Some of the greatest compliments to IRD’s work come from our adversaries. Their condemnation and warnings about us are flattering tributes to our influence and effectiveness. But they also reveal a degree of Orwellian paranoia.
Two very recent critics include a United Methodist liberal activist, and the President of the fast-declining United Church of Christ denomination.
Liberal United Methodist writer Christy Thomas insisted IRD must be renounced, targeting our UMAction director John Lomperis and myself in her August 28 United Methodist Insight article:
Ultimately, restoring trust [within United Methodism] will require an apology from those who have permitted John Lomperis to have such a large role in setting UMC policy. We also need a public acknowledgment of the wrongness of a decision to let an ex-CIA agent, Mark Tooley, attempt to re-create the church in his image.
Thomas further insisted:
The WCA, the Good News Movement, and any other groups associated with Mr. Tooley and Mr. Lomperis must renounce their connection with the Institution on Religion and Democracy and return any funding they have received. These two men are indeed United Methodists. And, sadly, they have spearheaded a movement to destroy the core of United Methodism and its long-standing work on the part of social justice.
Note her word “destroy.” For 38 years IRD has advocated that America’s churches uphold orthodox theology and a public witness rooted in historic Christian teaching. In the early 1980s at our founding we were responding directly to Mainline Protestant support for Marxist revolutionary movements. But that political extremism was only a symptom of theological heterodoxy dominant in liberal Protestantism since early in the twentieth century and radicalized in the 1960s.
It was never IRD’s intent to “destroy the core” of any Mainline denomination but rather to seek their renewal, both because of their importance to the Body of Christ and to sustaining American democracy. Their ongoing collapse, which began in the early to mid 1960s, has been a great loss especially to American civic life. Having served as America’s central mediating institutions that historically sought both societal reform and consensus, the disappearance of Mainline Protestantism arguably explains today’s polarization.
That polarization is exemplified by IRD critics like Thomas, who imagine any dissent from conventional leftist theology and politics within shrinking denominations is subversive and destructive. That most church-going lay people never subscribed to liberal Protestant totems and often voted with their feet rather than resist is typically ignored by IRD critics.
John Dorhauer, President and General Minister of the 800,000 member United Church of Christ, similarly prefers to imagine conspiracy, literally, over any admission that liberal Protestantism after six decades of decline may have erred. He wrote in the August 2019 Christian Ethics Today:
At the center of this conspiracy is a group called the Institute on Religion and Democracy located in Washington, D.C. It is directed by a former CIA-trained psych-ops agent named Mark Tooley, The IRD is funded by heavy hitters from the neo-conservative side of the political right. Those benefactors don’t care a whole lot about religion or faith. What they care about is that every social justice movement in this country has been fueled, funded and fostered by religious leaders with a conscience, a pulpit and a congregation.
What Dorhauer calls a conspiracy is pretty scary. But what is the conspiracy? Evidently it is IRD destroying liberal-controlled denominations like the UCC, a once great Mainline denomination that has lost over 60% of its membership and thousands of its congregations across over 50 years. Dorhauer seems to think only IRD can explain the ongoing implosion of his church.
Here’s how he further describes IRD:
Like inquisitors from the past, they believe the church must be purified of heretics. Functioning with an “the ends justify the means” ethic, they continue to infiltrate our churches with their trained operatives. They distort the teachings of mainstream religion. They continue to do this largely unnoticed by religious bodies who suffer because of their machinations, but who remain largely ignorant of their work and are functionally blind to their existence.
In 2007 Dorhauer coauthored a book called Steeplejacking: How the Christian Right is Hijacking Mainstream Religion, which focused on reputed IRD subversion within the United Church of Christ. The publisher describes it this way:
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 an attack. Churches that have been “steeplejacked” are also examined to illustrate why some are able to withstand an attack, while others succumb.
In his recent article, as in his book, Dorhauer claims IRD has trained saboteurs to “infiltrate” his denomination. His evidence is mostly just lay people looking up articles on the internet and being troubled by what they discovered about their church. The democratization of knowledge has harmed liberal Protestant bureaucracies and accelerated their decline. Once influential church bureaucrats are no longer gatekeepers, which flustered Dorhauer, as he recounts, when he spoke to local UCC congregations armed with printed internet articles countering the institutional narrative.
Here are a few more quotes from the UCC president:
The creation of the IRD was a covert attempt on their part to minimize the impact that religious leaders and bodies have had to bend the arc of history slowly towards justice. And it worked. They were founded in the early 1980s and have been functioning ever since with very little interference or notice from the churches, leaders and people most impacted by them.
IRD was never “covert.” It was announced at a 1981 press conference in Washington, DC and rose to prominence through exposes by Sixty Minutes and Readers Digest about church radicalism.
But here’s the most revealing part from Dorhauer as he concludes about IRD:
They continue to play tackle football while we play touch. And, yes, we are losing this game. We are losing it badly.
IRD appreciates his compliment that we are effective at “tackle football” in the churches. And his version of liberal Protestant Christianity is “losing” and losing “badly.” But it’s not IRD’s fault. We are only spotlighting how failed policies are killing great churches by exchanging the traditional Gospel for heterodox theology laced with leftwing politics.
Dorhauer presides over a denomination that once had over 2 million members and now has 800,000 while sadly losing tens of thousands more every year. And yet liberal church bureaucrats are unable to admit the real causes, preferring to create conspiracy theories and blame the whistleblowers.
United Methodist Christy Thomas thinks the same way. USA United Methodism has lost over 4 million members under liberal leadership while the traditional church in Africa has gone from nearly zero to 5 million by preaching the traditional Gospel. Yet she and other liberal USA Methodists admit no lessons. Instead, they blame IRD for dividing the church.
For Thomas, Dorhauer and many other defenders of dying institutional liberal Protestantism, IRD is the much needed bête noire, akin to the villain Emmanuel Goldstein in George Orwell’s 1984. Goldstein was the Enemy of the People covertly orchestrating all subversion against Big Brother. Nobody through their own thoughts dissented from the Party, unless manipulated by Goldstein. Of course, Goldstein was likely the invention of Big Brother.
If IRD never existed, it would have to be invented by critics like Dorhauer and Thomas, who can’t imagine how else churches that don’t prioritize orthodox Christian beliefs keep losing millions of members across more than half a century.