Institute on Religion and Democracy
last updated: February 25, 2007
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The Institute on Religion and Democracy (IRD), founded in 1981, describes itself as "an ecumenical alliance of U.S. Christians working to reform their churches' social witness, in accord with biblical and historic Christian teachings, thereby contributing to the renewal of democratic society at home and abroad." According to the institute's mission statement: "Never has there been a greater need for strong churches as a crucial component of civil society. America and the world require a fresh impetus of Christian evangelization, transforming both individuals and cultures. Yet tragically, important segments of the American church are spiraling into deep decline as they retreat from this task. Particularly in the historic 'mainline' Protestant denominations, but also in other churches, many leaders and institutions have lost their focus on the Gospel, the basis of their existence. They have turned toward political agendas mandated neither by Scripture nor by Christian tradition. They have thrown themselves into multiple, often leftist crusades—radical forms of feminism, environmentalism, pacifism, multiculturalism, revolutionary socialism, sexual liberation, and so forth."
The IRD publishes the quarterly journal Faith and Freedom. It also publishes online several "briefings" under the categories of its "denominational programs": United Methodist, Presbyterian, Anglican, and Religious Liberty. The UMAction Briefing, a quarterly newsletter of the IRD's United Methodist committee, describes itself as "working for Scripture-based reform in our denomination. " Most recently the UMAction division has petitioned for Southern Methodist University to allow the Bush presidential library on its campus, a move opposed by some United Methodist ministers and bishops.
The IRD promotes standard Religious Right fare and is especially active in anti-gay marriage activities. In an online letter, IRD president Jim Tonkowich writes: " Because marriage between a man and a woman is God's plan for the human family and the breakdown of the family is a major threat to sustaining our own democracy, we believe that defending marriage is a social justice issue. The IRD will be working to see that the churches fulfill their proper role in defending marriage and the family" (IRD, "President's Greeting").
The IRD's officers include: Mary Ellen Bork (treasurer), the wife of Robert Bork; Dean Curry (chairman); Jim Tonkowich (president). Board members include Fred Barnes, editor at the Weekly Standard; Richard J. Neuhaus/a>, founder of the Institute on Religion and Public Life (IRPL); Michael Novak of the American Enterprise Institute (AEI); and emeritus member George Weigel of the Ethics and Public Policy Center (EPPC). The IRD shares board members with numerous neoconservative institutes such as Empower America and Foundation for the Defense of Democracies. It is intricately interlinked with the EPPC and the IRPL through common board members, including Weigel, Novak, Mary Ann Glendon, and Neuhaus.
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 has evoked religion and morality to promote militant anticommunism and the conservative variety of internationalism advanced by the neoconservatives.
Three leading neoconservatives founded IRD in 1981: Novak of the AEI; Neuhaus, who wrote IRD's founding statement and was then an associate of the EPPC; and Penn Kemble, one of the leaders of the right-wing Social Democrats/USA. The primary domestic target of the IRD has always been the progressive politics of the mainline Protestant churches (see GroupWatch IRD profile).
For more than two decades the IRD has advocated U.S. military interventionism. During the 1980s, the 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 aid and intervention in Central America and the Caribbean during the Reagan administrations, and it routinely challenged the patriotism and the belief systems of Christians who didn't share its militarist and interventionist spirit. When the IRD wasn't criticizing the Protestant denominations for being soft on Communism, it was charging that they were anti-Semitic and anti-Israeli. For its part, the IRD has long echoed the policies of the Likud Party militarists and right-wing Zionists. In addition to the Protestant denominations, the IRD considers the National Council of Churches (NCC) and its counterpart World Council of Churches to be instruments of liberalism and secularism.
Although the Sandinistas in Nicaragua and liberation theology are no longer considered by the IRD to be the threats that they once were, 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, 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" (IRD, October 10, 2003).
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 United Methodism at Risk: A Wake-Up Call, by Leon Howell, Rev. Andrew Weaver concludes 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." As Weaver observed, and as IRD would likely agree: "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 (Sightings, July 10, 2003).
The liberal think tank Institute for Democracy Studies (IDS) has closely followed the IRD's attempt to introduce right-wing schisms in the mainstream churches (see, for example, its report A Moment to Decide: The Crisis of Mainstream Presbyterianism). According to IDS president Alfred Ross, the IRD's agenda is "part of a longstanding and comprehensive agenda of ultraconservative forces to transform key elements of our mainstream consensus" (IDS Insights, December 2001). "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 New York Times: "The mainline denominations are a strategic piece on the chess board that the right wing is trying to dominate" (New York Times, May 22, 2004).
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 following foundations: Lynde and Harry Bradley, Sarah Scaife, John M. Olin, Castle Rock, Carthage, and the JM Foundation (see MediaTransparency.org). IRD also reportedly receives generous funding from the right-wing Ahmanson Foundation, which is closely linked to IRD through Roberta Green Ahmanson, an 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 (see Andrew Weaver, "Neocon Catholics Target Mainline Protestants," MediaTransparency, August 11, 2006).
Referring to the perspectives of the liberal leadership and membership of the mainline churches, Roberta Ahmanson said in May 2004 interview with the New York Times: "The Christian community isn't just who is alive. Christians believe 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. If you take the weight of Christianity for 2,000 years, all that weight is on the orthodox side."
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Institute on Religion and Democracy Résumé
The Institute on Religion and Democracy
1023 15 th St. NW, Ste. 601
Washington, DC 20005
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Right Web tracks militarists’ efforts to influence U.S. foreign policy.
The Institute for Religion and Democracy, http://www.ird-renew.org/.
"Bush Library Controversy," UM Action, IRD, http://www.ird-renew.org/site/pp.asp?c=fvKVLfMVIsG&b=2480991.
Group Watch, Institute on Religion and Democracy, http://rightweb.irc-online.org/groupwatch/ird.php.
James Tonkowich, "President's Greeting, IRD, http://www.ird-renew.org/site/pp.asp?c=fvKVLfMVIsG&b=356291.
Alan Wisdom, "Discernment Needed: What Mainstream Christians Know and Don't Know about Possible War with Iraq," IRD, October 10, 2003, http://www.ird-renew.org/atf/cf//DISCERNMENT_NEEDED.PDF.
Cited in Andrew J. Weaver, "The Fighting Methodists," Sightings, July 10, 2003, http://marty-center.uchicago.edu/sightings/archive_2003/0710.shtml.
Alfred Ross, "Editor's Note," IDS Insights, December 2001.
Laurie Goodstein and David D. Kirkpatrick, "Conservative Group Amplifies Voice of Protestant Orthodoxy," New York Times, May 22, 2004.
Lee Cokorinos, "Antifeminist Backlash with a Velvet Glove," IDS Insights, Vol.1, Issue 1, June 2000.
Media Transparency, Institute on Religion and Democracy, http://www.mediatransparency.org/recipientgrants.php?174.
"Ecumenical Coalition on Women and Society," Institute on Religion and Democracy (undated), Web Archive, http://web.archive.org/web/20031001233338/http://www.ird-renew.org/Ecumenical/Ecumenicalmain.cfm.
Andrew Weaver, "Neocon Catholics Target Mainline Protestants," MediaTransparency, August 11, 2006.