March 7, 2008

“Renewal or Ruin?” DVD Attacks IRD

Delegates for the upcoming United Methodist General Conference have recently received copies of a melodramatic half-hour DVD entitled, “Renewal or Ruin? The Institute on Religion & Democracy’s Attack on the United Methodist Church.”

Since its release in March 2007, the film by United Methodist Holston Conference clergyman Steven Martin has been promoted on the websites of United Methodist Communications and the General Board of Church and Society, in newsletters of the unofficial and pro-homosexuality Reconciling Ministries Network and like-minded Methodist Federation for Social Action, and also by the United Methodist Reporter.  The Executive Committee of the United Methodist Council of Bishops arranged its own viewing “for information, not for approval.” 

The DVD alleges that IRD is funded and directed by wealthy Roman Catholics, opposed the civil rights movement and is in sync with the Ku Klux Klan, routinely dissembles and distorts, and wants to “destroy” theUnitedMethodistChurch.  Oh my!

Appearing on “Renewal or Ruin?” are San Francisco Bishop Beverly Shamana, psychologist and IRD critic Andrew Weaver, retired Bishop Ken Carder, liberal Episcopal priest and Columbia University Professor Randall Balmer, Episcopal Diocese of Washington spokesman Jim Naughton, blogger Fred Clarkson and Board of Church and Society chief Jim Winkler, who colorfully likens IRD to a snake whose fangs are “slowing trying to poison” the church. 

Since much of “Renewal or Ruin?” focuses on IRD’s supposed “tactics” of “hardball politics,” the tactics of one of the film’s prominent spokesman, Andrew Weaver, merit description.   TheNew Yorkpsychologist and church gadfly routinely writes angry exposes about IRD.  He often sends them out to numerous people in unsolicited e-mails. At least once, he forwarded articles to an IRD board member’s co-workers. He also did the same with the mother of one IRD staffer, as well as that mother’s co-workers, decrying the “disgraceful” nature of her child’s work, prompting the threat of legal action against Weaver by their employer.  Another time, Weaver emailed the staff of an IRD staffer’s church.  

When one recipient of Weaver’s nasty grams responded negatively, Weaver called him a Nazi. Weaver refuses to shake hands with IRD staff and often adopts the persona of an angry bull in constant search of a fluttering red blanket.  Why did Steven Martin find him to be an appropriate spokesman for “Renewal or Ruin?”


Colorful Rhetoric
Amid theme music evocative of 1970s horror flicks, “Renewal or Ruin” accuses IRD of “fueling controversy to its own benefit” and waging “a systematic attack of theUnitedMethodistChurch at every level” in an attempt “to undermine its authority and its ability to do good work.”  The opening screen text bewails how “IRD has been largely successful in setting the agenda for the destruction of the church’s social witness in key areas.”  Episcopal spokesman Jim Naughton alleges that IRD targets “our mainline churches” in an “attempt to destroy those churches.” 

Articles by the “fear-mongering” and “hate-mongering” IRD are so “revolting” that Andrew Weaver, a clergy member of the California Nevada Conference,  had “to go take a shower” after reading them.  He asserts that IRD’s “political operatives” have no interest in “affirm[ing] the Gospel,” and that about “everybody of conscience in mainline churches has been attacked at some level by these people.” 

Methodist General Board of Church and Society head Jim Winkler described IRD as “a snake that has sunk its fangs . . . into the blood of the big dog”

In perhaps the DVD’s most colorful quote, church lobbyist Jim Winkler warns that the “insidious” IRD “is really a snake that has sunk its fangs into the paw or into the blood of the big dog” (i.e. theUnitedMethodistChurch) “and is slowly trying to poison it!” 

Bishop Ken Carder frets that the “IRD tries to intimidate” people in order to “weaken the church’s witness.”   “I fear that it’s working,” he laments.  Defending his role in the film on the liberal UM Nexus website, Bishop Carder called IRD’s work “disingenuous at best and diabolical at worst.”

In the same UM Nexus article, Bishop Beverly Shamana charges that IRD “preys upon the unsuspecting and vulnerable.”  She wants the church’s leadership to “go to great lengths to give our congregations tools and resources to scrutinize” it.  And in the movie she charges that “clearly, their mission is to dismantle our church”

Blogger/activist Fred Clarkson, who regularly writes against IRD, pronounces that the IRD is “not interested in renewing [the churches] whatsoever,” but that that is “a ridiculous euphemism” for their real goal of “bending them to their will or dismantling them.”  He explains that IRD’s “sole purpose is to foment distrust and suspicion and to break [churches] apart.” 

Clarkson denounces IRD’s role in early 1980’s stories by “60 Minutes” and the Reader’s Digest about friendly attitudes by some mainline church officials towards Marxist causes.  He calls the well-documented exposes “a smear job and a lie.”  Officials of both the National and World Councils of Churches have publicly regretted some of their unthoughtful Cold War stances.  But Religious Left hardliners, such as the creators of “Renewal or Ruin?” prefer to forget even recent history.

“Renewal or Ruin?” closes with Clarkson direly warning mainline Protestant leaders that if they fail to more actively oppose the IRD, “you are responsible for the destruction, the failure, or at least the significant diminishment of everything you care about in this life.”


Getting the Facts Straight
The DVD features numerous false assertions, including:

  • Martin claimed on his blog that after he wrote an article decrying an IRD/UMAction resolution being introduced to the 2006 session of his annual conference that “IRD staff attempted to intimidate me.” This assertion was uncritically included in the United Methodist Reporter’s review of the film.   But the “intimidation” was simply an email from IRD staffer the Rev. Jim Berkley, who asked Martin to “please cool the contentiousness and clamor and accusations” in order to address the issues substantively.   Martin later acknowledged on his blog that Berkley’s message was “gentle, kind and polite.”  But Martin likened Berkley’s soft tone to “the smooth-tongued rhetoric of Osama Bin Laden.”
  • Clarkson inaccurately claims that IRD has received funding “from the openly theocratic reconstructionist movement.”  He also complains that that IRD was established by “interests who were not necessarily inside the church” who were opposed to the legacy of the civil rights and other contemporary movements in order “to undermine the churches.”  In fact, IRD’s primary founder was David Jessup, a political liberal, Democrat, AFL-CIO official, and United Methodist layman who was concerned about church support for non-democratic movements.   Jessup, and other IRD founders, were prominently involved in the civil rights movement.  
  • The film alleges that over $70 million dollars had been funneled by “far right-wing” foundations through Roman Catholic IRD board members “to undermine mainline Protestant denominations.”  Over its 27 years, IRD’s annual budget has rarely exceeded $1 million.  Our ecumenical board includes Catholics, but none of our major funding sources are Catholic.  
  • Winkler describes the IRD as “never, ever say[ing] a positive word” about theUnitedMethodistChurch.  In fact, IRD regularly includes “GOOD NEWS” items in our newsletter and encourage church members to remain within United Methodism.   
  • Weaver claims that “without a doubt” “the key players” within IRD “are all Roman Catholics.”  A simple look at the IRD staff biography page refutes this. 
  • Weaver also asserts that “100 percent of [IRD’s] money and staff is devoted to” efforts within mainline Protestant denominations.  He completely ignores IRD’s Religious Liberty program and the fact that the scope of our ecumenical programmatic work (distinct from our three denomination-specific programs) has never been limited to mainline Protestantism. 
  • In promoting his film, Martin cites IRD’s “millions of dollars (most of which are given from outside the UMC).”  In fact, over the course of its history, the majority of UMAction’s donations have come from United Methodist congregations and individuals. 

In its zeal to portray IRD’s Methodist program as an “outside” effort by a “group of mostly non-United Methodists,” “Renewal or Ruin?” neglects to acknowledge that IRD’s UMAction program is staffed by United Methodists and has its own steering committee and advisory board entirely composed of United Methodists. 

At another point, Winkler complains that IRD has not praised his agency for doing “so much work on alcohol abuse.”  But the Board of Church and Society’s own budget does not even include a line item for specific work on alcohol concerns.

The video castigates IRD for opposing the 2005 conference atLake Junaluska,North Carolinacalled “Hearts on Fire,” which the video portrays as simply a gathering of “a caucus group of United Methodists.” That “Hearts on Fire” was a rally for pro-homosexuality groups attempting to overturn United Methodism’s teachings about sex and marriage is never mentioned. 


Bishop Carder’s Story
The DVD features an extra segment in which Bishop Carder lengthily recalls his 2004 spat with UMAction Director Mark Tooley as an example of IRD’s alleged lack of integrity.

Tooley wrote an article about the discomfort with patriotism felt by many mainline Protestant officials after 9-11.  He briefly cited an essay by Carder called “God BlessAmerica…and the World.”  Carder was sent an article draft and asked for comment.  The bishop responded angrily that the article was distorting, though he did not say how, and he demanded this his entire column be reprinted within Tooley’s article.

Meanwhile, Carder discovered that a draft of Tooley’s article had already appeared on the IRD’s website.  He wrote a second letter denouncing Tooley, who phoned Carder to apologize and explain that the final article would appear in a magazine several months away and that the website version could easily be amended with his comments.

Still, Carder grimly pronounces in the DVD:  “I felt that this was a distortion of journalism with integrity for he is not a journalist but he is a propagandist and that this was a distortion for personal gain or that is the gain of his institution, at the expense of the truth.”   


Questions of Consistency
In explaining his motivation for making the movie, Steven Martin has cited IRD’s “sinister” and “sickening” tactic of offering sample resolutions for supporters to submit to their annual conferences.  Martin does not explain why liberal groups should routinely submit their resolutions but conservative groups should not.

Martin’s DVD targets IRD’s non-church funding sources.  But IRD gets funding from supporters who actually support our perspective.  Isn’t this preferable to some United Methodist agencies, which use collection plate money donated by unknowing church members for the church agencies’ controversial political and theological stances?  The DVD is also unconcerned about liberal groups, like the pro-homosexuality Reconciling Ministries Network, its ally Soulforce, and the National Council of Churches, all of which get dollars from liberal secular foundations. 

“Renewal or Ruin?” repeatedly faults IRD for “attacking” the church.  This is inaccurate.  The IRD critiques some policies of some of its officials and agencies.   Unlike many speakers featured in the DVD, IRD affirms the church’s essential doctrines and polity.   It is interesting that nearly all of the DVD’s talking heads are persons who strongly oppose IRD’s church’s teachings about homosexuality. 

The DVD is not shy about questioning motives.  Martin, contrasts IRD with “we who do love the church.”  Bishop Carder suggests that in addition to being driven by “a political or an ideological … agenda,” IRD is also motivated by a “financial agenda.”

Without a sense of irony, Martin boasts of “our ability to talk through problems … in a loving manner” and claims his movie will promote such loving dialogue.  He cites Christ’s teaching that the world will know who His followers are because of how they love each other. 

Martin’s hit piece completely avoids addressing substantive issues.  Should the church affirm biblical sexual ethics?  Should church officials affirm orthodox theology?  Should church agencies routinely adopt controversial political stances without the informed consent of the church’s membership?  Instead, “Renewal or Ruin” focuses on scare tactics, pandering to the nodding heads of liberal United Methodists, while pretending that orthodox believers sympathetic to our concerns are non-existent.   

Humorously, UM Nexus has called Martin a “contemporary David” facing the “contemporary Goliath” of IRD, and also likens him to “the lone student who stood against Chinese tanks inTiananmen Squarein 1989.”  In fact, Martin’s video, with support from bishops and church agency executives, unexceptionally expresses the conventional mindset of the liberal church bureaucracy.

That liberal church bureaucracy, viewing demographic trends that are unfriendly to its perspective, understandably fears for its future.  “Renewal or Ruin?” is an attempt to transpose upon IRD the anxiety and anger that many United Methodist liberals feel as they sense their receding influence.

“Renewal or Ruin?” tries to scare its believers into action.  But in the end, it only magnifies IRD’s influence while failing to explain how IRD, as a supposedly “outside” group, got to be so influential among United Methodists in the first place.

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