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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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UPDATE: Since AlterNet published this story, the good-government group, Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, called on President Obama and members of Congress to stay away from this week's National Prayer Breakfast. Find more about this developmenthere.

The National Prayer Breakfast, an annual Washington exercise attended by politicians of all stripes who wish to demonstrate their piety, is one of those must-go events for the U.S. president, or so the conventional wisdom has it. Every president since Dwight D. Eisenhower has attended.

But the prayer breakfast, however benign it may seem on the surface, is really a display of power for an underground religious group that often shapes U.S. foreign policy in ways not easy to see, and sometimes at odds with the policy goals of the government. This Thursday, President Barack Obama is expected to address the gathering, as he did last year. But if there was ever a year for the president to have a sudden scheduling conflict, it's this one.

The breakfast draws leaders from all sectors of society, including a hefty contingent from the military. It's a coveted invitation. The event is usually the only public sighting of its sponsor, the shadowy right-wing religious network known as the Family. Around the periphery of the event, the Family does what it does best: bringing together leaders from developing countries of special concern to U.S. business interests with members of Congress and people in government who hold the keys to the foreign aid kingdom.

"This is the bullying tactics of banality," said Jeff Sharlet, author of the definitive book, The Family: The Secret Fundamentalism at the Heart of American Power, in an interview with AlterNet in December."This is not about a banality of evil, but the evil of banality. The breakfast itself is a very bland event, but it's surrounded by this week-long lobbying festival which isn't visible."

Introductions are made and meetings arranged for foreign dignitaries through the auspices of the Family, led for the past 40 years by Washington insider Doug Coe and comprising powerful men from all over the world, including a number of prominent members of Congress. That group of powerful men includes two who are behind a controversial anti-gay law in Uganda, proposed by two politicians with strong ties to the Family. The law carries the death penalty for what it calls "aggravated homosexuality."

The Prayer Breakfast is closed to the media, except for those in the press corps who travel with the president. "It's a private event," explained Joe Mitchell of the National Prayer Breakfast Committee via a voice mail left in response to AlterNet's request for access. Invitations to the Prayer Breakfast go out on congressional letterhead, Sharlet said, even though the stated purpose of the gathering is distinctly Christian and not ecumenical -- a violation of the spirit of the First Amendment. "So, too bad Muslims, too bad, Jews -- this event is not for you," Sharlet said.

So why does the president feel he must give his props to a group that often works against the national interest, and whose most prominent congressional members -- Sen. Jim DeMint, R-S.C, Sen. James Inhofe, R-Okla., and Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., to name a few -- have acted as his nemeses? It's all about the group's perceived power in the very structure of the U.S. government. "You don't want to alienate them," one religious right leader explained to Sharlet.

Obama will seek to keep his own participation in the event low-key, Sharlet predicted. "He'll give a bland, kind of useless address."

Yet a spate of recent scandals and exposes of the group's coddling of anti-democratic heads of state makes this the perfect time for a U.S. president to step off the Family's bandwagon. Indeed, his very presence lends legitimacy to a group that enacts its goals through informal lobbying and back-room deals, all knitted together through "prayer cells" of people with the power to effect the Family's right-wing, free-market agenda.

In his State of the Union speech, Obama decried the outsized role of lobbyists in U.S. policy. But while the Family lobbies hard, it does so without a license, so to speak. Because its influence is conducted through an underground network of people who hold positions of power in the government, its "lobbyists" never have to register as such. They're just "followers of Jesus," in the group's own parlance, who have big jobs.

"I hope there will be defections at the edges," Sharlet said -- at least in the private dinner parties and prayer meetings arranged with Congress members for the Family's key men.

Tough Year: Sex Scandals and Uganda's 'Kill the Gays' Bill

It's been a tough year for the Family (also known as the Fellowship). First, there were the very public sex scandals of powerful lawmakers involved in the Family -- South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford, Sen. John Ensign of Nevada and Rep. Chip Pickering of Mississippi, all of whom lived, at one time or another, in the Family's infamous C Street house in Washington, DC.

Just as the noise about the sex scandals began to die down came word of Uganda's proposed Anti-Homosexuality Bill of 2009, a proposal introduced in the Ugandan parliament that would criminalize the advocacy of LGBT rights and punish certain acts by gays with death. The foremost advocates for the bill, which is still under consideration, are two politicians that Family members refer to as "key men." A key man is believed to occupy a position of worldly power because he was anointed by God to actualize the Family's socially conservative, pro-business theology, which hangs on the notion of a supply-side Jesus. It doesn't matter if he's a murderous dictator or known adulterer: what matters is his power.

In the U.S., Uganda's Anti-Homosexuality Bill of 2009 has become known as the "Kill the Gays" bill. Thanks to the persistence of bloggers like Sarah Posner of Religion Dispatches, Jim Burroway of Box Turtle Bulletin and Christian psychologist Warren Throckmorton, and the platform given the issue by MSNBC's Rachel Maddow, leaders of the Family have been forced to distance themselves, at least publicly, from the two Ugandan key men behind the bill: MP David Bahati and James Nsaba Buturo, minister of state for ethics and integrity.

When Bahati told a Ugandan newspaper that he would attend and speak at the U.S. National Prayer Breakfast, the Family's Bob Hunter issued a statement saying that Bahati was not invited to the breakfast, and that he had declined an earlier invitation, issued before he introduced the bill, to attend as a volunteer. In response to a query from AlterNet, Hunter said Buturo "has never been on any list and has no invitation." However, Hunter could not confirm whether or not Buturo planned to be in the U.S. for the Family's lobbying fest during the week of the prayer breakfast, saying he'd had no communication with the Ugandan official and had never met him.

"I think if the Family could make that bill go away, they would. It's too extreme," said Jeff Sharlet,who sat down with AlterNet last month to discuss where the shadowy network, now the focus of more attention than its leaders ever wished it to have, finds itself in the age of Obama.

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."

Successful social movements find their strength in the "convergence" of various streams of activism, Sharlet said. "And those moments of convergence are where you see social movements sometimes making great strides. You go back to the 1960s, civil rights, you have a convergence between radicals, between people who have been in the trenches of civil rights forever, and white, middle-class liberals." The right-wing elites of the Family, Sharlet explained, "are going for that convergence."

As evidence, Sharlet cited the Manhattan Declaration, a sort of right-wing Christian manifesto whose signers range from Roman Catholic bishops and cardinals to such populist Protestant evangelical figures as Harry Jackson, the right's point man on opposing same-sex marriage, and convicted Watergate felon Chuck Colson, founder and leader of Prison Fellowship Ministries.

Transparency -- Not Conspiracy -- Is the issue

While it's tempting to view the Family as a conspiracy of master manipulators who direct the every move of those affiliated with the group, Sharlet strongly cautions against taking this view. "I get so frustrated with people on the left who want to look at the right as one great big Borg. Basically they think Shell Oil is sitting in their back room pulling all the strings, and that it's all related to one scheme. It's not."

The Family's influence simply doesn't work that way, he said. And there are times when the Family's intervention may actually prevent bad things from happening to people in the nations led by the Family's key men. The real problem is the organization's lack of transparency.

"I think this really goes to the sore spot or the touchy nerve, which is the utilitarianism of American political thought, so that someone like Senator Coburn or Senator Inhofe -- they feel if they're over in Africa or the Middle East and trying to help these people, that one, they should be given tremendous credit for their good intentions," Sharlet explained. "And, two, if they do manage to avert a conflict through this kind of backroom dealing and rogue foreign policy, then the ends justify the means.

"Frankly, that's an idea that's seductive to a lot of people in the United States -- and not just on the right," he continued. "And we sort of forget about the whole conversation about democracy. We forget, as the Family goes and works behind the scenes and works through its 'God-chosen elites' and 'anointed leaders' -- every time they do that, they are breaking down the democratic process.

"What if they're not the puppet masters?" he asked. "What if their intentions really are good? And in fact, they have accomplished, here and there, some good things. They have averted a conflict. Do we then just drop our questions? Or do we say, you know what, good intentions are not enough, democratic process is what we need. And do we dig into the export of American political and economic religion? Because that's what it is. Free-market gospel. And say, look, what are the costs and consequences of that? Those are harder questions for us to deal with -- the more important questions."

Embodied in the First Amendment are several complementary but competitive concepts: freedom of religion, freedom from government involvement in religion, and freedom of expression. The Family has every right to have its members express their religious views, and to act within the law as their faith informs them to do. But its insidious existence, at a cellular level, in the very muscle of American might infects U.S. policy with a theology shared by only a very few citizens. Sunlight is the best disinfectant, the cliche goes. Until the Family chooses to wield its power in the light of day, no president should grant it the glow of legitimacy.

CORRECTION: The original version of this story inaccurately stated that Uganda President Yoweri Museveni introduced the former Somali dictator Siad Barre to the Family. In fact, Barre's relationship with the Family predated Museveni's.

Adele M. Stan is AlterNet's Washington bureau chief.