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At National Prayer Breakfast, Obama to Address Shadowy Christian Group Tied to Uganda's 'Kill the Gays' Bill

The prayer breakfast is a display of power for an underground religious group that often shapes U.S. foreign policy in ways that sometimes conflict with our policy goals.

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Indeed, the unwanted light the Uganda bill has cast on the Family has forced the group to respond in the open; Bob Hunter has become a de facto spokesperson for the group on the issue, even appearing on "The Rachel Maddow Show" (in an appearance Sharlet helped to arrange) to distance the Family from what Sharlet calls "this genocidal bill."

In essence, Sharlet explained, the situation with Uganda and the anti-gay bill is a case of the Family's own power getting away from it. Uganda has long been a special project of the group, which conducts its own ad hoc foreign policy through the influence of its members.

Uganda's present dictator, Yoweri Museveni, is another of the Family's key men, Sharlet said. There's plenty of precedent for the Family's involvement with dictators: one key man of the 1980s was former Somalian dictator Siad Barre. The Family helped him win American aid and arms, which he used, according to Sharlet, to "lay his country to waste."

"And recently now, I've noticed that Museveni's becoming sort of an American proxy for dealing with Somalia, which is a big problem for us," Sharlet said. "Somalia is a haven for al Qaeda; it's a lawless state."

The Family's presence in Uganda likely helped pave the way for other U.S. conservative Christian evangelical groups, such as Pastor Rick Warren's "Purpose-Driven" group, and the anti-gay ministries of Scott Lively, Caleb Lee Brundidge and Don Schmierer, whose anti-gay rhetoric at a Ugandan seminar influenced the authors of the "Kill the Gays" bill.

"I think the Family opened the doors to Uganda for what they consider [to be] an evangelical revival, and the result was to make this country sort of a guinea pig for experiments in the American culture war," Sharlet said. "This is a way foreign policy often works; political experiments happen at the fringes and policies that can't be implemented here at home are tried out there."

The outrage over Uganda's Anti-Homosexuality bill is affecting official U.S. foreign policy.The State Department issued a statement decrying the bill, and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton (who, during her Senate term, participated in the Family's Senate prayer group) expressed her concern during a 45-minute telephone call with Ugandan President Museveni , after which he directed parliament to suspend action on the bill -- stopping short of killing it. President Obama has also condemned the legislation.

The Uganda bill, Sharlet said, is just one example of how the Family's off-the-shelf foreign policy impacts the U.S. national interest. "From what my inside sources tell me, they drive the State Department crazy. This is a constant pain in the neck for the State Department -- you know, you've got a senator just sort of dropping in on a foreign leader without clearing it."

The Family and the Tea Party Movement

Though the Family itself is non-partisan, its ideology appeals most strongly to conservative Republicans, a handful of whom have emerged as favorites of the Tea Party crowd: Senators Jim DeMint of South Carolina, Tom Coburn and James Inhofe of Oklahoma, and Rep. Marsha Blackburn of Tennessee, to name a few of the Family's better-known congressional members. (Democrats in the news associated with the Family include Rep. Bart Stupak of Ohio and Sen. Bill Nelson of Florida; for more on the Family's influence on the health care debate, see AlterNet's October report here.)

"That's an interesting overlap. That's an interesting convergence of social movements," Sharlet told AlterNet. "The Family represents, as they have put it in the past, the avant-garde of American fundamentalism. They're an elite -- Tea Parties [as in Tea Party protests] are not their style. Doug Coe probably finds this the tackiest, most galling -- you know, just, oh, terrible." Nonetheless, Sharlet said, "You've got to look at the way these two movements work together. And when I say work together, I don't mean that they're getting together in a back room and coming up with a plan; I'm talking about a social movement. The left doesn't want to admit that over on the right they have social movements, too."