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Report Attacks Renewal Movement and African ChurchesJeff WaltonNovember 24, 2009
A Massachusetts think tank has released a new report alleging that North American church renewal organizations are manipulating African churches and exporting hostile views of homosexuality.
“Globalizing the Culture Wars: U.S. Conservatives, African Churches, and Homophobia” has been authored by Political Research Associates (PRA), which labels itself “a progressive think tank devoted to supporting movements that are building a more just and inclusive democratic society.”
The organization says that its mission is to “expose movements, institutions, and ideologies that undermine human rights.” The PRA website lists projects promoting abortion advocacy, gay causes and challenging Christian right “theocracy.”
The 49-page report attempts to diagram a broad conspiracy between American church renewal organizations and African churches, depicting a highly centralized top-down structure headed by renewal groups such as the Institute on Religion and Democracy (IRD), prominent evangelicals such as California Pastor Rick Warren and theologically conservative African leaders in Nigeria and Uganda, among others.
The IRD is prominently mentioned throughout the report, which includes references to the late IRD Board Member Fr. Richard John Neuhaus, IRD President Mark Tooley, former IRD President James Tonkowich, Religious Liberty Program Director Faith J.H. McDonnell and former Vice President of Operations Jerald Walz. The Episcopal (Anglican) and UM Action Program, both of the IRD, are also mentioned, as is the Church Alliance for a New Sudan.
In some cases the paper charts past involvement between the IRD and the like-minded Confessing Movement in the United Methodist Church, or the American Anglican Council, among others. Where common goals or contacts exist, the author assumes a tight-knit and hierarchical structure of control.
The paper warms against IRD’s “successful strategies” at dividing the church and cautions readers not to underestimate the conservative think tank. Among the alleged influence-buying efforts was the decision by United Methodist renewal groups to make available cellular telephones to overseas delegates during the denomination’s General Conference. Critics argue that the phones were intended to buy votes, noting that a paper circulated during the cell phone distribution encourages delegates to elect conservatives to the Judicial Council, United Methodism’s highest court. Renewal leaders countered that international delegates had suggested the phones as a way for delegates to better communicate with each other. Unmentioned in the report were other items made available during the General Conference, including large gift baskets delivered to overseas delegates courtesy of liberal-leaning denominational boards.
PRA itself is noteworthy for having been helmed by the Rev. Katherine Ragsdale, a liberal Episcopal clergywoman who departed the organization to become Dean of Episcopal Divinity School in Cambridge. The controversial priest is best known for her speech in front of an Alabama abortion clinic in which she stated repeatedly that “abortion is a blessing.”
Ragsdale and IRD have each targeted the other, with the Institute chronicling some of Ragsdale’s speeches, and Ragsdale naming IRD in her interview with the Boston Phoenix as “Exhibit A” of groups working to undercut her.
In the report, author Kapya Kaoma argues that African church leaders are essentially being trained as proxies for U.S. culture war battles. Kaoma, himself an African Anglican priest from Zambia, now leads a church in the Episcopal Diocese of Massachusetts. His official biography lists his previous positions as dean of St. John’s Cathedral in Mutabe, Zimbabwe and as academic dean for St. John’s Anglican Seminary in Kitwe, Zambia. He is named as “an active campaigner for women’s reproductive rights.” Kaoma currently serves as priest-in-charge for Christ Church, Hyde Park, a small parish that diocesan statistics list as having an average Sunday attendance of less than 60 persons and giving that has dropped from $65,000 to $35,000 in the past two reported years.
Kaoma claims that Africans themselves are uninterested in opposing homosexual practices and Islamic extremism, but that their evangelical identification with U.S. religious conservatives causes them to assume such views through association. Leaders of African churches are portrayed as uneducated about American political dynamics and easily deceived by western evangelicals.
The African cleric lists partnerships in a variety of fields, including health care, relief and development, but interprets them as guises under which theological traditionalists such as Warren seek to gain favor and influence on the African continent. Largely dismissed is the potential for Africans to have differences with the leadership of the Episcopal Church or other mainline denominations in the issues of scriptural authority or the role of Christ.
Perhaps most disturbingly, the report charges that African homosexuals have become “collateral damage” to the political discourse and public policies of American culture wars. The report, which downplays Islamic fundamentalism, makes no mention of tension between Christians and Muslims in countries like Nigeria, nor how practicing homosexuals would fare under Shari’a (Islamic law).
The report does charge that the involvement of African clerics in the United States “has had the effect of slowing, if not stopping altogether, the recognition by these churches of the full equality of LGBT people.” It also says that “American conservatives who are in the minority within mainline churches depend on African religious leaders to legitimize their positions.”
As evidence of the efficacy of American renewal groups, Kaoma cites the repeated failure of revisionist forces in the United Methodist Church to remove language critical of homosexual practice from the denomination’s Book of Discipline. The report also references the recent defeat of loosened clergy conduct standards in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), which would, if passed, permit the ordination of clergy in cohabitating or homosexual relationships.
The report concludes with recommendations that African leaders need to be “better informed” about IRD and other renewal organizations. It also calls for revisionist Christians to build relationships with upcoming African church leaders, seeking to educate and network with those that share their ideas. Similarly, Kaoma calls to “expose the covert financing of African conservatives,” charging that a campaign is underway by western conservatives to use African churches “as a proxy force in their U.S. culture war.”
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