This post, written by Lindsay Beyerstein, originally appeared on Majikthise

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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