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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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AC: Given what the real stakes are, why do you think the public is inclined to slip into the superficial criticisms of C Street?

JS: Well, let me clarify, I don't think talking about sex is superficial. Here is where I differ from a lot of people. There are people who are gloating about [the scandals], and then there are people saying, why are we talking about sex when we should be talking about serious things? I think sex is a pretty serious thing. We need to understand that when people talk about sex, they're talking about many things.

When my first book came out, I got a fair amount of press, but reporters didn't really get it, and people weren't really interested in it. The secrecy was really complex. But then the sex scandals and affairs come up, that's a kind of secrecy the public understands. Suddenly the sex and secrets become a metaphor. The public can easily see that politicians may be keeping things from us. They may not have our best interests at heart. People understand it because most of us have done, or have had done to us, something like it. That's what makes it a great news story. You're a journalist, you know that people don't want a new story; they want stories they know. And I'm not making fun of people – people want a story they already know because they're thinking about things, working it out in their own mind.

So I don't think it's superficial to talk about sex. You begin the conversation with sex … and I suppose if you're very lucky, you end it with sex. But in between, we must move on to serious things. We must see that the same justification that C Street uses to cover up the sex scandals of Ensign and Sanford and [Rep. Chip] Pickering is the exact same move for what their doing with their involvement in Uganda, and Nigeria, before that, Papa Doc in Haiti. It's the same erasure of desire.

AC: You write that the threat of the Family isn't theocracy, but 'the conflation of democracy with authoritarianism.' Logically, how does the Family reconcile these two seemingly oppositional ideas?

JS: They do it through the soft sell. They do it through the appeal to unity. Unity and harmony sound good. The subtitle I originally wanted for my book was "The Fundamentalist Abduction of Democracy." That idea, that conflation of democracy and authoritarianism, is very learned. Authoritarianism is kind of a bad word. But then you take one step over to paternalism. Well, that's still a bad word, but now you're talking about fathers. You get into the evangelical expressions of Father-God, and now you're talking about love, and love as an expression of authority.

People love hearing powerful white men telling them they're just a nobody, they didn't do anything, instead of telling them, ‘I'm a leader, I like being in charge. I have ideas about what we can do. I have what Martin Luther King called the drum major instinct.

That's where leaders come from. Leaders engage the prophetic voice. How does the Family conflate democracy with authoritarianism? They basically take Christianity and strip it of its prophetic voice. Cornel West writes a lot about this is in his theological work. The prophetic voice is a kind of democratic speech; it's about speaking truth to power. It's asserting that things as they are, are not as they should be. The prophetic voice means conflict, it means argument. It means we have different ideas. People don't like conflict, and that's where authoritarianism comes in – it's called harmony. The Family in its early days thought that after World War II, we would become a one-party state and they thought that was a great idea. Democracy is sharp edges, but that's how they reconcile it – that's their word, "reconciliation." It's cutting off the sharp edges and saying, "come over here where there's common ground and we all agree."

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