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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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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.