“Libertarian Scaife” and His Religious Right Legacy

About Rachel Tabachnick

Rachel Tabachnick is a PRA fellow and researches the impact of the Religious Right on policy and politics in education, economics, the environment, and foreign policy. She has spoken at conferences on progressive activism, labor, environmental policy, and the impact of Christian Zionism on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. She is also a regular contributor to Talk2action.org
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Richard Mellon Scaife was the “epitome of a libertarian,” or at least, that’s how he was described in the Pittsburgh Tribune Review following his death on July 4. “Libertarian Scaife” is apparently how he wished to be remembered in the city where many of the landmarks bear his famous family’s name. But Scaife’s redefinition as a libertarian is belied by his decades of funding, including as funder of the architect of the religious and political right alliance and religio-political think tanks.

Richard "Dick" Scaife. Image via Fair.org

Richard “Dick” Scaife. Image via Fair.org

The libertarian portrayal of Scaife in the newspaper that he owned, including quotes from his long-time lawyer describing him as the defender of “free speech, freedom of the press, the separation of church and state, a woman’s right to choose, and other individual liberties,” is in contrast with “Citizen Scaife,” the title of the Columbia Journalism Review’s multi-part 1981 profile. The series portrayed Scaife as a “funding father” of the emerging New Right.

At that time, the foundations Scaife controlled were the leading source of seed money for two dozen New Right organizations, and funding for neoconservative military and intelligence think tanks.

And there is another not-so-libertarian legacy of Scaife’s funding that was not mentioned in most of his obituaries.

“Libertarian Scaife” empowered the Religious Right

He did not do it alone, nor was he the first plutocrat to fund the enlistment of amenable religious leaders as partners to roll back the New Deal, or to make use of John Birch Society-style Christian Nationalism to attack unions and the regulatory system.

Today’s constitutional conservatism is a curious marriage of Ayn Rand-style economics to social conservatism, or even a biblical worldview in which American law is to align with biblical law. The plus for plutocratic funders is that this biblical worldview also portrays the Bible as aligned with free market fundamentalism.

That list covers more than a half century and has included Sun Oil’s J. Howard Pew, textile magnate Roger Milliken, and Fred Koch. But few have been better at the behind-the-scenes funding of this partnership than Scaife. The outcome of his actions? An empowered Religious Right, who today prefer the term “constitutional conservative” to describe their wing of the GOP.

The Scaife-controlled foundations—the Sarah Scaife, Allegheny, and Carthage Foundations, run from the 39th floor of the Oxford Centre in Pittsburgh—are at least partially responsible for the consummation of this plutocratic/theocratic partnership. The enigmatic Scaife’s personal activism sometimes conflicted with the unruly offspring of his foundation’s largesse.

The Oxford Centre in Pittsburgh, PA. The Scaife foundations are housed on the 39th floor. Photo by the author.

Oxford Centre, Pittsburgh, PA. The Scaife foundations are housed on the 39th floor. Photo by the author.

Evidence includes a full page ad in the Wall Street Journal in 2011, with a letter by Scaife calling for conservatives to oppose efforts to defund Planned Parenthood. His passing is an opportunity to ask why Scaife and other billionaires have helped to empower, whether intentionally or not, this theocratic-minded offspring that will long outlive them.

Richard Viguerie, leading patriarch of the Religious Right, told a Heritage Foundation audience in April that he was more optimistic than ever that “constitutional conservatives” could take over the Republican Party by 2017. Viguerie insisted that their agenda must go beyond rolling back the New Deal and return a pre-Teddy Roosevelt era, and that the enemy was establishment Republicans like Rep. Eric Cantor. Viguerie suggested that Sen. Rand Paul (R) be given the vice presidential slot on the 2016 ticket in order to bring libertarians on board—not really much of a concession since Paul has himself rejected the libertarian label in the past for that of “constitutional conservative” (and is described as the standard bearer of that movement by his former aid and ghost writer Jack Hunter, a.k.a. the “Southern Avenger”).

Scaife was not a direct funder of Religious Right institutions that are household names (that was left to families like Prince/DeVos and Coors), but he was a major funder of the late Paul Weyrich, shepherd of the Religious Right into GOP politics, and co-founder of the Heritage Foundation, the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), and the Council for National Policy. Described as the “Robespierre of the Right,” for his purges of the insufficiently conservative, Weyrich left the Heritage Foundation and started what would become the Free Congress Foundation (FCF). Scaife, who had supplied the bulk of the seed money for Heritage and served as vice president of the board until his death, also funded Weyrich’s FCF—sometimes to the tune of over a million dollars a year.

This included in 2001, when the FCF published the manifesto “Integration of Theory and Practice,” calling for a new traditionalist movement of conservatives and right-leaning libertarians, and the following.

“Our movement will be entirely destructive, and entirely constructive. We will not try to reform the existing institutions. We only intend to weaken them, and eventually destroy them. We will endeavor to knock our opponents off-balance and unsettle them at every opportunity. All of our constructive energies will be dedicated to the creation of our own institutions.”

In a 2005 CSPAN interview about his career, Weyrich said that he could not have done what he did without the help of Dick Scaife.

Before Scaife paved the way with millions of dollars for conservative infrastructure, the St. Louis Post Dispatch noted, “there was a world where extremist ideas weren’t repackaged as mainstream by outfits like the Heritage Foundation, the American Enterprise Institute, Judicial Watch, the American Legislative Exchange Council, the Cato Institute or the Federalist Society.”

And Scaife did not stop there. He funded the building of new institutions, but also the destroying of old ones. He extended his impact on American religion by funding entities that undermined denominations and marginalized religious leaders not so amenable to rightwing politics.

Church & Scaife

The Scaife foundations funded the institute that published the First Things magazine of leading neoconservative Father Richard John Neuhaus, and the closely allied Institute on Religion and Democracy (IRD)—jokingly referred to during the Reagan administration as “the official seminary of the White House.”

A 2004 exposé by the late Methodist pastor Andrew Weaver was titled “Church & Scaife: Secular Conservative Philanthropies Waging Unethical Campaign to Take Over United Methodist Church.”  Weaver described IRD as a pseudo-religious, neo-conservative organization with a goal of undermining the liberal, social and economic justice mission of mainline Protestant denominations.  Christian Century exposed the fact that 89 percent of IRD’s early funding came from three foundations, and the largest block from the Scaife foundations. Infiltration of the Mainline Protestant denominations came in the guise of renewal groups, as described by PRA fellow Frederick Clarkson, also featured in the documentary “Renewal or Ruin.”

The largest single block of funding for think tanks promoting climate change denial has come from Donors Trust, according to a 2013 study by Drexel University, but a close second is the Scaife foundations at over $39 million dollars (well ahead of the funding from the Koch Brothers’ foundations).

Merging plutocratic interests with religion has been key to promoting climate change denial, including in the 2010 DVD series “Resisting the Green Dragon,” a product of the Cornwall Alliance. The 12-part teaching series, used in churches nationwide and featuring major Religious Right leaders, claims that environmentalism is a religion in opposition to Christianity.  Funding is hidden behind Donors Trust, but the Cornwall Alliance is a project of the James Partnership, founded by E. Calvin Beisner, a fellow with several Scaife-funded entities, including the Atlas Economic Research Institute, Committee for a Constructive Tomorrow, and IRD.

The irreligious Scaife’s molding of religion into the image of right-wing politics was not limited to Christianity.  As reported by the Washington Post, Scaife provided the seed money for former Reagan State Department official Elliot Abrams’ 1997 book “Faith or Fear.”  Sponsorship of the book was suggested by the president of the Hudson Institute and reportedly prompted by Scaife’s concern that most American Jews remain politically liberal.

Islam and immigrants provided a different type of target. The Scaife foundations are major funders of anti-immigrant organizations, but are outspent by Colcom, the leading funder of anti-immigrant causes in the U.S. and founded by Scaife’s sister.

Institutionalized Islamophobia was exposed in PRA’s research report Manufacturing the Muslim Menace, and in Fear, Inc. by the Center for American Progress, with the latter citing the Scaife foundations as the largest single source.

The Pennsylvania Plan

Partnership between free market fundamentalism and religion was extended to the state level through a network of Heritage Foundation-style think tanks in all 50 states.  These are linked through the State Policy Network and ALEC, but also work at the state level with a network of about three dozen state Family Policy Councils, loosely affiliated with the Family Research Council and Focus on the Family.  This infrastructure is described in The Public Eye articles from 1999 and 2013, including coverage of the “Pennsylvania Plan” model of Don Eberly.  Eberly was founder of both the Commonwealth Foundation and the Pennsylvania Family Institute, which work on shared agendas like school privatization.

In a 1989 speech to the Heritage Foundation, Eberly described the need for initiating both free market and religious tanks at the state and local levels.  The Scaife foundations provide funding for both the Commonwealth Foundation and the Allegheny Institute for Public Policy, a similar think tank for the Pittsburgh area.

Scaife’s legacy in Pennsylvania includes an aggressive assault on labor unions.  A PRA report titled “The Well-Funded Anti-Labor Arsenal” tracked $170 million dollars to major anti-union think tanks across the nation over 20 years, where the Scaife foundations provided the largest single block of funding. In 2013, the Commonwealth Foundation launched “Project Goliath,” a plan described with biblical terminology to follow in the footsteps of Wisconsin and Michigan to destroy Pennsylvania’s labor unions.

The Enigmatic Scaife

The libertarian Scaife has been portrayed in obituaries as less zealous in his later years, but the Scaife foundations’ reports show no backing away from right-wing causes, and the efforts to redefine him in his obituaries fail to negate his role as the “funding father” of modern conservatism.  Quoting a column in the St. Louis Post Dispatch,

“Without those early Scaife-paid efforts, there might have been no Fox News, no tea party, no Sarah Palin or Ted Cruz. …Without the Federalist Society, whose members include four justices of the Supreme Court, there would be no corporate personhood decisions like Citizens United and Hobby Lobby.”

I would add that without Scaife’s funding, we might not now live in a nation where the interests of a few plutocratic billionaires successfully masquerade as religion.

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