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The Family: Secretive Christian Group of Conservative Lawmakers Building a 'God-Led' Government

Jeff Sharlet, the journalist who helped expose a cohort of powerful lawmakers promoting a Christian Agenda at home and abroad, discusses his new book.

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[Members of the Family] are in it for the cash, but they're in it for God too. Are they cynical or sincere? The answer is: yes. Both. Simultaneously.

AC: Does the Family have any other counterparts in U.S. politics – groups of people that, religiously based or not, are contracting the scope of democracy?

JS: Yes, absolutely. I'm not saying that these guys are the secret puppet-masters that control the world. All I'm doing with this story is adding one more power base to our pantheon.

But the real key thing about the Family is the secrecy. Now, I disagree with Pat Robinson and James Dobson completely, 100 percent. I know they do secret things, but they are out there in the public square. They engage in democracy. Sure, it's for an undemocratic vision, but that's legitimate. But [the Family's] unusual and uncommon influence is that for so long they denied their own existence. That's starting to change, though, because of all this publicity.

AC: It's amazing that the strategy really works. The founder articulated that it would be more powerful and efficient if the Family denied its own existence, and he was right!

Ronald Reagan once said at the National Prayer Breakfast, the Family's only public event, he said to the journalists in the room about the Family: ‘I could tell you more about it, but I can't. It's working precisely because it's private.' And then he said this: “I've had my moments with the press, but I have to commend them for their discretion.”

You're a journalist, you know that any time a politician compliments you on your discretion, it's a problem! But a lot of these journalists see that as a sign that they're in, they're in the inner circle. They say they're "cultivating sources." No, you're not, you hack! You're auditioning for a talking heads spot, that's what you're doing. … A lot of these journalists practice knee-jerk centrism. This idea that the center must hold – not that it will hold, but that it must hold. It's when journalists see themselves as guardians of that balance that you get in a very dangerous place.

AC: While the Family came most forcefully into the public consciousness in the wake of last year's scandals of three of its members, you write in C Street of the importance of resisting the urge to gloat about moral hypocrisy. Can you talk about why such finger-pointing is a flawed response?

JS: Because that liberal glee at right-wingers acting on desire comes from the same prudish, small, little, hard-hearted place. It's the same counting of sins that right-wingers themselves do. Maybe it's a bait-and-switch – people think they will buy this book and hear about all the naughty things Republicans do. And they will—but those things are about money and violence overseas.

Look at the story of [South Carolina Gov.] Mark Sanford in particular. He's something of a tragic figure, right? He's in this terrible, terrible marriage. Here was this guy evidently late in life going through this important stage where he realized that we love who we love and we desire who we desire, and that these things aren't based on status or calculation.

So for Sanford, the awfulness wasn't that he went to Argentina; the awfulness was that he came back. And C Street brought him back. C Street said "you must work on your marriage as an obedience to God."

When these Republicans have their sex scandals, we should all say "great." Here is an opportunity for these conservative politicians to realize that love and lust and desire are complex, that they are not about obedience. Which is not to say that you should go cheat on your wife or your husband – just that we want these guys to reach their emotional maturity. When liberals gloat over it, they just play the same game, and round and round we go. It's the same kind of erasure of desire.

 
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