IRD and the CEPAD Affair

Via the Sideshow I read Dave Neiwert's detailed analysis of the right-wing funding behind groups like the Institute on Religion and Democracy.

So IRD has resurfaced and reinvented itself yet again, this time around hoping to ride the media wave of the backlash against the consecration of an openly gay Episcopal bishop.

IRD has a history that ought not to be forgotten. It's most disastrous accomplishment came in the mid-1980s, when Dianne Knippers — now the group's president — was just a "researcher" on its staff. Somewhere I've still got files on this with photocopies of all the relevant articles. If I can dig these out, I'll type them in. For now, here's a less-detailed account from memory:

The IRD began in a splash of Cold War rhetoric and anticommunist manifestos in 1983. It's first — and only — publicity coup came with a Reader's Digest article and 60 Minutes appearance in which the group alleged that the World Council of Churches was little more than a wing of a global conspiracy promoting Soviet-style communism. (Among the article's allegations: the WCC had ties to those radicals in the African National Congress — when it came to South African apartheid, the IRD was on the wrong side of history.)

The real battleground for the IRD wasn't against international communism, but against domestic political foes of its conservative founders and funders. The Cold War, for IRD, was merely a proxy for their partisan struggle to portray American liberals — implausibly — as complicit in the sins of Soviet-style communism. It was, in other words, a kind of neo-McCarthyism.

Their strategy was to undermine support for what they saw as politically liberal religious institutions, particularly the National Council of Churches and the mainline Protestant denominations associated with it. Their favorite tactic was to try to identify these denominations with alleged communist subversives — whether those be Marxist-influenced liberation theologians, anti-apartheid activists, relief workers or environmentalists. Any religious group that dared to speak of assisting or empowering the poor was, in the eyes of IRD, suspect, and probably "communist."

But despite its massive financial support, IRD's basic incompetence — its lack both of PR savvy and intellectual firepower — kept the group from having any real influence. While the Heritage Foundation and American Enterprise Institute and many of the other groups funded by Richard Scaife, et. al., prospered, the IRD sputtered in obscurity.

Only once did its influence have any significant real-world impact, and that ignoble incident became a black mark from which it took IRD years to recover. They got people killed.

During the 1980s, you'll recall, the United States did not regard all terrorists as "evil-doers." Some, like the contras of Nicaragua, we regarded as "freedom fighters." In support of such freedom fighters, IRD staffer Diane Knippers set her sights on CEPAD (an English-language site here), a relief and development agency coordinated by the evangelical churches of Nicaragua.

CEPAD originated in response to the earthquake that devastated much of Nicaragua in 1982. The driving force behind CEPAD was a medical doctor and Baptist minister named Gustavo Parajon. He and his American-born wife, Joan, were also commissioned as missionaries by the American Baptist Churches.

CEPAD ran a network of medical clinics for the poor, as well as a successful literacy campaign. That literacy work had won the admiration and support of Nicaragua's president, Daniel Ortega, and his Sandinista regime.

Ortega's praise of CEPAD gave Knippers what she saw as an opening. The evangelical churches were not supporters of the Sandinistas, but Knippers portrayed CEPAD — and therefore the American Baptist Foreign Mission Society — as "guilty" by association. She wrote of CEPAD as a communist front, part of a supposed Soviet beachhead in Nicaragua.

No one in this country paid much attention, but the contras did. CEPAD's clinics became targets for their paramilitary terrorists. Knippers had place evangelical missionaries — doctors and nurses — and the poor people they served in the crosshairs of terrorists.

Ron Sider, a Mennonite professor at an American Baptist Seminary and head of Evangelicals for Social Action, pleaded with IRD to correct its reporting on CEPAD. Sider invited IRD staff to travel with him and a delegation of prominent conservative evangelicals to Nicaragua where they could meet with the Parajons and other leaders of CEPAD. There, Sider insisted, they would see for themselves that these were not "communists," but medical missionaries, preaching and demonstrating the Christian gospel.

With several evangelical gatekeepers involved in the delegation, and with mainstream evangelical publications like Christianity Today closely following the dispute, IRD had no choice but to agree to the trip. Then, at the last minute, they backed out and refused to go.

CEPAD was vindicated and IRD suffered a devastating embarrassment. They were, rightly, perceived as an unreliable source of information — closed-minded ideologues were were willing to attack others on the basis of irresponsibly flimsy evidence.

It took IRD years to recover from the CEPAD Affair. And just when they were getting back on their feet, along came the revolutions of 1989 and the end of the Cold War — which took the wind out of their favorite tactic.

The group has spent most of the past decade trying to piggy back on the evangelical "renewal" movements within the mainline denominations. IRD has long attacked "liberalism" within these Protestant traditions, and that liberalism is also a worry for many in these renewal movements, but ultimately these groups are a bad match for IRD. The renewal movements succeed precisely to the extent that they are marked by a revivalistic spirit. That revivalism is inescapably inclusive and revolutionary. IRD's whole shtick is to be exclusive and reactionary. Reinventing itself as IRD/Renew ain't gonna work.

(NOTE: In the interest of full disclosure, I worked for Ron Sider from 1992-2000 on the staff of ESA, and continue to work with him on occasional projects at the seminary where he teaches.)

  • Donald Johnson

    Interesting post. I didn’t know about this at the time.
    To be honest, I’m actually surprised that this would destroy IRD’s credibility, because it didn’t destroy Reagan’s credibility when he expressed sympathy for Rios Montt in Guatemala, or praised Savimbi, or (before he was President) told people that should walk in their moccasins before criticizing the fascist military rulers of Argentina at the time. And I recall human rights organizations being outraged over the way the Reagan people would imply that human rights work was pro-communist.
    IRD sounds completely mainstream in its behavior–you simply can’t be permanently discredited in American life by siding with a “pro-American” group of murderers. Slightly embarrassed for a moment, maybe, but never permanently discredited.

  • Darryl Pearce

    …even in early 1982, I could not stand that we derided the Soviets for sending forces into one country while the United States did the same damn thing.
    I watch Central American and Hispanic demonstrations on the CSU campus in 1982.
    God, I envy the neo-cons’ idealism. It must be strange to live in a world so black-and-white.
    –ventura county, ca