Untied Methodist (John 11:44)

A working preacher in Washington, D.C., wrestles with Scripture, the (sigh) United Methodist Church and his soul.

Location: Washington, D.C., United States

Currently the pastor of Foundry UMC in Washington, DC, a wonderful and blessed reconciling congregation. Formerly a United Methodist communicator and editor. Formerly a campus minister. Formerly pastor in Philadelphia for 24 years. Graduate of Albright College and Boston University of Theology. Husband of Jane Malone and father of David, Nancy and Naomi. Resident of Capitol Hill, a wonderful place to live! Articles published in Zion's Herald, a must-read magazine for Methodists, a variety of United Methodist publications, the Christian Century, newspapers.


After Reading "Hard Ball on Holy Ground"

I was tempted to entitle this post "Is the IRD Part of a Vast Right-Wing Conspiracy?" but decided that would be too sensationalistic.

It is, however, the sort of question one is left asking after reading the new book from Zion's Herald magazine, Hard Ball on Holy Ground: The Religious Right v. the Mainline for the Church's Soul.

The IRD -- Institute for Religion and Democracy -- is a conservative church reform group founded in 1981 that believes the Episcopal, Presbyterian and United Methodist churches have forsaken the Gospel for "political agendas" such as "radical forms of feminism, environmentalism, pacifism, multi-culturalism, revolutionary socialism, sexual liberation and so forth." (Quoted from the IRD's mission statement found here.) It has an office, headed by Mark Tooley, that focuses on the United Methodist Church called UM Action.

The institute's critics argue that the IRD has its own political agenda: "increasing military spending, opposing environmental protection efforts, and eliminating social welfare programs." (Hard Ball, p. 9)

I wrote recently (see here) about my concern that the book Hard Ball on Holy Ground was being published at all. I worried that its very existence might further polarize the church.

Having now read it, I need to say that the book, which consists of articles previously published in Zion's Herald, is mostly balanced and careful. In interviews printed in the book, the book's editor, Steve Swecker, who also edits Zion's Herald, certainly gave the staff of the IRD every chance to articulate their side of the story.

A couple of the articles are disappointing. They focus too much on guilt-by-association, and are written with a hysterical edge that weakens their credibility. (I don't think an article should discredit anyone by vague references to "ties with the ultra-conservative John Birch Society" (Hard Ball, p. 8) anymore than articles should hint at ties with the Communist Party. Innuendo is not helpful.)

Yet, despite some flaws, the book raises two questions that we need to ask about the IRD, questions which the IRD staff failed to answer adequately when they were given a chance to do so during interviews with Swecker.

The first question has to do with the significance of the IRD's funding sources. Hard Ball includes a list of IRD funders who have no particular connection with the United Methodist Church but who tend to fund ultra-conservative causes: The Scaife Family Foundations (Mellon Bank money), Fieldstone and Company (savings and loan money), the John M. Olin Foundation (Winchester rifle money), the Castle Rock Foundation (Coors beer money), and the Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation (electronics money) .

Furthermore, these contributions are not nominal by any means. Scaife has contributed $1.9 million; Bradley has given more than $1.5 million; Fieldstone contributes an average of $75,000 a year. Why are these organizations funding the IRD to this extent? What is their goal in doing so? Why do they care so much about the United Methodist Church?

The second question has to do with the makeup of the IRD board. Swecker raised this question in an interview with the late Diane Knippers, who was the IRD's executive director until her premature death from cancer this past April. "You have on your board of advisors prominent Catholics and people from the Jewish community," he asked. "What is their interest as IRD members in directly going to Protestant mainline churches to hold them accountable -- but not to their own faith communities?"

Swecker then makes the question even more pointed: "If the shoe were on the other foot, and you had an organization of self-appointed Protestants attacking Catholic or Jewish organizations, how do you think that would go down?" (Hard Ball, p. 89) Excellent question.

Swecker's answer to his own question is that the presence of famous conservative Catholics like Michael Novak and Richard John Neuhaus has given the IRD credibility in conservative circles and, thus, helped the IRD get the kind of funding it has gotten from conservative funders.

Let me be clear. It is a free country. If Adolph Coors wants to use his Castle Rock Foundation to fund a group that attacks moderate and liberal United Methodists, it is his money. If Father Neuhaus wants to sit on a board that attempts to put the United Methodist General Board of Church and Society out of business even though he himself is Catholic and not Methodist, that is his business. (Although I suspect he might scream bloody murder if a Protestant agency were formed that called itself RC Action to advocate disbanding the Catholic Conference of Bishops' Secretariat for Pro-Life Activities.)

It is a free country, and anybody who wants to give his or her money to the IRD ought to be able to do so, and the IRD ought to be able to have anyone it wants on its board.

United Methodists, however, ought to recognize that something different from disagreements we have lived through in the past is going on here. This is something different from a family discussion, or even a family argument.

I am pleased that, unlike the earlier book United Methodism @ Risk: A Wake-Up Call published by the Information Project for United Methodists, the focus of Hard Ball is almost entirely on the IRD. I really believe the IRD is different.

I believe the discussion with the Good News Movement and the Confessing Movement is a family argument. These latter movements consist of United Methodists who love their denomination as much as I do, but who have a different theological understanding and vision. I was afraid Hard Ball, like @ Risk, would try to tar all conservative United Methodist organizations with the same brush.

There is only one article in Hard Ball that focuses on Good News. It is anecdotal and not substantive, and Good News is given the opportunity to respond, and does so at length. Still, this chapter would have better been left out of the book. The IRD and Good News are different kinds of organizations.

Good News and the Confessing Movement are efforts by United Methodists to influence their church. The IRD is an attempt to steer United Methodism, and other Protestant denominations, from the outside on behalf of a secular political agenda.

This is not illegal, but United Methodists ought to see it for what it is and not be influenced by it. Conservative United Methodist organizations, like Good News and the Confessing Movement, ought to distance themselves from the IRD. Publications ought not to quote the IRD without identifying the organization accurately. For the sake of clarity, whenever the press refers to the IRD or UM Action, it ought to mention that it is an organization attempting to influence the United Methodist Church's policies that is funded and run largely by non-United Methodists.

We can disagree with each other but, when an outside force tries to use us or manipulate us, we ought to stand together.

Zion's Herald has served the United Methodist Church well by publishing most of these articles and by collecting them into a book, but Zion's Herald also needs to be careful. Too much sensationalism (See "Did the IRD Endanger Missionaries?" Addendum# 1 of The Radical Right Assault on Mainline Protestantism and the National Council of Churches of Christ at ZH World.) will not help. Solid reporting and thoughtful articulation of sound opinions will.

I think few United Methodists want our denominational discussions to be manipulated by non-United Methodist organizations funded by outside foundations with self-interested agendas. If Zion's Herald just calmly keeps making this kind of information about the IRD clear, without exaggeration or hysterics, it will have served its church well.


Blogger azeotroper said...

Should we also bar the NOW, PFLAG, AARP, etc. from trying to influence Methodist belief? IRD doesn't just focus on Methodists, but the Lord knows it could spend from now until doomsday to clean up the mess that the UMC is in now.

11:44 PM  
Blogger Elizabeth said...

Dean - thanks for this review. I've seen the book and was wondering whether to purchase. I've been concerned about the IRD since being introduced to it - my biggest problem being that I can attend UMC events, and then read about them as reported by IRD, and wonder if we were even at the same event, so different were my perceptions from the accounts I read. I know there are many sides to every story, but still...

2:46 PM  
Blogger Dean Snyder said...

Dear Azeotroper:

If NOW, PFLAY or AARP were to begin devoting millions of dollars annually to change the policies of the UMC, I would be unhappy with them. Some Methodists or some Methodist groups working together with other organizations on issues where we have shared interests is very different from outside groups spending millions of dollars to change or undermine our witness. Don't you see a difference?

4:04 PM  
Blogger Dean Snyder said...


I've had somne experience with IRD's reporting style. You know before hand what slant the story will take. But I will say that when I was a communicator and I called Mark Tooley about something that was inaccurate, he always fixed it.

4:06 PM  
Blogger William said...


A bit of logic would help your argument. The AARP and other orgs spend enormous amounts of money pursuing their agendas. They have a big influence on the Methodist Church, but mostly by indirect means. They pursue their agenda aggressively.

The IRD just has a more direct agenda that they pursue more openly. Since you don't agree with the IRD, you call their approach unfair. If the IRD changed practices or approach, you'd still find some way to call them unfair.

Your argument is thus bogus.


4:28 PM  

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