The Institute on Religion and Democracy and Me



The first and only chance I had to meet Mark Tooley in person, the now president of the Institute on Religion and Democracy, was in 1994. I was a college student attending Celebrate, an ecumenical gathering of mainline Protestant college students held in St. Louis  I saw Mark with pen and notebook in hand, attending the various plenaries and workshops taking notes of the event. I know I had a brief exchange but I had no idea of what he and the IRD was about to do with the Celebrate conference.

In 1993 the IRD went after mainline Protestant denominations for the Re-Imagining Conference. The Desert news covered it this way

“The conference, sponsored by the U.S. Committee of the Ecumenical Decade: Churches in Solidarity with Women, reportedly included prayers offered to the female goddess Sophia and other feminine images of deity; feminist theologians who questioned Christian doctrines of incarnation and atonement, program elements linking sexuality and spirituality, and lesbian speakers.

As a counterpoint, a group of United Methodists affiliated with the Washington-based Institute on Religion and Democracy urged this week that “decisive and appropriate disciplinary action” against church leaders who supported the conference.

A report in the institute’s spring newsletter alleged that speakers had fashioned “a new religion while retaining tenuous and self-interested links to the Christian faith . . .

And the fall out

As articles mischaracterizing the event landed in churchgoers’ homes, along with lists of the church bodies that funded Re-Imagining, a drumbeat of angry letters poured back out from members to the involved churches—PCUSA and United Methodists in particular—threatening to withdraw membership and donations. Those that followed through cost PCUSA more than $2.5 million in contributions by the end of 1995, according to what Presbyterian officials told the New York Times in 1994. Seven months after Re-Imagining, Lundy, then highest-ranking woman in the PCUSA, was fired and the Presbyterian Women’s Ministry Unit disbanded. According to Lundy and Jordon, talking about Re-Imagining soon became taboo at many churches.

The result as so successful for the IRD that what they hoped the Celebrate Conference could produce the same headlines. In fact the IRD was billing Celebrate as Re-Imagining Part Two. So here’s Mark Tooley’s report on the event. In particular he goes after Edwina Gatley and Rita Nakashima Brock.

Edwina Gateley was more flamboyant. She is a former lay missionary from Britain who now operates a mission for Chicago prostitutes. Strutting and gesturing effusively across the stage, Gateley declared, “I believe God lives about three inches from my belly button. If we’re in touch with the God-given seed in each of us then we know what we have to do.”

I was in attendance of her talk. The God of the belly button that was used in article after article from the IRD was another way of talking about conscience and intuition. I’m not sure why was seen as shocking and I’ve heard theologians across the divide use such language.  And yet it featured prominently in the literature attacking Celebrate. As a side note, the work she did in Chicago was to help women transition out of prostitution and much of the stories revolved around that.   There was nothing “liberal” in her presentation, so they latched on to that quote as a source of scandal.

What I remember most, of any of the presentations, was Rita Nakashima Brock leading a Bible study on Matthew’s Christmas narrative. She pointed out that the story of Christmas is highly political when you consider the refugee status of Jesus, Mary and Joseph as they fled Herod into Egypt. I’m surprised that did not end up in Mark Tooley’s account. But that single Bible study opened up the Bible to me as a source of liberation in a way I had never realized before.

It felt a bit like coming full circle when over 20 years later when I was able to invite Rita Nakashima Brock to a lecture series at the church I was serving in Norman Oklahoma. There she outlined the work she was doing on moral injury, especially with our veterans.

Episcopal Priest David Selzer of the University of Minnesota led a “homophobia” workshop to “hear the concerns of gay/lesbian/bisexual/transgender students.” A video by Episcopal Bishop John Spong of New Jersey was featured. “It was supported by references to the Bible,” said one Episcopal student from Virginia Tech in response to Spong’s argument defending homosexual practices. Selzer said his diocese had asked him to lead the workshop.

Of course Mark Tooley was there as was I and maybe 30 other students at the workshop. As someone who was coming out of the closet, Spong was an invaluable resource for me and despite the casual homophobia in Tooley’s account, it like many events at Celebrate connected me to the Christian faith.

Still, the students enthusiastically absorbed the speakers’ remarks and eagerly bought their books. They heard a lot of talk about “God” and, at an event sponsored by their own churches, logically assumed its messages were Christian.

Yes it was Christian. And I’ll mention one book I picked up at the Cokesbury booth at Celebrate which did a lot to connect me to Christian faith. Charles Bayer’s Building a Biblical Faith. It was my first introduction to Process theology. Little did I know that my graduate work in philosophy and theology would center on process thought. At the time it was a small compelling work that attempted to relate Christian faith and its central categories to a young adult with more questions than answers.

Celebrate would hold two more conferences before they closed up shop. A piece I’m still trying to find by Mark Tooley claims credit for its demise. That demise means that for twenty years there has been no ecumenical mainline gathering of college students.  The speakers I heard, the books I had access to, the talks and workshops that introduced me to a whole new world of Christian thought no longer exists in that form today for students. Undoubtedly Mark celebrates this fact.

But let me forward to 2019. 

Rev. Anna Blaedel will resign as director of the UI Wesley Center after spending more than a year under active complaint from the United Methodist Church because of their queer identity. A proposal could also cut most or all of the center’s funding.

A friend of mine who finished their Phd at the University of Iowa’s Religious Studies program, calls the Wesley Center one of the most effective ministries on campus and one of the few spaces for LGBT religious students can find a home. The complaint that is leading to the trial of Rev. Anna Blaedel was from John Lomperis, the United Methodist director in the Institute on Religion and Democracy.

Student memories of the United Methodists on this campus will not be of the supportive welcoming ministry Rev. Ana Blaedel helped create. Rather it will be of her trial and her stepping down because of the anti gay politics of the IRD which has hit this campus ministry. If it was to lose its funding over this issue, that is what will be remembered. Future generations of students will not know that there is a way of being Christian and being LGBT supportive. An experience students increasingly have across the country.

Mark Tooley writes 

IRD appreciates )John Dorhauer’s) compliment that we are effective at “tackle football” in the churches.  And his version of liberal Protestant Christianity is “losing” and losing “badly.” But it’s not IRD’s fault.  We are only spotlighting how failed policies are killing great churches by exchanging the traditional Gospel for heterodox theology laced with left wing politics.

I don’t think the IRD merely spotlights “failed policies”, it is an active participant. The example of Celebrate and Re-Imagining and what is happening as the Wesley Center at the University of Iowa shows an organization capable of affecting change. The kind of change that shuts out space for LGBT folks, for progressives, for those who question church doctrines. Their ultimate goal is a divide between the secular left vs. the religious right and no room in the middle for those who would bridge that divide.

A telling example is Mark Tooley’s response to Joshua Harris leaving Christianity

Evangelical author Josh Harris’ self-proclaimed exit from Christianity seems to have integrity. Unlike many others, he’s not demanding it bend to his purposes or denying its identity. He’s just leaving because he no longer believes.

It is better that someone leaves Christianity than to try to create a space for an affirming faith. To the degree that that view has succeeded, and it has sociologically has on a national scale, is to the degree that we see the rise of the nones. A rise connected to the lack of an alternative religious space. One that the IRD has spent almost 40 years trying to eliminate. And to the degree they succeed, the space for the mainline shrinks. So John Dorhauer’s complaint that the IRD is destroying the core of the mainline has merit.

Church decline has a thousand sources some of which are self inflicted. But if what readers primarily know about United Methodism is the anti gay fight, then the IRD has succeeded in its task. And a generation of LGBT folks and progressives will side step both evangelicals and the mainline. I did not. But then I had access to experiences and resources that the IRD has denied to later generations of folks. So I was lucky.

I too work for a United Methodist supported ministry. But the long arm of the IRD has little effect on me. I work in the Mountain Sky Conference with Bishop Karen Oliveto, which they would remove if they could. They can’t. But still it takes a lot of relationship building with students, in particular LGBT ones, to develop a trust that many students do not have of religious groups. Despite the IRD this happens in alternative religious spaces across this country. And if the church is to be saved, it will be found there. Not in the IRD.

Dwight Welch is the campus minister at United Campus Ministry at Montana State University Billings


Categories: Blog, Feature, Politics, Religion

1 reply »

  1. Dwight, thanks for the reflection. IRD has done a lot of harm, largely by mischaracterizing developments. It has also helped create the binary that you highlight at the end. Once an evangelical (including me) who struggled with narrow theology would discover a mainline church and move into it. Now, it’s either conservative evangelical or nothing. That’s sad. It is also a cause of our own decline.

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