Summer 2004, Vol. 7, No. 2

Table of Contents
Summer 2004

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Other articles
in this issue

From the Editor:
Shocked, Shocked

Kerry Eucharistes

Tying the Knot in the Bay State

Black Pastors Bridle at Gay Marriage

A Thorn in the Mainline's Side

Still Under God

Kabbalah for Dummies

Breaking Boston's Heart



A Thorn in the Mainline's Side
by Alexis Schweizer

On June 20, the Los Angeles Times reported that the National Association of Evangelicals (NAE) was circulating a draft “call to civic engagement” designed to instruct its members on how to bring their religious values to bear on public policy. The document “will be a surprise to those who have a very stereotyped idea of what evangelicals are,” Diane Knippers, an NAE board member and co-chair of the drafting committee, told the Times.

This was hardly the first time that Knippers had appeared in the news media. Since 1990, newspapers from coast to coast have turned to her for quotes hostile to the public stances of religious liberals—whether it be endorsing the first Gulf War, attacking feminist theology, or (most often) assailing the National Council of Churches (NCC).

In 1995, for example, syndicated columnist Cal Thomas cited Knippers’ critique of an NCC “laying of hands” ceremony intended to strengthen President Clinton’s resolve in preparing the federal government’s annual budget. This was, said Knippers, “a disturbing misuse of prayer for blatantly partisan purposes.”

In 1996, the Washington Times reported that when the NCC mounted a fund-raising campaign to rebuild black churches that had been destroyed by fire, Knippers demanded that the organization apologize for perpetuating what she referred to as the “great church-fire hoax.” The money raised, Knippers told the Times, was going to be used “to promote its radical agenda and to smear conservatives.” The Wall Street Journal also beat a path to Knippers’ phone, quoting her to the effect that the campaign was being used “to justify its thesis that America is on the verge of a race war.”

Over the next six years, a characteristic conservative quote from Knippers appeared in one publication or another every month or so. The controversy surrounding the selection of Gene Robinson as the first openly gay Episcopal bishop, however, kicked her up to the next level as a media talking head. Not for nothing did UPI, in June of 2003, call her “one of the most resonant Washington voices in matters of faith and policy.”

You could hardly tune in a talk show in the summer of 2003—ABC’s Good Morning America, Fox’s O’Reilly Factor, CNN’s Wolf Blitzer Reports, MSNBC’s Buchanan and Press, etc.—and not find Knippers opining on the evils of ordaining a gay bishop.

Here is Knippers on Robinson in an interview with NPR reporter Barbara Bradley Haggerty that aired on the July 31 edition of NPR’s All Things Considered: “This is a man who married, who fathered two children and then just made a decision that he wasn’t satisfied with his wife or maybe even with his sex life, so he abandoned his marriage vows….You know, whether he took a trophy wife or, you know, a male lover, that is not a godly example.” (Public radio was not, perhaps, Knippers’ favorite venue. A couple of months later, she told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution’s John Blake that the Episcopal leaders who approved Robinson were “middle class elites” who “listen to NPR. They don’t watch Fox TV.”)

On August 7, Knippers joined other conservative Episcopalians in marching out of the General Convention in Minneapolis after Robinson’s election was approved. “Smearing ashes on their forehead to symbolize their sorrow, conservative Episcopalians…called on worldwide leaders to intervene in what they called a ‘pastoral emergency,’” Newsday’s Carol Eisenberg wrote. “‘We are faithful Episcopalians,’ said a sobbing Diane Knippers….‘What we are saying is that those who have joined in the action supporting Gene Robinson have voted to disassociate themselves with the Anglican communion. Their action was schismatic.’”

If Knippers has become a go-to spokesperson for conservative Episcopalians in particular and conservative religion in general, it is thanks to her position as president of something called the Institute on Religion and Democracy (IRD). The IRD is one of those special Washington entities that carries public debates forward by providing ideological fodder for one side or the other. In news stories, shorthand characterizations of the organization range from “conservative group” and “conservative think tank” to “an interdenominational group that promotes Christian views on public policies” and a place that “promotes the historic Christian faith and the family.”

In October 2001, Hartford Courant columnist Lawrence Cohen described the IRD as “the more intellectual, sherry-sipping, mainstream ‘conservative’ voice of Protestantism: not ‘Christian right,’ not necessarily old-fashioned evangelical, but men and women of faith within the traditional Main Street churches who think that transcendence has been replaced by the latest pronouncements on air pollution and tax policy.”

Asked to identify the IRD in a May 2003 interview on PBS’s Religion and Ethics Newsweekly, Knippers herself said, “We work for the renewal or reform of the U.S. churches’ social and political witness, and so that means we tackle a lot of political and social issues—everything from human sexuality to international religious persecution.”

In 1983, two years after its founding, the IRD was the object of articles in the New York Times and Time magazine, but since then no media outlet appears to have taken a direct look at the organization until this year.

In February, the alternative San Francisco paper SF Weekly published “Institute of Hate,” a 2,366-word feature story about the IRD’s targeting of Rev. Karen Oliveto, a liberal Methodist pastor, for performing same-sex marriages. The article focused on Mark Tooley, a former CIA analyst who heads United Methodist Action, an IRD project designed to “defend traditional Christian beliefs and practices” within the Methodist church. (The IRD also sponsors “Episcopal Action” and “Presbyterian Action.”)

According to reporter Matt Smith, Tooley’s modus operandi has been to attack liberal Methodist leaders through mailings to church members, press releases, articles in IRD-linked publications, and media “smear campaigns.” In the case of Rev. Oliveto, the IRD issued a press release stating that her actions were being scrutinized. The release quoted Tooley as saying, “I pray that Rev. Oliveto’s bishop, Beverly Shamana, will uphold her ecclesial obligations and discipline Rev. Oliveto.”

For her part, Oliveto had gained media attention as far back as 1996 for supporting gays and lesbians in the church in her capacity as chairwoman of the Reconciling Congregations Program, which urges acceptance and inclusion for all believers, regardless of sexuality. On February 13, one day after San Francisco mayor Gavin Newsom ordered the city to began issuing marriage licenses to same-sex couples, Oliveto issued her own press release announcing that she had married five of these couples in City Hall.

On February 19, Don Lattin and Steve Rubenstein of the San Francisco Chronicle wrote that her actions were “likely” to provoke a formal complaint that could result in Oliveto losing her ministerial credentials. In his SF Weekly article a week later, Smith reported that a complaint had in fact been made by “an unidentified church member.”

Over the next couple of months, stories about Oliveto’s case appeared not only in the Chronicle but also in the New York Times, the San Diego Union-Tribune, the Christian Science Monitor, the Christian Century, and the on-line magazine Slate. But to the extent that the IRD figured in the story, it was only via quotes from Tooley, identified without explanation as “of United Methodist Action.”

On March 14, for example, Tooley told the Chronicle, “It is sadly predictable that a United Methodist pastor of that region would eagerly follow the latest secular fad and preside over homosexual nuptials in San Francisco.” Oliveto had been marrying same-sex couples for some time, he suggested to the San Diego Union-Tribune April 29. “What made this different is the fact that she put out a news release about it, where in the past she did not broadcast it across the country.”

In exploring the IRD’s role in the story, Smith called attention to its roots in the politics of the last days of the Cold War, and likened its activities to the CIA’s role in Third World countries. The IRD’s founding “manifesto” stated that its purpose was to “enlist religious principles in the struggle against communism.”

IRD board member Howard F. Ahmanson, Jr. had, according to Smith, given the organization half a million dollars to counter the liberalism of mainline Protestant denominations. Granting the right of “conservative Christians to advocate their viewpoint within their church of choice,” Smith wrote that nonetheless, “San Franciscans should pay attention to this church war over gay marriage if we want our city’s 2004 winter of love to become anything more than a passing left-coast feel-good fest.”

On the right coast, meanwhile, the IRD received some sustained attention from the New York Times. In a 1,780-word article published May 22, national religion reporter Laurie Goodstein and David Kirkpatrick, the Times’ “conservatives” beat reporter, made out a case that this was a mouse that roared. “Although the institute has an annual budget of just less than $1 million, and a staff of fewer than a dozen,” they wrote, “liberals and conservatives alike say it is having an outsized effect on the dynamics of American politics.”

In the larger scheme of things, suppressing the liberalism of the Protestant mainline mattered. “The mainline denominations are a strategic piece on the chessboard that the right wing is trying to dominate,” Alfred F. Ross, president and founder of the Institute for Democracy Studies, told the Times. (Based in New York, this institute, a kind of liberal opposite number of the IRD, had done a research report on the IRD’s influence on the Presbyterian church back in 2000.)

Certainly it was the case that the IRD enjoyed familiar right-wing support. According to Goodstein and Kirkpatrick, its funding comes not only from the Ahmanson family but also from the country’s most important backers of conservative causes: the Scaife Family Foundation, the Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation, and the John M. Olin Foundation. IRD board members include prominent conservatives like Rev. Richard Neuhaus, editor of the journal First Things, Mary Ellen Bork, wife of Judge Robert H. Bork, Fred Barnes of the Weekly Standard and Fox News, and Michael Novak of the American Enterprise Institute.

(It is worth adding, as the Washington Post’s Alan Cooperman noted in an October 24, 2003 article, that the IRD shares funders and space at its 1110 Vermont Ave. NW address with the American Anglican Council, which has played a significant role in mobilizing Episcopalian opposition to the Robinson ordination. Knippers herself helped found the council and serves on its board.)

When the New York Times talks, others listen—and react. A week later, for example, Cary McMullen, religion editor for the Lakeland (Fla.) Ledger, used his column to dismiss the Times’ implied claim that the IRD was part of the “vast right-wing conspiracy” once conjured up by Hillary Clinton. “The liberal contention, reinforced by the article, is that the IRD is a shadowy puppeteer, secretly funded by powerful oligarchs to manipulate the unsuspecting rank and file of church policy makers,” McMullen wrote, contending on the contrary that the conspiracy was “on paper only.” The IRD’s agenda and funding sources had never been hidden, he said.

By contrast, in his June 2 column for the San Diego Union-Tribune, Lionel Van Deerlin denounced the IRD for encouraging religious conservatives “to separate themselves from liberal elements who seem bent on accepting gays and lesbians as fellow worshippers—in many cases, as church ministers.” Repeating the gist of the Times article, Van Deerlin lamented the possibility that the IRD’s actions might lead to lasting division within the denominations.

Basking in its newfound media attention, the IRD posted a few corrections to the Times article on its website (, while United Methodist Action’s Tooley responded to the Van Deerlin column. On both fronts, pains were taken to say that the IRD’s funding came from a variety of individuals and local churches in addition to the named foundations.

Not that it hurt to be called important—and have your name spelled right. On June 4, Knippers was back again in the New York Times, denouncing a number of mainline religious groups—including the Presbyterians and Episcopalians—for sending a letter to Congress opposing a constitutional amendment to ban same-sex marriage. The letter, Knippers said, was “a blatant attempt by left-leaning religious leaders to undercut and intimidate other religious voices.”

And on it goes. How much Knippers’ and the IRD’s efforts to move mainline Protestantism in a conservative direction will affect the broader dynamics of American politics, as the Times suggested, remains to be seen. But there’s no question that the battles the IRD has been fighting—above all, concerning homosexuality—have in the current election cycle decisively moved beyond the mainline denominations into the mainstream of American politics.


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