The Institute on Religion and Democracy (IRD) is a conservative Christian advocacy group whose roots date back to Cold War efforts by neoconservative activists to combat liberalism and détente with the Soviet Union. The group serves as a "watchdog of the religious and evangelical left," according to former CIA agent Mark Tooley, the institute's president. It was founded, said Tooley, in reaction to the "open support" for "Marxist causes" among unnamed "denominational and ecumenical officials" during the Cold War.
Today, IRD organizes against "church elites" whom it accuses of promoting "abortion rights, homosexual rights, big government, extreme environmentalism, pacifism, and anti-Americanism." It works primarily within the U.S. Methodist, Anglican, and Presbyterian churches, providing research and talking points to supporters and organizing among church members to promote conservative causes. IRD claims to be "an ecumenical alliance of U.S. Christians working to reform their churches' social witness, in accord with biblical and historic Christian teachings, and to contribute to the renewal of democratic society at home and abroad." It publishes the blog Juicy Ecumenism, the quarterly journal Faith and Freedom, and the quarterly newsletter UMAction Briefing.
Much of IRD's work concerns traditional social issues like abortion and same-sex marriage, both of which the group steadfastly opposes. But IRD's website inveighs against progressive politics on a number of other fronts as well. According to Rev. Chuck Currie, a United Church of Christ minister who has criticized the IRD, conservative political leaders "use IRD as a vehicle for attacking faith leaders and organizations, like the National Council of Churches, whenever Christians work in common cause to help the poor lift themselves out of poverty, to advocate for an end to war, or for policies that would reverse the impact of human caused global climate change."
IRD has characterized efforts to raise awareness of climate change as "thinly veiled arguments for statism, population control, and limits on development." Tooley has praised fossil fuels as "miraculous wonders" opposed only by "the wealthy and the comfortable."
The group has also opposed a pathway to citizenship, or "amnesty," for undocumented immigrants in the United States. "Christianity traditionally acknowledges the authority of civil authorities and their rightful power to uphold civil law," reads a statement on the IRD's website. "And Christianity traditionally acknowledges some providential role in the existence of separate nations, which by definition must have borders." Juicy Ecumenism has called "the failure to enforce immigration law" the "greatest moral failing of the United States."
True to its Cold War roots, IRD tends to take a hawkish line on foreign policy. Staking out its opposition to "church leaders who categorically oppose every U.S. military action," IRD "disputes the dishonest quasi-pacifism that pretends that all dangers could be averted by disarming our nation and appeasing its enemies." Tooley has spoken in support of targeting overseas "terrorists" in unmanned drone strikes, brushing aside concerns about the ethics of the program by rehashing Winston Churchill's quip that "The maxim 'Nothing but perfection' may be spelled 'Paralysis.'" Various IRD publications have also skewered critics of U.S. sanctions on Iran, dismissed investigations of detainee torture by the U.S. military, and called for U.S. intervention in Syria's civil war.
IRD has also staked out an anti-Islamic orientation, often promoting the work of Islamophobic writers and public officials. IRD's website has reprinted articles from FrontPageMag.com, a hard-right website run by the neoconservative David Horowitz Freedom Center, warning of "the formidable Islamist minority in America" and "the building of a global Caliphate in the Middle East" by Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood. Various blog posts on Juicy Ecumenism have praised the work of anti-Islamic writer Robert Spencer and the controversial Clarion Project. "Christians," wrote one IRD blogger, "cannot hope for a false theological peace with Islam."
IRD has also worked to combat what it regards as growing "anti-Israel" sentiment among young Christians, particularly evangelicals, who have grown increasingly willing to criticize the Israeli government's treatment of Palestinians. "It seems to me that most pro-Israel supporters in the church are largely unaware of a titanic challenge that has been incubating for decades," mused an IRD blogger. Likening Palestinian outreach to Christian groups to "Soviet efforts to enlist Western dupes during the Cold War," the blogger concluded that "New Evangelicals seem comfortable with a secular left-wing agenda, and the Palestinian issue is front-and-center within that framework. … If pro-Israel advocates care about the generation that comes after them, they'd better get in the game and meet the challenges presented by the heirs to Yasser Arafat's slick propaganda." Tooley has similarly warned against "concerted efforts to dilute evangelical friendship for Israel," and IRD has actively worked to oppose resolutions to divest church assets from companies that profit from the Israeli occupation of Palestinian territories.
IRD's leadership includes President Mark Tooley, "Director of Religious Liberty Programs" Faith McDonnell, United Methodist Director John Lomperis, and Communications Director Jeff Walton. Fred Barnes, a founding editor of the Weekly Standard, sits on its board alongside several other rightist figures. Past board members have included Michael Novak of the American Enterprise Institute, George Weigel of the Ethics and Public Policy Center, and the late Richard Neuhaus, founder of the Institute on Religion and Public Life.
IRD started out as a project of the Foundation for Democratic Education, which was the financial arm of the Coalition for a Democratic Majority (CDM). Founded by neoconservative supporters of Sen. Henry "Scoop" Jackson, CDM was a political project that aimed to unseat the progressive "New Politics" sector of the Democratic Party in the 1970s and to reassert the control of Cold Warriors like Jackson. The IRD evoked religion and morality to promote militant anticommunism and the hardline variety of internationalism advanced by neoconservatives.
Three leading neoconservatives founded IRD in 1981: Novak, Neuhaus, and Penn Kemble, one of the leaders of the neoconservative Social Democrats/USA. A primary domestic target of IRD has been the progressive politics of the mainline Protestant churches.
During the 1980s, IRD attempted to rally U.S. Christians around a program of higher military budgets and military campaigns against the Soviet Union and allied countries such as Nicaragua, Angola, and Cuba. The IRD was a leading advocate of U.S. military intervention in Central America and the Caribbean during the Reagan administration, and it routinely challenged the patriotism and the belief systems of Christians who didn't share its militarist and interventionist spirit.
Although the Sandinistas in Nicaragua and liberation theology are no longer considered by the IRD to be key threats, the institute has maintained its assault on what it calls the "liberal" leadership of the mainstream churches while at the same time speaking out for the neoconservative foreign policy agenda. Its mission of "reforming the Church's social and political witness, and building and strengthening democracy and religious liberty at home and abroad" has closely followed the evolving neoconservative foreign policy agenda—from militant anticommunism to post-Cold War U.S. global supremacy.
In an article about the U.S. invasion and occupation of Iraq, for example, then-IRD vice president Alan Wisdom advised church leaders to trust U.S. military and political leaders rather than to question their judgment. "Church leaders are wrong to speak on matters about which they lack the information and competence," wrote Wisdom. "Church leaders should teach, to both citizens and policy makers, the principles by which moral decisions may be made. But in the case of war against Iraq, those grave decisions must finally be made by government and military leaders within their spheres of competence and authority."
The IRD has established a network of so-called "renewal groups" within each mainstream church and a coordinating body called the Association for Church Renewal. In a review of Leon Howell's United Methodism at Risk: A Wake-Up Call, Rev. Andrew Weaver concluded that the reason why "ultra-right-wing" foundations such as the Scaife, Bradley, and Olin foundations have funded the IRD since the 1980s is to counter mainstream Protestant churches that "have been and remain a powerful and influential voice for moderate and progressive social values in American society." Weaver observed, "If you control the activities and leadership of mainline Protestant churches you can do a lot to muffle the social conscience of the nation and stifle civil discourse." In his book, Howell advocates that the United Methodist Church, Presbyterian Church U.S.A., and Episcopal Church assume a "fighting mood" to defend themselves against the IRD's takeover campaigns through right-wing renewal groups.
The liberal Institute for Democracy Studies (IDS) closely followed the IRD's attempt to introduce right-wing schisms in the mainstream churches. IDS president Albert Ross wrote in 2001 that IRD's agenda is "part of a longstanding and comprehensive agenda of ultraconservative forces to transform key elements of our mainstream consensus. … "The mainline denominations are another prime target, representing billions of dollars in assets as well as formidable communications capacities that exert moral influence in defining 'Judeo-Christian values' for policymakers and voters. Under particular aggressive attack are the Presbyterian, United Methodist, and Episcopal churches—with their combined membership of 14 million. The Right has already succeeded in taking over the largest Protestant denomination in the nation, the Southern Baptist Convention, and is using it effectively to advance its agenda."
In a May 2004 article entitled "Conservative Dominionists Seek to Split Protestant Churches," the New York Times reported: "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." IDS president Alfred Ross told the Times: "The mainline denominations are a strategic piece on the chess board that the right wing is trying to dominate."
IRD is closely allied with antifeminist organizations such as Concerned Women for America. IRD's late president Diane Knippers was on the advisory board of Concerned Women for America and, along with Janice Shaw Crouse, founded an IRD project on international women called the Ecumenical Coalition on Women and Society (ECWS), which aimed to "counter radical feminist ideology and agenda." According to a statement posted on IRD's website: "Working with and through women in mainline, evangelical, Roman Catholic, and Orthodox churches, ECWS works to organize biblically orthodox women within denominations as a grassroots voice for reasoned faith and responsible freedom."
Between 1985 and 2005, IRD received more than $4.75 million from the Lynde and Harry Bradley, Sarah Scaife, John M. Olin, Castle Rock, Carthage, and the JM Foundations. IRD has also reportedly received generous funding from the right-wing Ahmanson Foundation, which is closely linked to IRD through Roberta Green Ahmanson, a one-time IRD board member and wife of Howard Ahmanson, a California banking heir. According to various press reports, the foundation has donated several hundreds of thousands of dollars to IRD since the early 1990s. IRD reported a little over $1 million in revenues on its 2011 Form 990.