Founded by a group of Christian leaders and political campaigners in the early 1980s, the Institute of Religion and Democracy (TheIRD.org ) continues to do excellent work safeguarding religious freedom and democracy in America and abroad. As today’s President Mark Tooley explains, the IRD is “a watchdog of the religious and evangelical left, disputing their claims to represent millions of church members when espousing a liberal or far-left political agenda.”
How did the IRD start? Months before the IRD took shape, David Jessup of the AFL-CIO distributed his “Jessup report” to delegates of the 1980 quadrennial general conference of the United Methodist Church. The report claimed that Methodist leaders directed funds to support totalitarian causes and governments.
Jessup had a history of political activism as a college student in the early 1960s. In 1977 he became a Methodist and he and his wife joined a Methodist church in Silver Spring, Maryland. When his children brought home Sunday School material containing Marxist themes, he did further research and found some troubling themes in Methodist publications.
Drawing on his anticommunist and anti-Soviet beliefs, he began to speak out against what he saw as Methodist sympathy for communist ideals. In addition to his 1980 report, Jessup pressed the Methodist leadership to be more transparent with its financial records and agencies working abroad, all of which sparked considerable debate at the Methodist General Conference.
Jessup joined discussions with others such as Methodist evangelist Edmund Robb of Marshall, Texas, who was the key founder of the IRD, Roman Catholic scholar Michael Novak of the American Enterprise Institute, well-known Lutheran theologian Richard Neuhaus, and evangelical theologian Carl F.H. Henry. Their common concern was the American mainline churches tilting to the left.
From these talks sprung the IRD in April 1981, organized “to illuminate the relationship between Christian faith and democratic governance” and oppose any hint of totalitarianism:
We [IRD members] believe that the personal and institutional ownership and control of property – always as stewards of God to whom the whole creation belongs – contributes greatly to freedom…. [W]e believe that America has a peculiar place in God’s promises and purposes!
The IRD’s criticism of the mainline churches’ leftist orientation attracted the wary attention of liberal and other leftist Christians. Alarmed United Methodist and United Church of Christ officials commissioned two independent Washington researchers to investigate the IRD. Without interviewing any of the principles, Eric Hochstein and Ronald O’Rourke produced a 50-page report which became known in IRD circles as “the Snoop Report.” Sympathetic of the IRD’s fight against liberal financing of socialism, Christianity Today and others found errors in the Snoop Report.
In 1982, a committee of the National Council of Churches (NCC) invited IRD staff and directors to debate NCC leaders on democracy. The event began with an address by television’s Norman Lear discussing People for the American Way, an educational organization he founded in response to the activities of conservative Christians. The connection between Lear and liberal Protestant leaders was a close one: two founding members of People for an American Way, Dr. William Thompson and Dr. William Howard, were previous presidents of the NCC.
The debate that followed Lear’s presentation saw NCC leaders Bishop A. James Armstrong, the new president, and Arie Brouwer, general secretary of the Reformed Church in America, face off against the IRD’s Robb and Neuhaus. Robb claimed that the NCC veered to the left in the mid-1960s and became a theologically and socially extreme organization with only minimal loyalty from ordinary mainline church members. Other critics used strong words to condemn the NCC for being soft on totalitarianism. From this point on, the IRD played a major role in challenging the claims of the Christian Left.
Throughout the 1980s, the IRD was especially effective in shedding light on socialist-totalitarian policies in Latin America that received the support of American Christian leftists. Surveying economic data and other evidence-based research of the 1980s and later years, one can see that the IRD was correct in its analysis of the dangers of Christian leftist ideas that resulted in poverty and restricted freedom for far too many people.