July 9, 2007

Commentary: Steeplejacking? IRD Critics Weigh In

One of the first truths I learned when I started working at the Institute on Religion and Democracy eight years ago was that IRD has its critics.  While some of these opponents are fairly reasonable and honest in their critiques, others can only be described as, well, insane.  From the Bay of Pigs fiasco to their grandmother’s phlebitis, and pretty much everything in between—if it is bad and happened in the last fifty years, these individuals are convinced that IRD is the driving force behind it.

An example of the latter would be the Rev. John Dorhauer.  A minister within the United Church of Christ, Dorhauer has been a persistent—if not always prescient—adversary of the IRD and what he considers our nefarious plot to subvert both the religious community and the American political system.  Along with author and political provocateur Frederick Clarkson, Dorhauer has created a website, Talk-to-Action, that aims to reveal the dark underside of the IRD and other “theocratic” organizations that seek to foment dissent in the otherwise united mainline churches; impose a rigid, fundamentalist agenda on the American electorate; eat babies; and other crimes against humanity too numerous to mention.  Dorhauer and his compatriot are committed to this mission, and have resolutely refused to let things like a total lack of empirical evidence, an absence of reliable personal testimony, or general journalistic integrity impede them.

Dorhauer has recently released a book (with fellow UCC minister Sheldon Culver) that purports to blow the cover off IRD’s scheming.  Entitled Steeplejacking: How the Christian Right is Hijacking Mainstream Religion, the book claims to reveal IRD for what it is.  According to the promotional materials:

Steeplejacking reveals how conservative renewal groups, backed by a right-wing organization called the Institute on Religion and Democracy, use social wedge issues like homosexuality to infiltrate mainline churches and stir up dissent among members of the congregation, with the goal of taking over the leadership of the church, and ultimately, the denomination.  The book unmasks the covert methods that renewal groups and the IRD use to spread their propaganda, as well as showing how the pastor and other church leaders can act as either provocateurs or protectors in the face of attack.  Churches that have been “steeplejacked” are also examined to illustrate why some are able to withstand an attack, while others succumb.

An ambitious objective, to be sure.  Unfortunately, what promises to be a fantastic tale of money, intrigue, and covert scheming by IRD and its minions ultimately disappoints—primarily because it fails to even remotely prove any of its far-reaching claims.  As one observer of the United Church of Christ suggests, the book “proves two things: anyone can publish a book, and some leaders in the UCC are literally debilitated by the depth of their cynicism.”

A look at the claims made in the preceding paragraph serve as a microcosm of the book at large:

  • “Steeplejacking reveals how conservative renewal groups, backed by a right-wing organization called the Institute on Religion and Democracy…“—Dorhauer starts by drawing a dotted line between “conservative renewal groups” within the mainline church denominations and IRD.  The implication is that there is a fiduciary connection between the two, which allows IRD to pull the strings of these groups, manipulating them for its own political purposes.  Alas, Dorhauer offers no evidence of any financial support from IRD.  Dorhauer also uses the term “right wing” pejoratively, but makes no attempt to define it.  The only thing that is sure is that it is meant to imply someone more than conservative than Dorhauer himself, which includes a pretty good chunk of the populace.
  • “…use social wedge issues like homosexuality…”—Here Dorhauer attempts to define the controversial issues currently debated in churches as “wedge issues”—matters introduced with the sole intent of creating dissent and dissolving unity.  What he fails to acknowledge is that these issues were not introduced to the churches by IRD.  Rather, the discussion on these issues is one that pre-dates any perceived involvement by IRD.  The debates are centered on questions of profound moral, ethical, and theological grounds that strike at the heart of what it means to be the Church.  By labeling them as “wedge issues,” Dorhauer is able to avoid dealing with the content of the debate, simply dismissing it as “politically motivated.”
  • “…to infiltrate mainline churches and stir up dissent among leaders of the congregation…”-Exactly how IRD is “infiltrating” churches is unclear.  Is IRD sending trained operatives into these churches to create unrest?  If so, Dorhauer presents no evidence to the fact.  Is IRD mobilizing those who already attend these churches to fight on particular issues?  If so, what makes that any different than groups like Talk-to-Action, who hold regular conferences to encourage church members to speak out on matters like same-sex marriage and the ordination of practicing homosexuals?(For the record, the reason Dorhauer presents no evidence is because nothing of the sort actually exists.  IRD would never encourage anyone to join a church in order to pick a political fight.  The only reason to join any church is obedience to a call of Jesus Christ.  For those whose Christian call has already placed them in the UCC—or any other denomination—we offer resources to help them make a more faithful Christian social witness, and to opposee the abuse of social witness by some denominational leaders.  In our experience, those who use IRD materials are longtime members of a congregation and denomination who have already sensed something wrong in its social witness, and have already decided to work for change.  They believe the “wedge issues” are important Christian moral concerns.  If IRD materials help them make a more persuasive case to fellow church members, we are pleased and gratified.)
  • “…with the goal of taking over the leadership of the church, and ultimately, the denomination….”—Again, Dorhauer offers no evidence to support this claim.  And although Dorhauer continues to fail to tie any concrete actions to IRD or its supporters, yet he feels confident to assign a perceived motivation to them.
  • “…The book unmasks the covert methods that renewal groups and the IRD use to spread their propaganda…”—Except that it doesn’t.  Other than noting IRD’s  not exactly incognito attendance at various public events, there is no evidence of any “covert methods” being used by IRD or other renewal groups IRD is alleged to manipulate.
  • “…as well as showing how the pastor and other church leaders can act as either provocateurs or protectors in the face of attack.”—Here is the first real statement of truth in the paragraph.  While railing against IRD’s meddling in church affairs, Dorhauer is quick to assert that he is producing “provocateurs” (translated by Random House Unabridged Dictionary as “those who provoke trouble, cause dissension, or the like; agitators”).  While failing to really identify the attack being faced, he nonetheless lays out plans for a counter-offensive, endorsing and adopting the very tactics he has decried.  His hope is to silence those who oppose his vision of inclusiveness, thus creating a façade of unity in mainline churches where none exists.  (This is a method Dorhauer and Clarkson have perfected on their website, where those who voice even slight opposition to the opinions of the moderators are summarily banned from posting.)

To his credit, Dorhauer acknowledges his lack of hard proof.  “I know that the material and research I present leaves a lot of questions that must be addressed if my credibility is to be intact,” he says on his Talk to Action website.  “I even say at the outset that all I have is circumstantial evidence, around which I have built a theory.”  Yet this does not dissuade him from writing 192 pages on the subject.  While it might not exactly be a great research paper, the book deserves some recognition as a fine example of extensive creative writing.

Steeplejacking?  Or Repairing the Spires?
The lack of evidence aside, the question remains—is IRD engaged in “steeplejacking” mainline church congregations?  Using the phrase as intended by the authors, the answer is no.  It is not IRD’s objective to de-stabilize any congregation or denomination.  In fact, it is our firm desire that such bodies be strengthened to proclaim the Gospel of Christ in word and deed, without apology and without compromise.  We embrace the historic teachings of the Church Universal, and encourage denominations to respect their respective traditions and doctrines.

Even if IRD were intent on wreaking havoc on Rev. Dorhauer’s United Church of Christ or other similarly liberal church bodies, it is self-evident that IRD lacks the necessary resources to engage in such a practice on any significant level.  Despite claims by Dorhauer and others of IRD’s “well-funded” political machine, the truth is that IRD operates with a much smaller budget and vastly smaller staff than liberal church bodies and agencies with whom we often find ourselves in disagreement.  Dorhauer attempts to highlight IRD’s vast resources by pointing to reports that IRD has raised $4.765 million in contributions from “conservative activists.”  This is less impressive when you realize that these donations occurred over a 20 year span (1985-2005). $238,250 per year is a pretty small sum for an organization bent on world domination.

The authors of Steeplejacking have sought to create a new term to use against IRD and other perceived enemies of progressive churches.  The word is intended to bring to mind the forcible hijacking of church bodies, much the way airplanes are hijacked by armed terrorists.  Unfortunately for Dorhauer, the term “steeplejacking” is not new.  A “steeplejack” is one who scales church spires in order to renew and repair the structures.  Contrary to the vision of the authors, a steeplejack is not in the business of destroying the church, but rather to fix and refurbish—to strengthen the structure, and to improve its visibility to the community.

Using this original sense of the word, IRD is indeed in the business of steeplejacking.  It is our desire that the mainline churches, despite decades of irresponsible leadership, cultural relativism, and diminishing influence, return to its call to create disciples.  In order for this to happen, repairs must be made to the social witness of these churches—these “steeples” that call to the outside world to come inside and experience the presence of God.  This can only be done by stripping off the accretions of societal accommodation, and revealing that which lies underneath—”Christ, and Him crucified.”

We would hope that Dorhauer and others like him would join us in this endeavor.  Unfortunately, it appears that the author is too busy finding conspiracy where none exists to be of any use in such renewal.


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