Bizarre bedfellows

Students of the current Anglican controversy may recall that Richard Mellon Scaife, who spent millions on dollars to bring down Bill Clinton also spent hunderds of thousands of dollars to bring down the Episcopal Church. (Newcomers can read all about it in Following the Money, Part One, or click on Read more to find the relevant section of that article.)

How odd, then, to see him seated beside Hillary Clinton, as she criticized Barack Obama for his handling of the Jeremiah Wright affair.

Tim Noah of Slate writes:

She is free, of course, to associate with whomever she pleases. But she is not free, while paddling the sewers with Scaife, to judge Obama publicly for belonging to Wright’s church. Compared with Scaife, Wright is St. Francis of Assisi. The only possible reason why any Pennsylvanian might judge Wright more harshly than Scaife is that Scaife is white and Wright is black. That must be obvious even to Hillary as she cozies up to this repulsive billionaire.

Meanwhile, the Dallas Morning News has tracked down the transcript of the Wright sermon that has sparked much of the controversy.

The foundations

Since the 1970s, charitable foundations established by families with politically conservative views have donated billions of dollars to what the National Committee on Responsive Philanthropy, a watchdog group, has called “an extraordinary effort to reshape politics and public policy priorities at the national, state and local level.” 1

Five foundations are of special note for the magnitude of their donations to political and religious organizations. They are: the Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation; the Adolph Coors Foundation; the John M. Olin Foundation, which ceased operations last year; the Smith-Richardson Trust and the Scaife Family Foundations. Much of the foundations’ largesse supports institutions and individuals active in public policy, including think tanks such as the Heritage Foundation, the American Enterprise Institute and the Hoover Institute and individuals such as William Bennett, Charles Murray (The Bell Curve) and Dinesh D’Souza (The End of Racism).

However, the foundations’ activities also extend into the nation’s churches-particularly its mainline Protestant churches. The foundations have provided millions of dollars to the IRD 2 which, in a fundraising appeal in 2000, said it sought to “restructure the permanent governing structure” of “theologically flawed” Protestant denominations and to “discredit and diminish the Religious Left’s influence.” 3

The IRD was established in 1981 by neo-conservative intellectuals hoping to counter the liberal public policy agendas of the National and World Councils of Christian Churches. Its founders, including Michael Novak, a Catholic theologian and Richard John Neuhaus, then a Lutheran minister and now a Catholic priest, were particularly concerned about the role of mainline and Roman Catholic leaders in the civil wars that ravaged Central America in the late 1970s and 1980s. 4 They were sharply critical of liberation theology, the Marxist-influenced school of thought developed by Central and South American theologians, and waged an aggressive media campaign in support of the Reagan administration’s policies in Nicaragua, El Salvador and elsewhere, alleging links between liberal church leaders and Marxist guerillas.

Peter Steinfels, then executive editor of the independent Catholic magazine Commonweal , wrote in a 1982 article that the IRD advanced “a distinct political agenda while claiming only a broad Christian concern.” 5 Steinfels said the IRD asserted that churches should “cherish diversity and disagreement about the means to social justice” while manufacturing “an arsenal of vague and damaging allegations almost certain to cast aspersions on a broad band of church leadership.”

In one well-publicized instance in the 1980s, Diane Knippers, then an IRD staff member, and later its president, distributed information critical of the Nicaraguan Council of Protestant Churches (Consejo de Iglesias Pro-Alianza Denominacional, or CEPAD), a disaster relief organization founded after the devastating 1972 earthquake and sponsored by the mainline American Baptist Church. 6

CEPAD ran a network of medical clinics for the poor, as well as a successful literacy campaign, according to Fred Clark, an editor of Prism , the magazine of Evangelicals for Social Action. “That literacy work had won the admiration and support of Nicaragua ‘s president, Daniel Ortega, and his Sandinista regime. Ortega’s praise of CEPAD gave Knippers what she saw as an opening,” Clark wrote in a 2003 account.

Although the evangelical churches did not support the Sandinistas, Clark wrote, “Knippers portrayed CEPAD — and therefore the American Baptist Foreign Mission Society — as ‘guilty’ by association. She wrote of CEPAD as a communist front, part of a supposed Soviet beachhead in Nicaragua . No one in this country paid much attention, but the contras did. CEPAD’s clinics became targets for their paramilitary terrorists.”

The ensuing controversy was followed closely by mainstream evangelical publications such as Christianity Today . In the end, Clark writes, “CEPAD was vindicated and IRD suffered a devastating embarrassment. They were, rightly, perceived as an unreliable source of information – closed-minded ideologues who were willing to attack others on the basis of irresponsibly flimsy evidence.” 7

Still, Knippers, who died in 2005, and the institute remained a favorite of conservative foundations. Since 1985, the IRD has received 72 grants worth more than $4,679,000 from the Bradley, Coors, Olin, Scaife and Smith-Richardson family foundations. 8

After the Cold War, the IRD turned its attention from the mainline churches’ activities in Central America to the churches’ internal affairs. In its Reforming America ‘s Churches

Project, 2001-2004, the IRD invited donors to help it in “restructuring” the democratic governance of churches to which those donors might not belong.

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