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Mere-O Interview: Mark Tooley

March 14th, 2011 | 5 min read

By Andrew Walker

Last September, Matthew Anderson and I journeyed to Washington D.C. for the annual Values Voter Summit. While there, we had the privilege of having a late night dinner with Mark Tooley, President of The Institute on Religion and Democracy. The pressing topic of our conversation was the apparent shifting attitude of younger evangelicals toward political liberalism.

Mark Tooley is no stranger to the hot topic of evangelical political trends. In fact, he’s one of the most articulate critics of the Evangelical Left. Tooley has demonstrated time and time again in his writings that evangelical political liberalism is not only politically irresponsible, but doctrinally toxic. And he’s experienced this first-hand as an evangelical Methodist within a denomination that is more known for its political stances than its orthodoxy. An author of Taking Back the United Methodist Church, Tooley has spent the entirety of his career reversing the theological and political trends of his native church.

A contributor to several publications such as The Wall Street JournalThe Weekly StandardHuman EventsThe Washington TimesTouchstoneThe Chicago Tribune, and The New York Post, today, his work is most consistenly found on the  American Spectator where he’s found fulminating against the inroads and claims of the Evangelical Left. In 2009, he was profiled by Marvin Olasky in WOLRD Magazine.

Evangelicals need Mark Tooley. And to present the case for Mark Tooley, we’re honored to have him answer a few questions about his take on the American political landscape and evangelicalism. Like our last interview with Craig Carter, we’ll divide our interview over several days.

AW: Give us a brief background on your church affiliation and a brief bio. How did you come to be the president of The Institute on Religion and Democracy?

MT: I am a lifelong United Methodist, having grown up in a very average Mainline Protestant congregation in northern Virginia.  My grandmother lived with us and she took my brother and me to church as children.   By the time I was an adult, almost everyone else my own age was gone, which is a typical Mainline Protestant situation, but I loved the congregation and Methodist beliefs.  While a college student, I became the congregation’s representative to the Virginia Annual Conference, and also the missions chair.  The politics of the denomination became known to me and were very disturbing, especially the influence of Liberation Theology at the United Methodist missions agency, and that agency’s support for Marxist liberation, including backing the Sandinistas in Nicaragua.  I knew these policies absolutely did not represent most or any people in my church, and probably not many in most churches.  I was certain that church members would demand reform if only they knew the facts.  Providing those facts became my mission as a group of us formed a group in Virginia to advocate restoring the missions agency to missions evangelism. I also joined the board of Good News, United Methodism’s oldest evangelical renewal ministry, after working with Good News at United Methodism’s governing General Conference in 1992.  While still in college I began working part-time for the CIA, and then became a full-time employee upon finishing school.  But working for United Methodism’s renewal was my chief passion.  In 1994, I left the government to work on United Methodist reform at the Institute on Religion in Democracy, where I have joyfully remained.

AW: In a word or two, state the mission of the Institute for Religion and Democracy. What is measured success for your organization?

MT: IRD was founded in 1981 to reform the social witness of America’s churches, with a special emphasis on international religious liberty and the importance of democracy.  Our effectiveness can be measured by how a small group can affect and alter the debates within America’s great churches.  IRD made a splash from the start by challenging U.S. church accommodation of Marxism during the Cold War, while the churches neglected Christians and others persecuted in the old Soviet Empire.

AW: At The American Spectator, you write a lot about the Evangelical Left. Why is that?

MT: I write for several secular publications and mostly about the Religious Left because I think Americans, religious or not, need to understand how culture-shaping our churches are, and always have been, in this country.   We are an overwhelmingly religious people, and what the churches are doing and saying inevitably will affect America as a whole, for better or worse.

AW: In your view, how damaging are the views of Jim Wallis to Christians?

MT: Jim Wallis is a 1960’s radical who over the last decade has effectively redressed his message to appeal to suburban evangelicals concerned about the environment, poverty, or war.  He poses as post-ideological, but of course he is a committed statist who wants to rally people of faith, especially evangelicals, for perpetually enlarging the power and scope of the federal government.  He is also a pacifist absolutist, who would like to see America disarmed.  So essentially, Wallis wants to transform evangelicals into liberal Mainline Protestant activists, with all of the disastrous demographic consequences for their churches!  Why should thriving evangelical churches want to follow the example of the fracturing, imploding Episcopal Church?

AW: Which—the Christian Right or the Christian Left—is guiltier of having their views influenced by political and economic ideologies? Alternately, does the political Left or the political Right have a higher concentration of religious ideology in their ranks?

MT: Everyone involved in politics is shaped by political ideology.  No shame in that.  The Religious Left’s problem is that it essentially exchanged the transcendent Gospel message of salvation for a temporal message of political kingdom building.  Obviously, conservative Christians have made some of their own cultural accommodations.  But conservative Christians, as a whole, have not denied the need for personal repentance and personal salvation, based on orthodox church teachings, in favor of a political agenda.  Despite the stereotypes, most conservative Christians and their churches are primarily focused on evangelism, discipleship, directly helping the poor and needy.  But for the Religious Left, if you don’t believe in the Apostles Creed, what do you do?  The answer is primarily politics.  It’s also important to note that the Religious Left is traditionally comprised of denominational church bodies, while the Religious Right is traditionally centered on parachurch groups.

Stay tuned for the next installment of our interview with Mark Tooley.