Around the time that the Cold War abroad and culture wars at home reached their peak after the election of Ronald Reagan, some worshippers in mainline denominations became distressed by politicization of church statements and policies. One flash point was open support among some church officials for Marxist causes, including undemocratic and illiberal rebel groups in Latin America. A drift into left-wing social policies and “liberation theology” was another trend that set off alarms. In response, some members of the United Methodist Church along with other concerned Christians raised funds, created a board of directors, and launched the Institute on Religion & Democracy as a membership organization in 1981.
As one of the group’s leaders put it, “We believe the church should be the church, proclaiming the Gospel, discipling believers, assisting the needy, and teaching broad principles for a better society without becoming narrowly political. Our unity as Christians is based on our faith in Jesus Christ, not positions on secular legislation.” In the words of founding board member and prominent theologian Thomas Oden, “we are not presuming to create new doctrine but hold firmly to apostolic teaching in ways pertinent to current circumstances.” Funding has come from membership dues, church contributions, individual donors, and grants from foundations like the John M. Olin Foundation, Smith Richardson Foundation, and the Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation.
The IRD has promoted renewal of an energetic Christian orthodoxy—within the Methodist, Presbyterian, and Episcopal churches in particular. It has also closely monitored the National Council of Churches, the National Association of Evangelicals, and other ecumenical groups, reinforcing theology that is “orthodox, reliable, stable, beautiful, familiar, and glorious.” Religious liberty in foreign lands has always been an important issue for the group, and continues to be today.
- Institute on Religion & Democracy, theird.org