Institute of Hate

Right-wingers are targeting liberal pastors -- including at least one in S.F. -- who favor gay marriage

For many pastors, biblical criticisms of homosexuality fall into the same category as the Apostle Paul's instructions regarding women's hair length, say, or scriptural scolds against gossip. For these pastors, Old Testament Hebrew mores are overshadowed by Jesus Christ's New Testament lessons on love, brotherhood, and acceptance. These differences in interpretation of Scripture have spawned earnest, impassioned debate among mainline Christians. Yet if one asks a United Methodist or a Presbyterian about her opponents' opinions on this issue, she will likely give you a respectful description of how a fellow churchgoer is acting on his faith. In a spirit similar to the one that guides Jewish Talmudic debate, most of America's churches have been respectful of difference.

It's within this church spirit of vigorous civil discourse that the tactics behind the IRD's attempt to move mainstream churches to the right are troublesome. The IRD and its allies' strategy of using right-wing nonreligious foundation money to smear liberal church leaders through mailings, articles in IRD-aligned publications, press releases, and stories in secular newspapers and magazines has more in common with a CIA Third World destabilization campaign than ordinary civilized debate. During 2000 and 2001, IRD board member Howard F. Ahmanson Jr. spent $1 million on right-wing agitation in the Anglican Church that included an attempt to falsely defame that denomination's openly gay bishop, the Right Rev. Eugene Robinson, according to During that period, Ahmanson donated another half-million dollars directly to the IRD for similar work in all three of the group's target denominations. In the Presbyterian Church the IRD has fought, with some success, to include condemnation of homosexuality in an official church paper, The American Family. And in the Methodist Church, Mark Tooley has engaged in a vigorous direct-mail campaign to convince churchgoers that their more liberal bishops are not true Christians, and should be purged.

The Institute on Religion and Democracy was co-founded 23 years ago by a group of neoconservatives led by Penn Kemble, who served as a matchmaker between Oliver North and U.S.-based financial backers of the Nicaraguan Contra rebels. Kemble went on to lead the U.S. Information Agency, the foreign propaganda arm of the federal government.

During the Iran-Contra years, Kemble was quoted in newspapers saying liberal leaders of America's mainline Protestant churches had frustrated the CIA's efforts to overthrow Nicaragua's Sandinista government. He helped launch the IRD along with fellow neocons Richard John Neuhaus, a former Lutheran pastor turned Catholic priest who went on to edit the conservative journal First Things, and Michael Novak, a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. Like the American Enterprise Institute's, the IRD's top donors include conservative foundations such as the Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation, the Sarah Scaife Foundation, and the John M. Olin Foundation.

According to the IRD's 1981 manifesto, the new group would enlist religious principles in the struggle against communism. In practice, this has seemed to mean attacking the United Methodist, Presbyterian, and Episcopal churches in the way the CIA has dealt with Third World countries deemed at risk of going Red. During the last 20 years the IRD has spent some $4 million financing new front organizations within the three major Protestant denominations, while also supporting existing right-wing dissident groups within those churches.

With the wane of the Cold War, the group moved from foreign communism to domestic bugaboos. In 1994 it hired Mark Tooley, who had worked for eight years as a CIA Eastern Africa analyst, to set up an office under the name UMAction for Faith, Freedom, and Family. Tooley set to work directly across the street from the United Methodist Church's national offices in Washington, D.C. He created media smear campaigns against church officials seen as too liberal, and sent out mailings designed to roil internal debates over sexual morality, homosexuality, and feminist ideology.

When I asked Tooley whether he saw similarities between his current work and his previous job as an Africa analyst for the CIA, he said, "None that I see, except that I was a writer there and I'm a writer here."

United Methodist officials I spoke with said Karen Oliveto has reason to fear IRD attention. In previous campaigns against Methodist hierarchs, Tooley has sent mailings to a list of more than 300,000 select United Methodists calling for the removal of clergy, bishops, and other church officials deemed guilty of liberal leanings. He has issued press releases accusing officials of un-Christian beliefs, published articles in IRD-linked publications smearing church officials, and arranged for media articles denouncing United Methodist leaders.

Melvin Talbert preceded Beverly Shamana as bishop of the church's Northern California conference and is now director of the denomination's Commission on Christian Unity. He has been outspoken on the issues of rights for women, African-Americans, homosexuals, and the poor, and as a result he's one of several bishops over the years who have suffered Tooley-run smears.

Tooley recently unleashed a broadside saying it was a "scandal that somebody like Bishop Talbert is Chief Ecumenical Officer for the Bishops of the Methodist Church." Tooley added that Talbert "has distinguished himself for promoting homosexuality with a church and chasing out those churches who uphold the church's position on Christian sexual morality."

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