with less than an objective or unbiased point of view. Liberals and conservatives alike are guilty of that - if, indeed guilt need be attributed.
What makes this different is the goal is not debating church positions but allying with the IRD to dissolve the denomination and its power.
"Calling" Pastors from Outside the Denomination
The UCC has its own seminaries, and pastors affiliate because they identify with its mission. Regional church bodies conduct background checks and also screen pastors to see if they are authorized to serve the denomination, creating lists from which churches regularly select candidates. The pastors are finally chosen by the local church board.
This has created an opening for another key disruptive tactic: circumventing our "Search and Call" process by choosing pastors whom the UCC regional officers have not screened, and indeed may not even know about, who come from outside the denomination, are untrained in the teachings of the wider church community, and indeed are hostile to it.
Here's how it works. First, an activist campaigns for by-law changes to allow a church to call a minister from outside of the denomination. The IRD-linked Biblical Witness Fellowship then inundates church committees with candidates from the "Pastoral Referral Network" - a clandestine organization which has never disclosed the names of the ministers on its list. The Executive Director of the Biblical Witness Fellowship travels across the country recruiting students from what he calls "evangelical seminaries" for this network who are then coached on how to use "wedge" issues to generate discontent and disconnect the church from the wider UCC family.5
Close to 70 percent of our region's churches searching for new ministers receive a packet of information from the Pastoral Referral Network asking them to consider calling one of their "Godly Pastors." Still, in my four years leading the St. Louis region, only two rural churches called a pastor from the network. After the experience at Redeemer Evangelical (which predates my tenure), we've learned to coach search committees to identify applications coming out of the IRD-affiliated network, and we inform them of the risks – not just of debilitating schisms in their church but also of losing the liability portion of their property insurance because the candidate is not screened by the regional UCC body.
Defending our Congregations
Here in the St. Louis area, we have found other ways to defend our congregations from IRD-influenced attack. With the pastor's permission, I worked with a 200-member congregation whose rural church was perched on the top of a hill at the end of a long gravel road. An ally had the insight that these churches under attack are like households with batterers - the victims are bullied into silence. So if you name publicly what is going on, the bullies slink away. And that is just what happened. The key is that an outsider like me can't do the naming; it has to be a lay leader.
We coached other congregants to speak openly and name the individuals who call secret meetings without the board or pastor's knowledge or circulate unsigned materials to foment dissent. A young woman in her mid-20s became a leader in this effort, which shut down the bullies who then left the church.
Similarly, in a South St. Louis church, we coached the pastor to simply say at his next council meeting that a council member was bullying him. Sure enough, after slamming his fist down on the table, the person resigned and left the congregation. Once secrecy ends, so often does the campaign.
But we also learned not to wait for an attack to be underway. You can be proactive and strengthen a church if the pastor and lay leaders simply find opportunities to say why they are part of the church and the denomination. So when the attack comes, the church has built up an internal pride that counters the poison its opponents want to spread. It is also important to model congregational dialogue and debate to show that we can have difficult conversations without being torn apart. Don't wait for an IRD-allied congregant to spark the discussion on authentic controversies - do it yourself. Then if an activist introduces a controversial issue or resolution, we can say, "See, we've had these conversations before and know we can disagree."
Tolerance and acceptance are virtues, to be sure. But they become the church's most destructive devices when activists charge that the church has abandoned its desire to be tolerant when other congregants call them out for their strident, bullying, and aggressive tactics. What church leaders must be clear about is that while divergent theologies can always be tolerated, actions that are destructive of the common good cannot be justified by any theology.
I have traveled the country telling this story and connecting these dots. I am met with skepticism wherever I go – until active church leaders in every mainline denomination, and in every corridor of this country realize that what I am describing is precisely what their own personal experience affirms.
And almost every time I am scheduled to present this material, someone is there representing the IRD or one of their related renewal groups to record the event and to report on it to their constituents. They are taking this very seriously, and for the first time in a very long time their methods are being challenged by many who are no longer going to sit idly by while their denomination disintegrates.
We who do this research have begun discovering one another, moving slowly out in wider circles as we open our eyes to the startling revelation that what we are all experiencing within our own households of faith is simultaneously going on everywhere. That was an important revelation. This is not a UCC thing. It is not a Methodist thing. It is not a Presbyterian, Lutheran, or Episcopal thing. It is an IRD thing. And antagonists from within our respective denominations are allied with each other in a vast network to undo our church, to occupy our time, to silence our prophetic witness. They advance the cause - even if unwittingly - of some very large, very powerful, very wealthy, very conservative political players. And while this is not what I imagined the body of Christ would ask of me when I took my ordination vows, I cannot see anything more noble in these times than the defense of that which I have grown to love for the way it has fed and nurtured me: this beloved church that is the body of Christ on earth. Shame, and worse, on those whose ministrations and machinations have united in grand conspiracy to undo her for political gain.
Rev. Dr. John C. Dorhauer is a staffmember of the United Church of Christ's Missouri Mid-South Conference and coauthor of Steeplejacking: How the Christian Right is Highjacking Mainstream Religion.
End Notes1 Jim Naughton, Following the Money: A Special Report from the Washington Window, Part I, http://www.edow.org/follow/part1.html, accessed on March 2, 2007, 2:37pm.
2 At the time of this writing, no fewer than eight articles written about me appear on the front page of the scurrilous website www.ucctruths.com. Twice now, I have been "visited" at one of my workshops by a staff member of the IRD, who within one week wrote a follow up article about me on the organization's website.
3 This statement signed in November 2000 by the president of the National Association of Evangelicals plus a high ranking Roman Catholic Bishop and Southern Baptist, urged churches to develop programs helping reduce divorce and promote marriage between men and women.
4 IRD Mission Statement, http://www.ird-renew.org, accessed on March 5, 2007, 9:35am.
5 Radio interview with David Runnion-Bareford, director, Biblical Witness Fellowship, on "Issues, Etc.," KFUO St. Louis, June 21, 2004. http://18.104.22.168/search?q=cache:wQtIo3z5HqgJ:www.kfuo.org/ie_archive _jun04.htm+Issues+Etc.+David+Runnion-Bareford&hl=en&ct=clnk&cd=2&gl=us
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