Wednesday, 2 September 2009

“The Family”, by Jeff Sharlet (Harper Perennial)


The Secret ‘Fundamentalism’ at the Heart of American Government and Power

The National Prayer Breakfast in Washington D.C. was founded in 1953 by the Family, an elite network dedicated to a religion of power for the powerful. Utilising extensive connections with those in power, they conduct backroom diplomacy to further their goal of “Jesus plus nothing”. Sharlet, who received a recommendation to join the Family (you can’t approach them, you must be referred by an existing member), lived for some time at the organisation’s main house, Ivanwald in Arlington, Virginia (they have another large property on C Street in Washington, D.C.). Here he experienced first-hand those select few who make up the Family and what they believed. The Family is his account of what he saw and learned at Ivanwald, the historical roots of what would become the Family, and how it has evolved from its 20th Century solidification into its present-day, elite incarnation.

With its roots in the evangelism of Jonathon Edwards and the First Great Awakening of 1735, and a century later that spread by Charles Grandison Finney, it is a different type of religion, which bears little resemblance to the evangelism practiced by typical American believers. It is, in Sharlet’s words, the “avant-garde” of American Evangelism.

Established by Abraham “Abram” Vereide, the movement was only ever meant to be a religion for the elite, one aim of which was “every Christian a leader, every leader a Christian”. In the 1930s, his organisation made its first forays into politics; in Seattle, where it helped elect Arthur B. Langlie first as Councilman, then Mayor and finally Governor. What’s interesting about Vereide and the early members of the Family is their fascination with fascism – its leaders, its methods, and so on. This can partly be explained by a general 1920-30s interest in the successes of European fascism; though it did share a few characteristics:

“militaristic patriotism, a blurry identification of church with state, a reverence for strong men, a tendency to locate such men at the top of corporate hierarchies, even a hated ‘other’ (for American fundamentalists, Jews and Catholics gave way to communists, and now the populist front of the movement is divided over whom to demonize more, Muslims or gay people)”

Part free-market fundamentalism, part imperial ambition, the ‘religion’ the Family preach is not your average American evangelism. Theirs is a “theology of biblical capitalism” that has appealed to a number of high-placed and successful businessmen, including Henry Ford – at different times, the heads of IBM, General Electric, Chevrolet, Quaker Oats and J.C. Penney (to name but a few) have all gone to hear Vereide speak or to meet with him.

In 1969, Vereide was replaced (after a difficult transition) by Doug Coe, who remains the head of the organisation today, and also has a tendency to bring up Mao, Hitler and other fascist leaders to illustrate his points and arguments (not in the negative). Sharlet met with Coe a number of times, and his opinion of the man is not entirely flattering.

Sharlet addresses what the Family actually believes. Rather than the Christian fundamentalism that has become oh-so-familiar during the George W. Bush years, the Family follows more a ‘maximalism’. There remains the fundamentalist expansionism, “better suited to empire than democracy.” It seeks to create

“a culture remade in the image of a Jesus strong but tender, a warrior who hates the carnage he must cause, a man-god ordinary man will follow as he conquers the world in order to conform it to his angry love.”

It is also not the fringe-Christianity characterised by “prurient antipornography crusades, rabid John Birchers, screaming foes of abortion wielding bloody fetuses like weapons”, “the bible-thumpers” portrayed by Hollywood, “pinched little hypocrites and broad-browed lunatics”, or the “representatives of that subset of American fundamentalism that declares itself a better nation within a nation”; rather, the Family is “invisible to secular observers.” It is “an American fundamentalism, gentle and militant, conservative and revolutionary, that has been hiding in plain sight all along.” In the words of Charles W. Cohan, the Family is “a veritable underground of Christ’s men all through government.” But, addressing the inevitable suspicion, the author is careful to point out that

“This so-called underground is not a conspiracy. Rather, it is a seventy-year-old movement of elite fundamentalism, bent not on salvation for all but on the cultivation of the powerful, ‘key men’ chosen by God to direct affairs of the nation”

The work of the Family is filled with contradictions: They do not consider themselves “Christians”, simply believers in Jesus; the claim to disdain politics, yet many congressmen and other politicians of both parties describe them as the most highly influential religious organisation in the US; they insist that they are just a network of friends, yet the Family’s considerable largesse is funneled through tax-free corporations and to political campaigns, influencing the powerful and buying favour (though, it should be noted, in no more sinister a manner than the plethora of other lobbies operating in Washington, D.C.).

Sharlet has written a fascinating, important book about the elite strata of American religion. His approach is balanced, showing the members of the Family as they are, in the main leaving us to make up our own minds about what we think of them. To some, they will come across as earnest believers in a better life and world. To other (myself included), they will come across as almost parodies of themselves – as if Kevin Smith’s satirical creation in his movie Dogma, the “Buddy Christ”, was only moments of being brought into being by the brotherhood at Ivanwald. But, as they operate differently to other religious lobbying groups, they find far wider acceptance: while the big lobbies “push and shout”, “the Family simply surrounds politicians with prayer cells. They don’t try to convert anyone. They don’t ask for anything. They’re as patient as a glacier.”

Sharlet is an exceptional writer, and even during the more dense historical passages he is able to draw you along (though, I must admit, I didn’t find these chapters as interesting as those where he discusses the present day and more recent history). Frequently, however, it seems like he wanders off-topic: the book is not, therefore, solely about the Family. Rather, it is a sweeping overview of American fundamentalism – its roots, its practices and so forth – with the Family as a distinct religious ‘other’, operating independently within this nation-wide movement. This is why the author spends time on the storied career of Ted Haggard, former pastor of New Life Church and president of the National Association of Evangelicals: his somewhat sinister takeover of Colorado Springs (a “spiritual Gettysburg”) to make way for his fundamentalist town; the impressive and unrivaled level of influence during the Bush II years; and his fall-from-grace following revelations of rent-boys and amphetamines, and his rehabilitation in the movement’s eyes (despite homosexuals being the greatest global evil…). Other individuals discussed in the book include Family brother Senator Sam Brownback (incomprehensible in his positions), and even Hillary Clinton, who is really a friend of the Family, rather than member. The point of these examples is to illustrate the wide-reaching influence and impact of American fundamentalism and also the Family as it reaches across society and into politics.

The second half of the book is where it comes into its own, and also when Sharlet’s journalistic-detachment slips slightly. When addressing issues such as the fundamentalist encroachment on sex-education and foreign policy, for example, he is particularly scathing and critical. On the subject of Congressman Joe Pitts’s involvement in Ugandan AIDS relief, Sharlet explains how Pitts’s insertions into the law redirected “millions of dollars from effective sex-ed programs to projects such as [Leslee] Unruh’s” abstinence only crusade. Unruh, the founder of the ridiculously-named Abstinence Clearinghouse (I obviously don’t get the joke or something), is your typical liberal nightmare from the fringe right, twisting facts (or ignoring them outright) to further her addled domestic political agenda. To refer back to Uganda, “following American intervention, the Ugandan AIDS rate, once dropping, nearly doubled”, while Unruh, Pitts, and their ilk treat Uganda as an abstinence success. What’s more, for Unruh, “the ostensible ‘success’ of Uganda’s abstinence program justifies the miseducation of American schoolchildren”.

The Family is an important book, and a very impressive piece of investigative journalism. It is the best serious book to date that appraises the extent and nature of religion in America. Unlike Matt Taibbi, who makes a joke out of true-believers, Sharlet does not – rather, he lets the reader form their own opinion of Family members, reserving his judgment for their more questionable and reprehensible policies (supporting a large number of murderous tyrants and despots). It is also an alternative look at American history, presented even-handedly and fairly – something all-too-frequently missing when it comes to discussing religion in any form or nation.

The Family should be read and studied by all those interested in religion in America and its place in government and politics. An excellent addition to the existing literature, this is probably the best written and researched book on the subject available, and anyone would be very hard pressed to surpass it for clarity, quality and depth.

Also Try: Simon Schama, The American Future (2008 – particularly the “American Fervour” chapter); Jeff Goldberg, Liberal Fascism (2008); Susan Jacoby, The Age of American Unreason (2008); Nicholas Guyatt, Have a Nice Doomsday (2007); Matt Taibbi, The Great Derangement (2007 – though this isn’t in nearly the same tone)

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