A Problem Pastor Worse than Hagee: Peter Akinola

By Frederick Clarkson Sat Jun 28, 2008 

Peter Akinola is not exactly a household name, but he could well be the problem pastor of neo-conservatism. He is certainly less well known in the U.S. than John (“McCain threw me under the bus“) Hagee, but he is every bit as consequential. He is the spiritual leader of thousands of Americans, including many Washington insiders who attend schismatic Episcopal churches that have placed themselves under his authority in recent years. He is Anglican Archbishop Peter Akinola of Nigeria, a cruel and ostentatiously anti-gay cleric and a driving force in the widening schism in the worldwide Anglican communion, who makes James Dobson seem liberal and Hagee a relative man of peace.  

  topic: Analysis of Christian Right    
He is the embodiment of many people’s worst fears about the theocratic, authoritarian nature of the Religious Right. (See also here, for a recent example.)  That Americans of any political or religious orientation would choose this man as their spiritual leader is disturbing enough.  But there is a still darker side of Akinola, one linked to an infamous massacre.

But before we get to that — a few words about some of the Akinola Anglicans.

Akinola Anglicans are represented in the United states in part by, and are closely aligned with the Institute on Religion and Democracy, a neoconservative strategy and action center that has waged a war of attrition against mainline Protestantism for a generation, primarily under the leadership of conservative Catholics and evangelicals; and is bankrolled by the likes of Richard Mellon Scaife and Howard Ahmanson, whose neoconservative and theocratic agendas are respectively opposed by the historic communions of mainline Protestantism. (Scaife and Ahmanson are also principal bankrollers of the Discovery Institute, the religious right think tank devoted to the promotion of the teaching of “intelligent design” in the public schools.)

In a scholarly article published at Media Transparency, Andrew Weaver documented how prominent Catholic neoconservatives have played a leading role in IRD from the beginning. (J. Budziszewski, the Catholic board chair quietly and inexplicably resigned in the wake of Weaver’s article.) And I have reported on how the current IRD president Jim Tonkowich is a minister in an evangelical Presbyterian schism of the mainline Presbyterian Church (USA) that IRD is purportedly seeking to reform. The record shows that IRD is primarily funded by neoconservative and religious right foundations and financiers who view the churches as obstacles to their regressive and sometimes theocratic political agendas.

The latest (albeit unsuccessful) IRD effort to sew discord in the mainline churches came in the form of a press release attacking an upcoming conference at Howard University Divinity School The Dawn of a New Day: National Black Religious Summit on Sexuality , sponsored by the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice. On the agenda are such matters as the failures of abstinence education and

the role faith leaders can play in making sure that young people have access to the information they need, the differing values underlying abstinence-only education and comprehensive sex education, and ways that participants can begin to advocate for accurate sex education in their homes, churches and schools.

There is a workshop that

will help to define domestic violence and explore strategies and interventions the church can employ to address domestic violence in its midst.

There are also sessions on women in ministry and helping Black churches that are struggling over the question of homosexuality, discussions of reproductive choice; how to discuss sexuality from the pulpit, and another on “emerging standards for churches to keep children safe from sexual harassment and abuse.”

Sounds like a highly responsible, helpful and productive agenda doesn’t it?  So what was IRD so exercised about that they feel the need to issue a press release?

One of several worship services was scheduled to be led by Jeremiah Wright, Barack Obama’s former pastor.  To read the IRD press release, one would not know anything about the good work of the long running annual conference.  Instead, IRD seeks to make the entire event about Jeremiah Wright. I don’t know what Wright would have to say on the themes of the conference. I daresay that IRD does not know either.

    But RCRC does:

Reverend Wright spoke at two earlier Summits and is responsible for initiating at Trinity model ministries in addressing issues of youth sexuality.

As it happens, Wright had cancelled his appearance a week prior to the IRD press release, so the entire matter seems to have fizzled out.  Nevertheless, the IRD press release is an excellent example of how the agency employs distortion and dishonesty in the service of smear mongering. According to Mark Tooley:

“That Mainline Protestant denominations continue to belong to a shameless abortion rights coalition is outrageous. That they would do so after the coalition invited Jeremiah Wright is nothing short of a scandal.    “RCRC is not a faith organization. It is a radical political lobby that advocates limitless abortion on demand.”

The simple fact is that the member denominations of RCRC support abortion rights, and have well thought out conscientious policies developed and reaffirmed over many years. The membership of mainline Protestant denominations and their Washington offices in the Coalition is far from being “outrageous,” as Tooley claims: it makes perfect sense and is utterly in keeping with longstanding positions of the churches.  But IRD has a hard time with the facts in this regard. At one point, Presbyterian program staffer Jim Berkley seemed unable or unwilling to grasp that his own denomination has been pro-choice since 1970. Similarly, Tooley ignores that his own United Methodist Church’s General Conference reaffirmed its 35 year membership in RCRC only a month ago. He should know. He was there.  

(For anyone who is wondering, here is where you can find what RCRC actually says about abortion.)

But as long as IRD has tried to play the Wright card, let’s consider a good point made recently by Talk to Action guest front pager Jim Naughton – which brings us around to the problematic pastorate of Peter Akinola.

When Washington Post columnist and former Bush speech writer Michael (“axis of evil”) Gerson criticized Barack Obama over his relationship with Rev. Wright, Naughton pointed out that whatever one may think of Wright’s handful of controversial remarks, they are a tempest in a teapot compared to the activities of Peter Akinola to whom many of those involved with IRD and its allies look to for leadership.

Gerson is a member of the Falls Church in Falls Church, Va. His congregation and the nearby Truro Church, played the key role in leading 11 Virginia parishes out of the Episcopal Church after the Church consecrated Gene Robinson, an openly gay man as bishop in 2003. Most of these parishes joined the Church of Nigeria, which Akinola leads.The relationship between Akinola, Truro and the Falls Church is a close one. The American churches provide important financial support for Akinola’s ministry, and American clergy frequently write his papers and speeches.

Akinola is notorious for being a proponent of severe criminal penalties for homosexuality in Nigeria, but beyond this,

In May, The Atlantic magazine raised new and more troubling concerns about Akinola. In “God’s Country,” the writer Eliza Griswold, daughter of the Rt. Rev. Frank Griswold, former Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church, describes a retributive massacre in the Nigerian town of Yelwa carried out in 2004 by a well-organized band of men, wearing clothing and tags that identified them as members of the Christian Association of Nigeria. Akinola was president of CAN during the massacre, which Human Rights Watch reports claimed the lives of approximately 700 Muslims. Dozens of others were kidnapped, raped or maimed. (The relevant sections of the article and the HRW report are excerpted here.)Eliza Griswold visited Akinola in 2006. She writes:

When asked if those wearing name tags that read “Christian Association of Nigeria” had been sent to the Muslim part of Yelwa, the archbishop grinned. “No comment,” he said. “No Christian would pray for violence, but it would be utterly naive to sweep this issue of Islam under the carpet.” He went on, “I’m not out to combat anybody. I’m only doing what the Holy Spirit tells me to do. I’m living my faith, practicing and preaching that Jesus Christ is the one and only way to God, and they respect me for it. They know where we stand. I’ve said before: let no Muslim think they have the monopoly on violence.”

When these remarks came to light, Akinola’s spokesman released a statement that had nothing to do with the incident at Yelwa, but with later riots over the publication of Danish cartoons, that Muslims viewed as insulting to the prophet Mohammed. Neither the archbishop nor his American followers have offered further elaboration.

Akinola’s handling of the massacre in Yelwa and his incendiary comments during the cartoon riots contributed to his defeat when he ran for re-election of the Christian Association of Nigeria. Indeed, members of the Association took the unusual step of denying him the vice presidency, which is usually awarded to the candidate who finishes second in the presidential balloting. His anti-gay crusades, and his efforts to split the Anglican Communion over the issue of homosexuality led to the defeat of Akinola’s handpicked successor, in the voting for president of the Council of Anglican Provinces in Africa. Yet, members of his American flock, which is concentrated in Northern Virginia, but includes a congregation with close ties to the Family Research Council, and other conservative political groups, continues to support him.

One of those organizations is IRD, which not only played key role in the creation of the schismatic American Anglican Council, but one of its behind the scenes key figures, Roberta Green Ahmanson currently chairs the IRD board. Several IRD staffers attend Virginia schismatic churches under Akinola’s control.    

Naughton concludes his piece about Gerson with points that apply equally well to IRD leadership and staff:

Gerson may hold views very different than those of Akinola–just as Barack Obama may hold views very different than those of Jeremiah Wright. But given Gerson’s repeated criticism of Obama over his relationship with Wright, it seems fair to ask whether anything that Wright has said or done is as destructive to the human family as the word and actions of Peter Akinola, and why Gerson is able to pronounce with such supreme condescension on Obama’s failures when his own are so much more damning–and enduring.

It is remarkable that the Zelwa massacre has not been more of an issue in light of the article in The Atlantic. But it is not too late for that.

Read the entire article, “God’s Country,” by Eliza Griswold, The Atlantic, March 2008