Family Secrets: Jeff Sharlet Exposes "The Secret Fundamentalism at the Heart of American Power"

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In politics, as with most things, there are two ways of understanding power. An organization chart can tell you who's officially in charge, but there's also what one writer years ago called the "true organization of power" - the way things really get done -- alliances built on personal relationships between people with shared interests. For most of the last decade, Jeff Sharlet has been decoding one of the most influential power centers in domestic and international politics -- and he's alarmed by much of what he's found.

Sharlet's 2009 book, The Family: The Secret Fundamentalism at the Heart of American Power, introduces readers to a decades-old organization whose members include have included heads of state on nearly every continent, members of the US Congress, titans of industry, and mega-church pastors. According to Sharlet and others, the Family has played a critical - and mostly secret - role in shaping domestic and international politics and policy. The list of US public figures associated with the group in recent years includes Sen. Charles Grassley (R-Iowa), Secretary of State Hilary Clinton, Rep. Bart Stupak (D- MI), and Sen. Sam Brownback (R-KS). 

58th National Prayer Breakfast in Washington

 

I've been reading Jeff Sharlet's work for several years, and I once wote and article about how the gay rights debate might affect the black Christian vote in the 2004 election. I've been especially thinking about Sharlet and the Family since last Tuesday, when I moderated a discussion on my campus featuring Sharlet and popular Christian author Eric Metaxas about the role of evangelical Christianity in US politics. Mataxas' work highlights Christian champions of human rights such as 19th-century anti-slavery movement leader William Wilberforce and would-be Hitler assassin Dietrich Bonhoeffer. During the discussion, Mataxas argued that the positive role that committed Christians have played in many important movements for social justice has often been underplayed, and Christians today find themselves unfairly demonized and caricatured. However, Mataxas agreed with Sharlet that the excesses described in Sharlet's book are indefensible. For his part, Sharlet called upon Mataxas to join him in condemning efforts by some Family members to push the United States toward theocracy.

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Sharlet got interested in the Family in 2002, when he took up a friend's invitation to spend a month at one of its properties, known as Ivanwald. A version of Sharlet's essay about that experience, which first appeared in a 2003 Harper's magazine article, opens the book. In that article, he described the family's paterfamilias, Doug Coe:

"At the 1990 National Prayer Breakfast, George H.W. Bush praised Doug Coe for what he described as “quiet diplomacy, I wouldn't say secret diplomacy,” as an “ambassador of faith.” Coe has visited nearly every world capital, often with congressmen at his side, “making friends” and inviting them back to the Family's unofficial headquarters, a mansion (just down the road from Ivanwald) that the Family bought in 1978 with $1.5 million donated by, among others, Tom Phillips, then the C.E.O. of arms manufacturer Raytheon, and Ken Olsen, the founder and president of Digital Equipment Corporation."

Sharlet traces evidence of the Family's hand in charges that some US military leaders are pushing an extreme Christian theology on troops, violating the military's own rules. He says The Family helped former Pres. Jimmy Carter jump-start the talks that led the Camp David Accords, but its members also threw their weight behind murderous dictators in Indonesia, Somalia and Haiti, among other places. A Family associate is behind the repugnant Ugandan legislative proposal targeting homosexuals for execution, and prison for people who fail to turn in gay people they might know - although the organization has condemned the measure.

A report by Christian Broadcasting Network said that the organization's secrecy leads people to read sinister motives into what its defenders describe as a benign organization dedicated to ministering to those in power:

Last summer, Sharlet talked about The Family in this interview with Democracy Now! Sharlet traced the group's origins back to its founders' anti-labor convictions during the 1930s:

 "They believe that organized labor is ungodly, to put it mildly, perhaps Satanic. It began with this vision in 1935 that the New Deal and organized labor were literally a Satanic conspiracy they had to fight back. 

"In the 1950s, in the Cold War, they started moving overseas and identifying strongmen, dictators, who they thought were effective in the fight against communism, who they thought were effective in the fight for free markets."

The Family got rare public exposure last summer when Sen. John Ensign (R-NV) and Gov. Mark Sanford (R-SC) sought counseling at the groups' house on C Street in Washington, DC in the wake of revelations about their extramarital affairs and alleged misuse of government funds and perks. But those sensational episodes don't really capture the depth or controversy associated with the Family's reach and power

Part of the controversy lies in the Family's theology, and leader Coe's fondness for suggesting that Christians' fealty to Christ should match that of the adherents of Hitler, Mao Tse-Tung and the Mafia. In this 2008 news report, Andrea Mitchell probed Coe's theology and power that includes and interview with Sharlet:

Religion scholar Richard Hughes argues that the Family's gospel of personal salvation in the service of conservative political power reflects basic flaws in American fundamentalist thought. Among those flaws, he said, is the tendency to read the Bible through the distinctly American lenses of radical individualism, capitalism and manifest destiny:

"This definition of the kingdom of God as a kingdom of political power helps explain why so many fundamentalist and evangelical Christians lent such broad support to America's war against Iraq. It also helps explain the rise of the Christian Reconstruction Movement led by the late R. J. Rushdoony, a Calvinist who argued that Christians should control civil government and that biblical law should govern the United States. It also helps explain a large and thriving contemporary network, closely akin to the Christian Reconstruction Movement, called the New Apostolic Reformation (NAR) -- a network that works through business, politics, religion, and the media to promote Christian control of the United States and even the world.

"In his recent book The Family, best-selling author Jeff Sharlet explains in graphic detail what the 'kingdom of God' might look like when fundamentalist and evangelical Christians define that kingdom as a kingdom of power, not a kingdom of peace and justice for the poor..."

 

58th National Prayer Breakfast in Washington

According to Sharlet the notion of bringing a Godly "kingdom of power" to earth is being championed by some high-ranking fundamentalists in the US military, with alarming consequences. He described the thinking behind the  movement in a May 2009 article for Harpers, "Jesus Killed Muhammad: The Crusade for a Christian Military:"

"Today, fundamentalism, based as it is on a vigorous assertion of narrow and exclusive claims to truth, can no longer justify common cause with secularism. In its principal battle, the front lines are not in Iraq or Afghanistan but right here, where evangelical militants must wage spiritual war against their own countrymen. In a lecture for OCF titled “Fighting the War on Spiritual Terrorism,” Army Lieutenant Colonel Greg E. Metzgar explained that Christian soldiers must always consider themselves behind enemy lines, even within the ranks, because every unsaved member of the military is a potential agent of 'spiritual terrorism...'”

Sharlet said that Pres. Obama hasn't made an effort to curtail the authority of these missionary soldiers. Obama also refused a request from the government watchdog group, Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, that he skip the 2010 National Prayer Breakfast in light of questions about the group's activities. Instead, Obama used his speech to call for civility and respect for diversity:

The right to individual religious belief and conscience is enshrined in the First Amendment to the US Constitution. However, public servants must not be allowed to use the public trust in the service of those beliefs. As the First Amendment Center notes, ""[T]he framers of the First Amendment recognized that when the roles of the government and religion are intertwined, the result too often has been bloodshed or oppression." It's in that context that the effort of any religious organization to subsume the authority of government becomes a cause for real concern.

Related:

Sweetmolly at TPMCafe: Ballad of Doug Coe: Prayer Buddy or Pastor of the Family?

Wikipedia - The Fellowship (Christian organization)

More on Christian Reconstructionism - Rushdooney's Chalcedon Foundation

 

Kim Pearson
BlogHer Contributing Editor|KimPearson.net|

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