JULY 10, 2003
The Fighting Methodists
Andrew J. Weaver
Northwestern University had an outstanding football team in the early years of the 20th century known as the Fighting Methodists, the name was later changed to the less colorful but more collegiate-sounding Wildcats. The Fighting Methodists, however, may soon be making a dramatic comeback, not on the football field but inside the church itself.
A recent book, United Methodism @ Risk: A Wake Up Call by Leon Howell, a respected journalist, argues that mainline churches such as the United Methodist Church (UMC) can no longer afford to be naive about right-wing advocacy groups that are tightly organized, highly motivated and well-financed for a take-no-prisoners campaign against mainline Protestantism. He says that unless these denominations stand up and get in a "fighting mood" the political right-wing aims to take them over.
The political right-wing, operating in the guise of a gaggle of so-called "renewal groups," particularly one named the Institute on Religion and Democracy (IRD), has acquired the money and political will to target three mainline American denominations: The United Methodist Church, the Presbyterian Church USA, and the Episcopal Church. The IRD was created and is sustained by money from right-wing foundations and has spent millions of dollars over 20 years attacking mainline denominations. The IRD's conservative social-policy goals include increasing military spending and foreign interventions, opposing environmental protection efforts, and eliminating social welfare programs.
In a document entitled "Reforming America's Churches Project 2001-2004," the IRD states that its aim is to change the "permanent governing structure" of mainline churches "so they can help renew the wider culture of our nation." In other words, its goal extends beyond the spiritual and includes a political takeover financed by the likes of Richard Mellon Scaife, Adolph Coors, the John M. Olin Foundation, and the Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation of Milwaukee.
For example, the Scaife Family Foundation and the Sarah Scaife Foundation (promoters and benefactors of the "Ken Starr Courts") made disbursements to the IRD totaling $1.6 million between 1985 and 2001 according to information found at www.mediatransparency.org. According to the Scaife websites, the IRD received $225,000 from the Sarah Scaife Foundation in 2002.
The Lynde and Harry Bradley foundation, a family foundation with ties to the John Birch Society, gave $1.3 million between 1985 and 2001 to IRD efforts. The overall objective of the Bradley Foundation is to return the U.S. to the days before government regulation of business, before corporations were forced to make concessions to an organized labor force. In other words, capitalism with the gloves off. Why are these secular right-wing foundations interested in gaining influence in the United Methodist, Presbyterian, Episcopal and other mainstream Protestant denominations?
The answer is that, although the United Methodist Church, the Presbyterian Church USA, and the Episcopal Church total only about 14 million in membership, they have been and remain a powerful and influential voice for moderate and progressive social values in American society. Almost 30 percent of the members of the U.S. Congress belong to one of these three denominations as well as disproportionate numbers of well-educated and progressive leaders who advocate for the poor, civil and human rights, environmental protection, and a responsible foreign policy. The activities and leadership of mainline Protestant churches are linked to the social conscience of the nation and contribute to civil discourse.
The political right seeks to gain top leadership positions in the church by spreading misleading information and incendiary allegations against organizations and individuals. These groups employ the propaganda method of "wedge issues" like abortion and homosexuality to cause confusion, dissension, and division. Irving Kristol, father of William Kristol, editor of The Weekly Standard and one of the "godfathers" of the political right, summed up this strategy in the Wall Street Journal: "Attack the integrity, not the words, of those with whom you disagree." More recently, Grover Norquist, a conservative activist and long-time friend of top presidential aide Karl Rove, was even more blunt when he told the Denver Post that civility is out and nastiness is in among conservative activists. According to Mr. Norquist, "bipartisanship is another name for date rape."
.By contrast, Methodists and other mainstream Protestants have held proudly to the "extreme middle" during most of their history, recognizing that self-righteousness is the bane of religion, be it the ideology of the left or right. Unless progressive and moderate members in the mainline churches muster the will to organize and battle for what they believe is fair and just, they are in danger of losing the historical values of these traditions to a determined cadre of ideological advocacy groups. It is time, in other words, for "fighting Methodists" to make a comeback lest their tolerance and Christian charity be turned against them and used to undermine their churches and further the social ends of the right wing's radical ideology.
The Rev. Andrew Weaver, M.Th., Ph.D., is a United Methodist pastor and a clinical psychologist. He is Director of Research for The HealthCare Chaplaincy in New York City. He has co-authored 8 books including Pastoral Care of Older Adults (Fortress, 1998), Counseling Troubled Teens and Their Families (Abingdon, 1999), Reflections on Forgiveness and Spiritual Growth (Abingdon, 2000), Counseling Families Across the Stages of Life (Abingdon, 2002), Reflections on Marriage and Spiritual Growth (Abingdon, 2003) and the forth-coming Counseling Survivors of Traumatic Events (Abingdon, 2003).