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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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The Family, also known as the Fellowship, is a cohort of powerful lawmakers seeking to create a "God-led government" at home and abroad. Chief among the journalists who brought the Family to light is Jeff Sharlet, author of the new book, C Street: The Fundamentalist Threat to American Democracy. (The title of the book refers to the Washington townhouse that serves as the gathering place and sometime residence of Family members.)

While Sharlet has been digging into the secretive Family for years, it wasn’t until last year’s trio of sex scandals that a glaring spotlight was cast on the group. The adulterous affairs of Sen. John Ensign, R-Nevada, Governor Mark Sanford of South Carolina, and Rep. Chip Pickering, R-Mississippi, revealed their common membership in the secretive group.

The Family was founded in 1935 by Abraham Vereide, who believed that Christianity made a 2,000-year-old mistake by focusing on the poor. Vereide believed God told him to minister to the powerful; the modern-day "kings" chosen to enact divine will. Since then, these “key men” -- powerful politicians, well-placed executives and influential global leaders -- meet for Bible studies and "prayer cells." Members of the family try to cultivate powerful leaders around the world -- many of them despots -- to enact their Christian agenda globally.

The Family has always operated in secret; for more than 70 years, the group has influenced policy and business deals in the U.S. and abroad almost entirely without the public’s notice.

Family members have advocated for the violently anti-gay legislation currently before Uganda’s legislature; David Bahati, MP who introduced the bill to Uganda’s parliament, has been a longtime darling of the Family and a guest at the group’s only public event, the National Prayer Breakfast. Their involvement in the Uganda anti-gay bill isn’t an outlier: in the past, the Family has done business favors and supported dictatorships in Indonesia, Somalia and Haiti, among other nations under authoritarian rule. Meanwhile, Family forces connected to the U.S. military seek to spread fundamentalist Christianity. An organization of 15,000 officers is dedicated to what is described as “reclaiming territory for Christ in the military.”

While elected leaders in the U.S. ostensibly represent a democracy, with ideals of transparency and the separation of church and state, the Family urges its members to choose secrecy and consolidated power. Journalist Jeff Sharlet has managed to break through the Family's secrecy, writing two books that dig deep inside the shady organization. AlterNet spoke to him by phone.

Anna Clark: Do you believe members of the Family sincerely believe they are doing God's work, or is that language consciously used by them as a cover?

Jeff Sharlet: Not all of them, but most of them do sincerely believe it. One guy—whose name I can't put on record, but who was very intimately involved—I went to sit down with him because he wanted to know what I was working on. I told him that I'm not attacking religion at all. He told me ‘I don't care. It's about money.' There are a lot of people there just using it, definitely.

But the more disturbing thing is that move you get with someone like Sen. Inhofe. He travels the world and talks to these oil-rich dictators, telling them he loves them, they melt his heart, their brothers in Christ. He becomes their champion back in America. Well, the oil industry likes that, they like that he's speaking out on sanctions on the industry in Nigeria. Inhofe gets a lifetime achievement award from the petroleum industry, and the industry donates heavily to his re-election campaign. Inhofe doesn't experience that as cynicism or corruption. He experiences it as that he's doing God's work.

[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.

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."

AC: It seems like the same people who would chafe at hearing a politician advocate authoritarianism don't recognize it when it doesn't show up in words, but in actions.

JS: Yeah, exactly. If it doesn't come articulated, people don't get it. [Members of the Family] do tend to be nice people, and I'm not just saying that. Most of them are very charitable on a personal level. It's the bigger picture they miss.

The fundamentalist abduction of democracy is the way they've abused the word reconciliation. It's the way of valuing common ground at all costs, even if some people will be left out, or erased, or forgotten, because they can't be reconciled to that story.

The reality is both this book and the last book is about fundamentalism, but in a way, it's speaking to and against liberalism as well. Liberalism bears a lot of responsibility for loving this myth of harmony more than they love democracy.

AC: Your book makes it clear that this fundamentalism conflated with politics isn't going to be vanquished by simply not electing one or another legislator; it's too pervasive for that. What, then, is the impact you hope this book will have on the November election?

Oh, how dare you ask that question! … My publishers want me to say that this is a rallying call. But the thing is, C Streeters aren't in danger. Jim DeMint in South Carolina is facing Alvin Greene – I think he'll do just fine. There are very few competitive races right now.

But on the other hand, I am going down to Lancaster County in Pennsylvania. Rep. Joe Pitts has been part of this organization since 1980. He keeps saying he doesn't have a connection to the Family, but that's not true; there's a long paper trail. So he's a dishonest man. Now, this is a conservative area and he's been around for a long time. Based on his votes, they aren't going to throw him out [of office]. He could've supported all his issues and been supported. But the reason the race is this close for the first time in a long time is because he was shady about it. I'm going down to talk at the Democratic banquet there for Lois Herr. I wouldn't normally do that, but this guy has got to go. He doesn't understand the Constitution, he never read the First Amendment, he lied to his constituents, and most dangerously, he's involved in overseas work.

The real danger of fundamentalism, to be honest, is the long shadow of the right wing overseas. That's why I spend so much time on the Uganda chapter [of C Street]. The real danger of C Street is not here, but there. Toufic Agha, who I write about in the Lebanon chapter of the book, he's been getting death threats for talking to, quote, “that Jew Jeff Sharlet.” That's the danger.

In the end, though, I didn't write this book as a campaign book. I wrote it because there's a story. If you restrict all your conflict and all your debate on this electoral ritual, you'll sacrifice the real conversations about authority and where it comes from – top up or top down.

Anna Clark's writing has appeared in The American Prospect, Utne Reader, Hobart, and Writers' Journal, among other publications. She is the editor of the literary and social justice Web site, Isak.
 
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