True story. There’s this corporate-funded outfit in D.C. that started back in the 1980s as a Cold-War effort to attack churches for their supposed Communist sympathies in Central America.
The group quickly developed a reputation for nastiness and dishonesty, but it was small and clumsy and never particularly effective. Basically what they did was send their operatives out to church conferences and gatherings to collect anything that might be quoted out of context and portrayed as dangerously radical or anti-American. Every time some church figure said anything positive about Archbishop Romero, Dom Helder Camara, Gustavo Gutierrez, Bruce Cockburn, the martyred sisters in El Salvador, or the Sanctuary movement, these folks would write up a shrieking denunciation and a fundraising letter warning that dangerous liberal nuns and National Council of Churches bureaucrats were worshiping Daniel Ortega instead of Jesus.
The goal was to reduce the influence of mainline Protestant churches, which was already on the wane, so it’s hard to say that this sleazy group really made much of a difference there. It did manage to discourage some churches from sending aid after the 1982 Nicaragua earthquake, and its “reporting” managed to make missionary medical clinics targets of Contra attacks — two appalling results the group regarded as triumphs.
Mainly, though, the group faltered and stalled on the lower-tier fringes of the religious right. They had bet on the wrong horse at the beginning of the rise of that new movement, putting all their money on anti-Communism activism when it turned out that anti-abortion activism was the wave of the future.
The end of the Cold War forced this group to reinvent itself as a more generic culture-warrior operation, but they kept their focus on tearing down “liberal” churches — that’s their market-niche in the religious right. They managed to keep limping along with just enough funding from the right-wing corporate foundations to stay afloat. Their basic approach didn’t change: Attend church conferences, take statements out of context, write scary hatchet pieces arguing that mainline churches were a commie fifth column, lather, rinse, repeat.
One of the most prolific hacks for this group was this guy with a phallic name who, by the mid-1990s, had really established himself as a shameless distortion artist. He was then, and remains now, widely despised by everyone who has ever attended any church event and then read his unrecognizable “report” of what transpired.
The first time I encountered him in person was at the one conference where he opted not to write his usual hatchet piece. This was one of the “Christian roundtable” gatherings in the 1990s that brought together a wide array of Christian leaders, scholars and activists from all over the ideological and denominational spectrum. They offered a chance for candid conversation seeking common ground and were generally pretty constructive. This particular gathering included both Jim Wallis of Sojourners and Gary Bauer, then of the Family Research Council, to give you an idea of the scene.
I was walking in with a very conservative friend, part of the First Things crowd. He was a Kuyperian Calvinist, a Marine veteran and a sharp guy who enjoyed a good argument. Since we agreed on quite a bit and disagreed on quite a bit, we had become friends and argument-buddies. My friend spotted the hack in the lobby outside the main meeting room, recognizing him before I did. He muttered something about not letting that “little sh–” write his usual hatchet-job on this event and strode over to him.
Now, as a general rule, I do not condone violence and I do not think threatening someone with violence is either the best way to approach a situation or something that Christians ought to do. But this was still kind of delightful to see.
The Marine walked the hack backwards until he was pressed against the wall. With one hand leaning on the wall right below the hack’s right ear, and his other hand waggling a finger inches from the hack’s nose, my friend explained to him that it might be best if he chose not to “report” on this particular gathering. He didn’t raise his voice, he lowered it — which was scarier. And with just the right amount of colorful military profanity, he informed the hack that if his outfit published anything dishonest or distorted about this conference, there would be consequences. He outlined those consequences in intimately personal, if anatomically improbable, detail.
Then he stepped back and the hack hurried off. He left the hotel and did not return.
That was more than 15 years ago.
Today the little hack with the phallic name is the president of that same sad little anti-liberal corporate front-group — a promotion resulting from attrition more than from any apparent accomplishment. And the group is still limping along, producing more of its trademark hatchet jobs denouncing the dangerous liberals, real or imaginary, in the American church.
But the really weird part — the surprising and disheartening part of this story that I just learned — is that now my old friend the Kuyperian Marine is working for him. That’s … odd. And unfortunate. And I hope only temporary.