May 22, 2004

Conservative Group Amplifies Voice of Protestant Orthodoxy



s 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.

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 regimes.

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 Institute.)

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.

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 us."

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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