Features
James Allen Walker for WORLD

From CIA to IRD

Religion | Advocate Mark Tooley knows that 'God often has surprises for us'

Issue: "Africa, Inc.," Oct. 10, 2009

When Mark Tooley's opponents don't know how to refute his precisely tooled arguments, their last refuge is his patriotism. He joined the CIA out of college during the last years of the Cold War to fight that era's evil empire, so one attack headline from a leftist publication in 1996 read, "Covert ops, Christian-style-former CIA operative Tooley now works for the religious right."

Well, not exactly the religious right: The Hartford Courant in 2001 described the Institute on Religion and Democracy (IRD), which Tooley now heads, as "the more intellectual, sherry-sipping, mainstream 'conservative' voice of Protestantism . . . men and women of faith within the traditional Main Line churches who think that transcendence has been replaced by the latest pronouncements on air pollution and tax policy."

Tooley, 44, grew up in what for decades was the Main Street of American Protestantism, a United Methodist church (UM). He went to Georgetown University, known in the 1980s and now as a prep school for the State Department, but that career seemed tame compared to what the CIA had to offer. For eight years he worked as an analyst of data first from Pacific islands such as Fiji (but he didn't get to go there) and then from Mozambique and Zimbabwe.

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But the steady movement to the left of some U.S. clergy kept bugging him, so he left the CIA and in 1994 became head of UMAction with the goal of fighting the church hierarchy's support of Marxist guerrillas in Central America, violent revolutionaries in southern Africa, and abortionists in the United States. Last year Tooley wrote Taking Back the United Methodist Church (Bristol House). This spring the Washington-based IRD chose him to be its new president.

Now his office at IRD displays prints, paintings, and drawings of George Washington, Andrew Jackson, Abraham Lincoln, and Winston Churchill: He sees them as exemplars of the moral character and tenacity that are needed in his battle to reclaim a Methodist denomination with 8 million members in the United States (most of them are not in church on a typical Sunday) and 3 million abroad (most of them are). Tooley's office also sports a bust and painting of John Wesley and a print of Francis Asbury, the circuit-riding founder of American Methodism.

The San Francisco Weekly called the IRD the "Institute of Hate" and blasted Tooley for purportedly running "smear campaigns against church officials seen as too liberal," but his CIA background shows more in the precise, even wonkish way he answers questions about his work and the decline of liberal mainline denominations. He hopes to keep Methodists and Presbyterians from following the Episcopal and Evangelical Lutheran denominations into support of ordination for actively homosexual clergy, but the IRD is not a one-note player: It wants churches to "uphold theological orthodoxy, espouse a responsible political witness, and plead for persecuted religious believers around the world."

IRD has also waded into the environmental stewardship debate, noting, "Many of the solutions offered to the environmental problems we face are nothing more than thinly veiled arguments for statism, population control, and limits on development. Solutions to an environmental problem that trap the poor in their poverty are not solutions." IRD opposes appeasement policies regarding radical Islam and speaks out for victims of Islamic persecution, many of whom are Christians. Instead of following liberal church groups in demonizing Israel, it provides factual information about Israeli-Arab disputes.

Tooley, unmarried, plays tennis and racquetball and is a "serious walker" through the streets of Washington. Walking provides time to think about God's ways: Some see mainline churches inevitably sinking further, but Tooley points to the collapse of the Soviet empire and the marginalization of radical feminism as signs of hope. He notes that "growing Christianity around the world is robustly orthodox" and that pastors from African churches especially are demanding that denominations hold the line on sexual standards. He knows that "God often has surprises for us, winning battles on unexpected fields."

Marvin Olasky
Marvin Olasky

Marvin is editor in chief of WORLD News Group and the author of more than 20 books, including The Tragedy of American Compassion. Follow Marvin on Twitter @MarvinOlasky.

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