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June 07, 2007

John Dorhauer and Sheldon Culver: Steeplejacking

In their new book Steeplejacking United Church of Christ Ministers John Dorhauer and Sheldon Culver describe the organized efforts of the religious right to silence the members of the religious left within mainline Protestant churches.

The Institute on Religion and Democracy was founded in 1981 by conservative Democrats who realized that liberal elements in the mainline Protestant churches had been among the most powerful opponents of hawkish American foreign policy. Over the years, the Institute has been very successful in turning the flocks of liberal pastors against them.

The IRD uses wedge issues to sow dissent within congregations. In the old days, the IRD used accusations of Communist sympathy to discredit pastors who agitated for peace in Central America. These days, the steeplejackers are more likely to focus on social issues like gay rights and women's ordination. Not surprisingly, the hot new wedge is to levy accusations of Islamofascist sympathy against pastors who speak out against the occupation of Iraq or take a more eccumenical approach to theology.

The tactics vary by denomination. As Culver explained, litigation is a preferred weapon for the more hierarchical denominations. She said that more and more often the goal is not to win a theological argument but to punish overly liberal churches by seizing their property through the courts or draining their resources in litigation.

Independent churches like the UCC are harder to sue, so they are often targeted one-by-one. Specially trained activists show up and launch campaigns to convince parishioners to vote themselves out of the UCC.

Steeplejacking is the product of firsthand experience. As ministers in the United Church of Christ, Dorhauer and Culver started encountering bizarre propaganda leaflets making the same outlandish claims about the UCC, for example, that the UCC doesn't believe in God or accept the authority of Jesus. Eventually, the authors realized that what they thought was isolated crackpottery was actually a well-organized campaign to take over more liberal churches and replace the pastors with more conservative political and social views.

Secular Democrats are often blamed for marginalizing the religious left. As I'm constantly trying to tell people, that blame is misplaced. It's not secular Democrats who are  driving liberal pastors out of their churches and replacing them with hardline Republican-friendly conservatives!

If the central claims of Steeplejacking are correct, it seems as if the main reason we don't have a more powerful religious left in this country is because of sabotage by the religious right, not hostility from the secular left.

I'm looking forward to reading the book. Dorhauer and Culver certainly gave an engaging presentation.

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Comments

Can you "say vast right wing conspiracy"? Hillary understated the case by a long shot.

Is it time to push back yet?

As someone who In Real Life works for one of those "mainline" denominations, I thank you for holding this issue up to the light. Will definitely be seeking out a copy of Steeplejacking.

The IRD and its affiliated/associated denomination-specific groups are a plague. (Or, to slip back into character, they are anathema and as such are to be abhorred and condemned by all right-thinking people. Gosh, I love saying that.)

That's all it's about. It's true in many venues. They show up out of nowhere ... 'suddenly' everything changes and not so obviously as these folks point out. Here in Tampa they became realtors divided up the cities, formed HOA's (which they run, of course) and then gradually have cleansed most of the city of the original residents. Foremost among them? Rightist Presbyterian (and other) churches. I've alluded to this in my blog. They are also buying up the gambling properties. I'm sure that these folks would recognize that they pretend to be a religion or a source of 'help'. (cornerstone of help with rent, food, etc... ) setting people up, gathering their info, stealing their property.
I don't know how you find these people but I'm very glad that you do. Oh and all of the churches in Tampa have changed hands or gone on the auction block within the last five years. I had never even HEARD of realtors specializing in church properties but all of a sudden they are ALL for sale. Maybe a dozen that are not out of thousands. AND -- they then change the zoning and get fantabulous amts of dough for the new condo/whatever. These are NOT long-term Tampa people but new people. And, they're not nice people.
I almost wouldn't doubt this pair's life is in danger.

John Dorhauer's conspiracy theories have long been discredited. The details are here.

In the book, he only cites a three UCC churches as examples of a conspiracy. Below is part of the review on UCCTRUTHS.com:

The second part of the book (chapters 4-7) tries to cite examples of church stealing, addresses the roles of the pastor and laity and concludes with "strategies against steeplejacking". The amazing thing about this part of the book is how closely it resembles Dorhauer's rants on Talk2Action... with even less evidence. While the first three chapters contain hundreds of citations, the second half only has two. There is no attempt to provide supporting documentation to back up the claims of a conspiracy and, while the book has selected phrases from a few letters and speeches, there's no specific citation. It's even more difficult to decipher if these examples are directly related to the IRD. While the book identifies churches in crisis, it hardly demonstrates a conspiracy.

The book is also full of ironies. One of the strategies suggested in the book to fight back against steeplejacking is to not let dissenters hide their identity and to "speak the names of those causing dissent, and confront them if necessary". Ironically, of the few examples of UCC church stealing mentioned in the book, only the first names of people are used to validate the conspiracy. It's in these few examples that Culver and Dorhauer's credibility and argument really break down. They've clearly gone through the time to write this book and they use hundreds of citations to support their claims that external, highly political and theologically motivated groups have developed relationships with groups inside mainline churches only to have the primary premise of the book (examples of church stealing by these outside groups for power and profit) completely fall apart with sketchy examples of a few churches in crisis and no citations, references or supporting documentation. UCCtruths.com challenged Dorhauer long ago to provide evidence of a conspiracy while other clergy sympathetic to Dorhauer's concerns emailed him directly asking for supporting information to no avail. Other people signed on to the message board where he publishes his conspiracy to ask for answers only to be kicked off the site or called names.

Do churches get led astray by disgruntled pastors? Yes, I believe they do. Has John Dorhauer provided any measure of evidence that it's a conspiracy? Not at all.

Read John Dorhauer's posts on Talk2Action.org. He is challenged on his facts but doesn't produce anything. People post on his site to ask him for proof - even religious liberals sympathetic to his concern - and they are kicked off and called names.

He even concedes in one of his posts: "I know that the material and research I present leaves open a lot of questions that must be addressed if my credibility is to be intact. I even say at the outset that all I have is circumstantial evidence, around which I have built a theory."


Churches aren't possessions that can be hijacked. They are communities of people of faith who have come together to serve God through the mission and grace of Jesus Christ. I am one of those UCC liberal types. Been at it as a local church pastor for 32 years. This response by Dorhauer and Shelly (and others) responds in kind to the original misguided view of what is a church. I may not like what the IRD and its minions are doing, but this response from "liberals" only fans the flame of an idealogical pissing match. Rather that we help strengthen the leadership and the central core of these communities. Again, a church is not a possession in a tug of war among liberals and conservatives. They are the body of Christ at work in the world to share the good news of Jesus Christ in a hurting world.

Some attacking John Dorhauer and Sheldon Culver's book might bother to learn at least a little bit about the subject first before making such broad accusations.

There is in fact a good deal of evidence on the activities of the "renewal" groups attacking the mainstream Protestant denominations. For example:

The following quote is from an AAC document ( the AAC is one of the "renewal" groups associated with the IRD ) that was pried loose in a lawsuit. It admits the nature of the activities the AAC engages in.

The AAC's Covert Activity

...We consult with a large number of our constituency on a variety of issues including assistance with legal, strategic and communications issues. This includes some covert activity! One of the major problems we face in the AAC is that a large portion of what we do is under the radar or behind the curtain...[ quote :  David Anderson, President & CEO of the American Anglican Council   credit for finding quote : Father Jake
Talk To Action has a site section: Shadow War: The Attack on Mainstream Faith which features posts on the ongoing covert war, orchestrated by the Institute on Religion and Democracy, to destroy, fragment, and politically neutralize the mainstream Protestant American denominations.

The IRD has received considerable funding from Howard Ahmanson Jr., who has in the past been closely associated with Christian Reconstructionism and was at RJ Rushdoony's bedside when Rushdoony died.

I went looking in MSM for any coverage of this story. Nothing. Not a word. The Saudi's pretend they do not have Wahhabists to contend with. The Bush leaugue pretend they owe nothing to IRD...and the rest of us would be left to wonder why the world is going to hell in a handbasket if reportage like this did not occasionally lift the shroud behind which power has sought to work out of public view.

Thank, Lindsay. You just earned your next donation.

It only takes common sense to know that something is very wrong when one does not recognize church OR members one has seen around town for YEARS. (and years and years) As well, the few remaining 'original' members look to be in faltering health and these are not seniors I am referring to. A church's 'population' does not just change overnight.(this happened within last five yrs. or so (read BUSH) People (especially when their church is associated with their former grade school, neighborhood activities, friends, etc... ) tend to cling to their churches ergo you would see the same faces fifteen years from now. (I'm not seeing them) So, while I agree with the above pastor that churches are not items to be struggled over that is because we are idealists. We would NOT struggle but the innocents who are church members in our community have had their churches sold out from under them; not just the buildings.
The 'newcomers' all have that acquistive, run-ya-over-rather-than-look-at-ya look. IF I sound judgmental I hope it is not construed in this fashion. I spent a LONG time observing (the first I spoke of it publicly was Jan. 2007) -- I wouldn't be able to come up with documentation, either, really. Some, but mostly personal experiences and church visits by 'invite'. But, I DO know this --- not one of the 'bad' churches has anyone with anyone's best interests in mind as members now. THey are political organizations as noted by the HUGE crowds around them before election times. NO, they're not polling places. See?? Republicans. Sorry. It's true. Next time I guess I'll take pictures.
Also, friends have related joining churches and having terrible experiences when they did not agree to this or that 'strange function'. It's very easy to make people feel 'not wanted' so they don't return.

A question for the people relating direct experiences with this sort of thing: Presumably what is happening is that the insurgents take over leadership positions in established churches and then drive out the members who are not pliable and willing to adopt the new church teaching - is that right?

If it's just taking over the property and moving in a bunch of new members, it seems like a stupid political strategy. Only if you can turn some of the old membership to your side does a church takeover make sense, since you get additional votes at the polls as well as tithes that wouldn't otherwise be coming in.

You are right togolosh, it doesn't make sense.

I'm not fan of the IRD and every time I hear about political groups co-opting churches, I cringe. Churches in every denomination experience turmoil and division -and sometimes it gets nasty. That doesn't immediately qualify as a conspiracy and Dorhauer hasn't successfully made the argument to support his theory.

The telling piece is Dorhauer's own words: "I know that the material and research I present leaves open a lot of questions that must be addressed if my credibility is to be intact. I even say at the outset that all I have is circumstantial evidence, around which I have built a theory."

So he wrote a whole book on something he can't prove?

There's also another point of this which is worth pointing out. Dorhauer proudly claims on his site that ministers are now calling him suspicious of visitors to their churches. He boasts that one of the churches that attended his workshop mistakenly accused a woman of being part of this conspiracy. This is not a healthy behavior for a church, much less a church leader. It doesn't make a difference what your politics are, this doesn't sound right at all.

Bruce Wilson wrote: "The IRD has received considerable funding from Howard Ahmanson Jr., who has in the past been closely associated with Christian Reconstructionism and was at RJ Rushdoony's bedside when Rushdoony died."

Yes, there are nut jobs in every facet of life... even in religion. But let's talk a bit about just how well funded the IRD is. From the UCCTRUTHS review:

"While this section of the book is well referenced, it repeatedly makes the claim that the IRD is "well funded" by citing 20 years (1985-2005) of contributions from conservative activists totaling a whopping "$4.765 million". By Culver and Dorhauer's own numbers, this "well funded" machine averaged $235,000 in fund raising per year which is smaller than the annual budgets for many mid-sized UCC churches. This is hardly the foundation of a "well funded" conspiracy."

I wondered the same things! I was like, "What good could this possibly do?" Easy answer:valuable real-estate then up for sale (member vote) all the cranes in Tampa? New people for all the 'former churches'. Just like a HOA you are then influencing the community with a 'legitimate voice.' While you are anything BUT legit.
As well, I'm noticing (in FL. anyway) an extremly unhealthy # of former homeland security and former top-cops and former sheriffs becoming pastors of what soon becomes a mega-church. I agree that it's not correct behavior and I'm not even saying that Dorhauer's research is any good. I haven't read it, obviously. What I AM saying is that what I'm observing (and suffering) locally fits what he says and also the rise of the Christian right.(which is what makes it political but frankly in hindsight even as a democrat I realized that the kennedys did the same with the catholic church, it was a safe gathering place for dems and labor leaders) In Nazi germany churches were sanctuaries. There won't be that chance this time. Homeless people find sanctuary in libraries. THese church leaders are helping to pass laws to limit the # of bags a person can carry in. In the guise of 'helping the homeless' In reality they are using the homeless as human watchdogs for drug and other trafficking and they move the homeless from place to place to degrade real-estate values and encourage owners to sell cheap and leave the area. I'm watching this phenom in two separate counties.
People go to prison for life and death on circumstantial evidence all the time. That's why I finally started videotaping activity around me.(and not just around my home) IF I don't document it then it is not happening. I hope not to have to prove it in a court of law. (such as we have currently) But I don't make wild, baseless accusations and I hope that this guy didn't either.
I think it's readily observable but that's my perspective.
We're all on different wavelengths; and once you begin to see you cannot stop seeing.

"If it's just taking over the property and moving in a bunch of new members, it seems like a stupid political strategy. Only if you can turn some of the old membership to your side does a church takeover make sense, since you get additional votes at the polls as well as tithes that wouldn't otherwise be coming in."

I saw a struggle like the one described above. This was at a friend's church, a Unity church in Atlanta. My feeling is that in these "takeovers" the incoming activists assume they will lose some church members, but they also assume they won't lose 100%. If they take over a church and drive off the most liberal 20%, they are still up by that 80%.

"Churches aren't possessions that can be hijacked. They are communities of people of faith who have come together to serve God through the mission and grace of Jesus Christ."

What a bizzare thing to say. Do you know what happened in Wittenburg, Germany on October 31, 1517? The Christian church has been divided ever since, and millions have died because of various attempts to hijack the possessions of the various factions.

Just to point out so that everyone knows, UCC "Truths" is in fact an organization affiliated with conservative renewal groups and the IRD (though I am sure whoever responds to this comment from their organization will deny it.) They follow John Dorhauer around to many of his events, and go out of their way to critique his work. They are not an impartial organization, so take whatever they say with a huge grain of salt.

Here's an article on the IRD and the Episcopal Church:

http://www.edow.org/follow/index.html

I've been "tracking" the IRD since 1982. Had confrontational discussion right after their founding with one of their founders, John Neuhuas, who was Lutheran then and then became Catholic. In my comment above about "hijacking" I'm not referring to property. A church is community of faith as I wrote. When I arrived at my present congregation 12 years ago (UCC) there was a significant group that wanted to leave the UCC for the usual sort of reasons. They were all reasons I personally disagreed with. But I said to them I would be open to a vote on that once we got our act together on our mission as a local church rather than being reactive to a perceived sense of the UCC as only a singularly projected national identity (which is contrary to our polity). 9 years later, the church is heavily involved in various levels of mission to the world around it. The folks who wanted to vote on leaving the UCC have left (for other UCC congregations...I warned those pastors) and we are claiming our identity as the body of Christ. BUT, it was because we keep focusing on not on who is right or wrong, or who is left or right, or who is.... Rather, we focused on God's call in our specific setting and then how that reaches out around this planet. After tracking the IRD for close to 25 years, my fear is that like Pogo, we have met the enemy (and now my personal twist on his original quote) and we have become them. Our rhetoric and ideology may be different but we are deferring to the context of the "battle" set by those whom we are seeking to overcome. The victory is always the Lord's. Not our's. We are willing to lose our bldg, our name, but never our mission. We are willing to die to the Lord. Because it isn't about us (Fairlawn West UCC), or the United Church of Christ or our bldg or even us. It is about Christ's body, his death and resurrection and how in the midst of a world consumed by hate, war, and control/domination, that is the means of God's victory. If we "fight" the IRD and their minions on their terms, "they" will win.

"Paul M":

UCCTRUTHS "is in fact an organization affiliated with conservative renewal groups and the IRD"?

That's interesting... and I think the liberal and moderate members of the UCCTRUTHS message board would be just as curious (if not completely puzzled) by your ridiculous statement.

Like others have asked of Dorhauer, I'd ask for proof of your observation, but I suspect you probably don't have any.

I suspect that you make sure that nobody has any, just as the IRD tries to hide its connections to the renewal groups. You can ask for all the "proof" you want, but many know the truth about UCC Truths and other groups of that type.

Paul M:

I have nothing to do with the site but I do follow it. So really... when you are making the accusation that UCCTRUTHS is tied to the IRD, you are really only guessing.

I thought we learned something after McCarthy but I guess not.

By focusing on the bogeyman of the IRC you are missing the real story. The Anglican Communion is expelling the Episcopalian Church U.S.A. from its world wide communion. A few million out of more than 70 million.

Now my local Episcopalian Church has all the wealthy blue blood members. Does anyone actually believe that gay Bishops and & gay marriage is somehow NOT a shock and legitimate uproar for your average Episcopalian Church? You don’t need the IRC to be supposedly stirring up trouble. The innovators and theological liberals have been doing that since 68. I mean look at the work of Shelby Sponge.

So all these sixties kids finally got there New York Times Theology with a Jesus-ey hew & their surprised that multiple parishes & the greater communion are in an uproar.

And instead of facing the fact that they are the ones driving schism- they want to somehow blame some IRC group as a great Machiavellian conspiratorial generator?

How pathetic.

The macerations people go through to tell themselves – “they started it” are only made by those who have.

Togolosh, according to the panelists, the IRD types typically keep a fair share of the congregation with each takeover. Their goal is to neutralize the religious left within mainline Protestant churches. It's not just a matter of seizing individual church assets or influencing a small number of congregations at prayer. Their goal is to shift the tone within the church as a whole away from liberal politics and towards a conservative agenda.

The overall goal is to exert a chilling effect on progressives in mainline Protestantism. There's a direct parallel between the tactics of the IRD and the way Brent Bozell and Bernard Goldberg trump up bias allegations against journalists.

The IRD crowd hopes that pastors everywhere will become afraid to take controversial stances because they know that they may be targeted for ouster by powerful outside interests. Most reporters were afraid to report the facts or ask the bone-headedly obvious questions during the run-up to the war in Iraq. They were afraid of being singled out for harassment by powerful well-organized interest groups who make it their business to raise a stink about coverage they don't like. It's the same with the IRD. They specifically train activists to give pastors endless grief if they go off message, to the point where some just avoid those topics to spare themselves the hassle.

Let's not forget that some of these IRD operatives outright lie. Dorhauer has documents produced by the IRD that accuse the mainline UCC of not believing in God or the authority of Jesus! That's just a flat-out lie and anyone who repeats it is playing dirty politics, not engaging in participatory democracy within the church.

"The overall goal is to exert a chilling effect on progressives in mainline Protestantism." or "The IRD crowd hopes that pastors everywhere will become afraid to take controversial stances because they know that they may be targeted for ouster by powerful outside interests."

As a member of a religious body that need not worry about "participatory democracy within the church" I must say, (even with such protections) I cant ever recall hearing a homily (sermon) on a "controversial" subject.

I suspect most Parishes are like this. No matter the denomination the Priest\Pastor plays conciliator rather than Shepard.

People seem upset with a lot of what the UCC says at a national level (like the Teachers Unions compared to the actual teachers)

You can have the same effect when it comes to the UCB (Bishops conference) in Catholicism.

Regardless...when the left tries to make a definitive break for it on important issues of human sexual morality (like the Episcopalians) you have to expect that traditionalists will push back. Such stark theological departures are the things schism is made of.

Absent that it rarely comes to a head.

Lindsay, you comment that the pressure from the IRD makes clergy afraid to speak out on controversial issues. That's been the case for years. My father was a UCC minister and was labeled a communist by the local radio station for bringing in the American Friends Service Peace Caravan in 1966 to Sandusky, OH to help people talk about the history of Southeast Asia and the alternatives to war in that region. I was asked to leave my UCC congregation in 1983 because my wife and I were the the only two in the congregation who supported UCC General Synod action that sexual orientation should not be an issue when judicatories are considering candidates for ordination. My dad had three kids about to enter college in 1966. I have learned that unless we clergy are willing to risk our "pensions" and all that means, we aren't worth our salt. This is not new. A few years ago I was asked by some folks in my present church to "not preach on Jesus so much...you know we in the UCC are more liberal than that and don't believe all that stuff about Jesus and we can believe what we want." That led to a major explosion and threat to my livelihood with 2 children about to enter college. It was bad. Real bad. And these were conservative folks! They wanted their church to be their church and do it the way they always wanted it. That also meant not offending anyone by bringing up anything about gays and lesbians. Its not all nice and neat liberal and conservative. The folks who were pushing for me to leave and we went into a four year guerrilla warfare had never heard of the IRD. They just wanted "their" church to be the way it always was. Ironically, now after I have continued to "preach about Jesus" we are a clearly open community to a wide variety of folks including gays and lesbians. So whether its the IRD and its machinations or just plain for years folks now wanting to be confronted in their "comfort zone", we clergy need to be willing to risk it all...or we are living up to our calling. We have become domesticated sheep herders long before the IRD came around...sadly and unfortunately...which is why so many local churches are "ripe for picking" these days.

What I meant to write was:

So whether its the IRD and its machinations or just plain for years folks NOT wanting to be confronted in their "comfort zone", we clergy need to be willing to risk it all...or we are NOT living up to our calling. We BECAME domesticated sheep herders long before the IRD came around...sadly and unfortunately...which is why so many local churches are "ripe for picking" these days.

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