If you have ever heard of the Institute on Religion and Democracy (IRD) and thought it was a religious organization, you would have been mistaken. Names can be deceiving. This Washington, D.C.-based group, often called on by the media to comment on religious matters, is a political think tank aligned with far-right conservative political causes. For them, groups like the National Association of Evangelicals, often thought of as the center of the Religious Right, are too liberal.
So it came as no surprise that the IRD was busy denouncing Christian advocacy on behalf of the poor this week as worshiping "big government."
The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB), the United Church of Christ (UCC) and a plethora of religious leaders from across religious traditions have been calling on Congress and the president to "put the poor and vulnerable first" as difficult budget decisions were made for the remainder of FY11 and next year's federal budget.
Sadly, those calls largely went unheard in the budget compromise reached late Friday evening. Those most vulnerable will suffer as we continue tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans while cutting critically needed domestic programs. The "least of these" that Christians are called on to defend are being left behind. For the IRD, however, that is exactly what the doctor ordered.
Mark Tooley, IRD's director, wrote this week for Front Page Magazine, a far-right publication with morally troubling leadership, that the "Religious and Evangelical Left":
...assume that only centralized, coercive government can guarantee "justice" and provide "charity." Other social actors, like families, churches, private charities, philanthropies, and civic groups, not to mention private business, are all to submit unquestioningly to government supremacy in every human arena. Here is the Religious Left's vision of "God's Kingdom," administered from Washington, D.C.
That isn't true, of course. So why write it? Tooley, a former analyst for the CIA, has his reasons.
The Rev. Andrew Weaver, a United Methodist minister and well-regarded author who died in 2008, studied the IRD extensively and wrote on the University of Chicago Divinity School website that:
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.
On important moral issues like abortion and gay marriage the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops and the United Church of Christ disagree. But most Christians come together over the issue of poverty. For conservative political leaders, this is troubling. And so they use IRD as a vehicle for attacking faith leaders and organizations, like the National Council of Churches, whenever Christians work in common cause to help the poor lift themselves out of poverty, to advocate for an end to war or for policies that would reverse the impact of human caused global climate change.
When and if you do hear IRD mentioned in the press remember this: consider the source and their mission.