Tuesday, 22 September 2009

“The Pornography of Power”, by Robert Scheer (Twelve/Hachette)

Scheer-PornographyOfPower

An excellent argument for military- and defence-spending regulation and reform

U.S. defence spending is more than the rest of the world put together. The procurement system us rife with corruption, insider dealing, production of weapons the Pentagon never asked for, and millions (if not billions) of dollars in wasted taxpayer money. In The Pornography of Power, Scheer, a gifted journalist and author, outlines his argument for why defence spending must be cut.

“for the better part of the past century, foreign policy had been directed by Wall Street lawyers, recycled defence executives, and others, like Dick Cheney, who made a bundle while claiming to be primarily interested in the security of their country. But we have long been propagandised into believing that the pecuniary interest of war profiteers is not their driving focus.”

During the Cold War, the Pentagon was beset by an “acquisition fervour” for ever-more complex, expensive and destructive weapons systems, “had at least a somewhat plausible purpose.” Today, however, Scheer shows how procurement requests from Congressmen and Senators have little-to-nothing to do with the War on Terror and combating insurgencies; examples given by Scheer are the C-17 transport plane and the F-22 Raptor fighter jet, to name but two. In the C-17 case, the real reason a $300million request to mothball the fleet became $1.6billion for seven new planes (with plans for more) was clear:

“The pitch to save the plane was all about jobs, jobs, jobs, and rarely was there reference to a national defence need for the transport or to the less savoury matter of Boeing’s profits.”

What Scheer does with his book is expertly outline and describe the twisted web government-corporate connections, and show that the truth is all about jobs, votes, profits for supporters and campaign financiers, and a political fixation with

“the totems of the religion of militarism: sleek and enormously expensive objects to be worshipped for their aura of power rather than their ability to smite one’s enemies, real or imagined.”

Richard Perle, Senator Henry ‘Scoop’ Jackson (“the senator from Boeing”), Senator Joe Lieberman, Representative Joe Courtney are all fingered as opportunist politicians, interested only in votes and the longevity of their political careers:

“Earmarks for military spending that support jobs and profits back home, not to mention campaign contributions, are particularly attractive because a member of Congress can cloak narrow ambition in the guise of patriotic fervour.”

Two examples stand out. Firstly, Perle, who receives a good deal of space in the book, as Scheer outlines his myriad connections and jobs within both the US government and also the defence industry (sometimes at the same time) – Scheer explains just how profitable Perle’s consulting jobs are (including at Trireme, Vikonics, AEI, Morgan Crucible, and Hollinger). Also, “in the run-up to the Iraq War, no fewer than eight key players with ties to Lockheed [Martin] were connected with the Bush administration.” Lockheed Martin, as well as Boeing and Raytheon are, according to Scheer’s account, so closely linked with the US government and Pentagon, that it makes little sense to describe them as being part of the “private sector”.

Lieberman and Courtney, both of Connecticut, are criticised for their unflagging support of increased spending on ever-more submarines (manufactured in Courtney’s Groton district), while they are totally irrelevant to the War on Terror (even the heavy-spending Bush administration balked at this). When they can’t justify the funds on GWOT-grounds, they usually revert to invoking a more traditional enemy: “the yellow horde of communist-run China.”

This political fixation on the importance of China as an appropriations tool is reference throughout the book, but also receives its own chapter (“The Chinese are Coming!”). Scheer outlines the narrow-sightedness of pointing the finger at a menacing or threatening China, using plentiful evidence and data produced by the Intelligence Community that suggests the US has quite some time before it would have to start worrying about China’s military power. Despite the frequent negative opinion of China,

“The derogatory adjectives are left out these days… in deference to the fact that these same [Chinese]... now are carrying a large part of the U.S. debt incurred in building weapons we don’t need. The joke is on us; we use the China scare to buy weapons to contain the menace of China, and those same Chinese profit from the interest they charge us on loans to pay for the weapons to contain them.”

But, through the influence of some key neoconservatives and defence hawks, China remains a spectre on the horizon. Scheer describes Perle’s input as part of the Project for a New American Century:

“In the post-Cold War PNAC statement [Perle]... is even loath to give up the expectation (or is it hope?) that China, if not a revived Russia, might still be expected to perform as the centre of a revitalised evil empire.”

These are just some of the arguments and themes discussed in The Pornography of Power. Overall, the book is meticulously and comprehensively researched, excellently and engagingly written – it’s not often that one finds a book about the military-industrial complex that is this detailed and, at the same time, this enjoyable a read. I was almost as hooked reading this as I am with some good novels. As a text I am using in my latest PhD chapter, it was surprising to find that I’d stopped taking notes and just sitting back and enjoying reading.

Not all of Scheer’s arguments are totally persuasive, and he sometimes (and far from often) falls into the same trap as pundits like Noam Chomsky – the occasional inability to see something corporate-related as anything other than undesirable and a conspiracy. Take the example of Bruce Jackson (like Perle, someone with his fingers in multiple government and contractor pies), and his input into NATO enlargement:

“The requirement for joining NATO is that new members’ military forces have to be reequipped with modern weapons systems, most of which is supplied by the United States and our allies.”

For Scheer, this illustrates corporate influence over international relations’ processes. While it’s possible to see it this way, it could also show exploitation of something that was popular with many, rather than corporate-created/-controlled foreign policy. There are plenty of benefits from modernising a country’s military, and also the likelihood that it would diminish the need for the US and its allies to do all the fighting, as well as being a sensible policy. If there were explicit clauses that dictated “thou shallt buy from Lockheed Martin”, I might be more inclined to see the military-industrial complex covertly at work, but as the stipulation was just to modernise, it’s unlikely that Jackson was a lobbyist on behalf of all Western defence contractors. On the US domestic scene, however, as I mentioned above, there is clear evidence that defence contractors have disproportionate influence on Congressmen and Senators.

This book contains some surprising and damning information and anecdotes of politicians, from both parties, exploiting the system to a quite frankly irresponsible and disgusting extent (for every example, Scheer provides plenty of evidence). It is no secret, and certainly not a new argument, that American defence spending is out of control; What makes Scheer’s book unique – and consequently so important – is the depth of analysis and the research he has conducted. Thus far, I have not found a book that deals so well with US politicians’ addiction to the aforementioned “totems” religious militarism, or how they manipulate the system in their favour, interested only in creating job and profits for their supporters and financiers.

Excellently researched and written, as well as a very enjoyable read, I would recommend this book to anyone with an interest in American government and its processes.

Also read: Lawrence Davidson, Foreign Policy, Inc.: Privatizing America’s National Interest (2009); Tao Xie, US-China Relations: China Policy on Capitol Hill (2009); Jean A. Garrison, Making China Policy: From Nixon to George W. Bush (2005)

Thursday, 17 September 2009

“Washington,” by Fergus M. Bordewich (Amistad/HarperCollins)

Bordewich-Washington The making of the American Capital

The story of Washington D.C., is an amazing tale of high ideals, incompetence, greed and the struggle of the slave-class. The city, Bordewich tells us, “was born from one of the most intense political struggles in American history, one shaped by power politics, big money, the imperatives of slavery, ferocious sectional rivalry, and back-room dealing.” In Washington, Bordewich offers a biography of the great city, touching on the main issues and people involved.

“The establishment of Washington, D.C., was, at least in part, rooted in fictions: that the Potomac was destined to become the high road to the West, that there was no better location for the seat of government, that land speculators could do for the nation what its elected officials would not, that executive privilege could shield Congress and the public from unpleasant truths, and that – the biggest illusion of all – slavery had little or nothing to do with putting the capital on the Potomac in the first place.”

In Washington, Bordewich has managed to convey admirably this amazing story, capturing the sense of the time brilliantly. The city is an amazing feat of accomplishment, especially for a nation that was so backward and insecure as the fledging United States. It is a city of “the sepulchral monuments to past presidents and to wars won and lost... massive government buildings, museums, foreign embassies, and the taut axis of republican power formed by the Capitol and the White House”, which taken together “shape a cityscape that emanates both national self-confidence and imperial grandeur like no other in the world.”

That is now. Towards the end of the 19th Century, however, “few questions agitated the new country’s leaders as much as the site of its permanent capital,” and the story of its creation is a useful tool to illustrate the politics of the time(s). Or, in the author’s words, this struggle is “a kind of national parable, embodying the central contradiction of America, persisting even today, between noble intentions and the sordid realities of power.”

To begin with, Bordewich discusses the choice of the Potomac as the location for the new city, how this was not really a popular choice, as many saw it at the time as a “barbarous wilderness”. The city was seen as a test for the young nation. It had to work, the founding generation believed; otherwise America’s various enemies (the “hungry wolves”) might see it as a sign of, unable to create a seat of power and authority, and ripe for exploitation and conquest.

The city’s location did not just have international implications, as domestic considerations played a considerable, at some times insurmountable, obstacle to a final decision. The politics involved in choosing a location were fraught with Machiavellian manoeuvrings (once again, the skill of James Madison is on display). The story illustrates how timeless politics is, and how nothing is new in the public sphere, as “virtually from the start, the project was hobbled by scandalous financial manipulation, and a degree of incompetence sometimes suggestive of a modern banana republic.”

As well as the city and politics involved, Bordewich introduces us to the broad cast involved in its creation, giving us detailed (sometimes amusing) portrayals of key figures – from the timeless names of Washington, Jefferson and Hamilton, to the lesser-known characters like Peter Charles L’Enfant (the city’s flamboyant planner), whose Romanesque, neoclassical designs in New York were described as “vamped up Jimcrackery and Gingerbread” and an insult to Congress. Others include Capitol-designer William Thornton. One of the most interesting portraits is that of the brilliant black mathematician, astronomer and surveyor Benjamin Banneker, who conducted some of the essential work needed on the first survey of the city. along with various piratical speculators whose greed nearly sank the grand project more than once

Without slaves, D.C. could never have been built, and yet (in another example of a white-washed founding/history myth) “For two centuries, their presence, and their sacrifice, was largely left out of the story of the capital’s creation, as if they had never been there.”

“There would be free white, and a few free black, wage earners who contributed their sweat to the creation of the capital. But much of the work that would make the city a reality would be done by men who were hired out to the [city] commissioners and their agents, and who were rewarded with nothing but bread, sardines, and salt pork. The capital would become, at least in part, a slave labor camp.”

The politics of slavery, therefore, played a huge part in the founding of the capital, and therefore Bordewich has made it a central element to this book. Originally, Philadelphia (the nation’s capital from 1791-1800) was being re-designed to fulfil the greater function of a world-class capital (the Susquehanna River was also considered). However, given the city’s status as virulently abolitionist, not to mention the growing population of free blacks, rendered it politically unfeasible as a capital – the delicate balance between North and South, slave-state and free-, required a compromise.

The task of compromise, and much more was left to the aging and ailing George Washington, as – even though much of the actual politicking was done by others,

“For most of a generation, Washington the man had been the living symbol of a national unity that transcended local jealousies and selfish interests. When he was gone, a new symbol that transcended one man's personal charisma must knit together the disparate people who called themselves Americans: Washington the city.”

Washington peals back the many layers of myth and fable surrounding America’s capital, revealing the hidden and unsavoury side to the nation’s beginnings and how it developed into, in Bordewich’s words, “a massive symbol that would embody the spirit of a nation that barely yet existed.” Beset by myriad financial and political obstacles, it is a story of triumph over adversity, and political courage and skill. Bordewich has an excellent writing style that will engage and inform while also drawing the reader along, and Washington is therefore an excellent addition to the existing literature on America’s capital.

This is easily one of the best written history books of the year.

Also try: Simon Schama, The American Future (2008); David Reynold’s, America, Empire of Liberty (2007); Frederick Gutheim, Worthy of the Nation (2006); Sarah Luria, Capital Speculations (2005); Joseph Passonneau, Washington Through Two Centuries (2004)

Wednesday, 9 September 2009

“Foreign Policy, Inc.”, by Lawrence Davidson (University of Kentucky)

Davidson-ForeignPolicyInc The Privatisation of American Foreign Policy?

In one of the few books that discusses the general role of special interests in the American foreign policy-making process (as opposed to specific lobbies, e.g. the Israel Lobby), Lawrence Davidson has written a valuable resource for those who are interested in how the US makes the policies it does, and who is involved in the process. Over the course of the book, Davidson touches upon all the key issues and areas involved in the topic: outlining the rise of lobbying, the constitutional window that allows for lobbyists (First Amendment), the impact on Senators and Congressmen, and the role of the media.

The book is well-structured, with the author first setting the scene, as it were, by providing his explanation as to why non-governmental special interests are able to influence policymakers (“localism”), and why the general population is largely unaware of this influence. Following this, Davidson provides two solid chapters of historical context, explaining the evolution of lobbies (corporate, ethnic, and so forth), followed by two case studies (the Cuba and Israel Lobbies), and a conclusion.

The aim of the book, the author writes, is to

“challenge the notion that the United States is a democracy of individuals... Instead, the United States is, I suggest, a democracy of competing interest groups or lobbies.”

To describe this, Davidson coins the phrase “factocracy”, referring to a democracy taken over by competing, proportionately small factions.

Davidson suggests that the lack of public awareness of government and, especially, foreign affairs is the product of “localism”, whereby people are naturally more interested in issues that directly affect their lives, ignoring issues that appear remote or, well, foreign to their lives:

“if most Americans are disinterested in foreign affairs, it follows that foreign policy has no necessary connection to popular concerns or even preferences. If this is so, whose concerns and preferences does foreign policy reflect?”

Davidson continues, arguing that a

“consequence of naturally occurring localism and its accompanying disinterest in foreign events is that the general population in effect abdicates influence over policy formulation in favour of whatever numerically small subset of the citizenry does care about foreign policy.”

The author spends a short amount of space discussing the role of media corporations in the foreign policy debate, and how they help to shape and frame foreign issues in ways that suit their parent companies; “stylizing” the news, as Davidson puts it. This leads to the situation where local news can be run through personal filters due to actual knowledge,

“The further from home they go in terms of [news/foreign] reporting, the less local citizens are able to judge objectivity and accuracy. Under such circumstances, just how exposed are local citizens to misinformation and media manipulation?”

While Davidson doesn’t provide a definitive answer to this question, it does help to set the tone for the rest of the book.

When considering Davidson’s thesis, there are some issues with it. Mainly, Davidson takes evidence of special interest activity as proof that American national interest and foreign policy has been usurped by business and/or special interests. In this respect, he follows the theses of Noam Chomsky and Valerio Volpi, who argue (to put it simply) that business is basically in control of every aspect of American politics and society. The author’s arguments do not convince me of this – with the exception of America’s Cuba policy, which has been hijacked by Cuban-American interests, as a congressional pander for votes and campaign finance.

For the main, and in relation to US foreign policy as a whole, it has to be assumed that profit-oriented businesses will always exploit any opportunity to increase profits – if a foreign policy opens up such an opportunity, of course corporate lobbyists will look to their clients’ interests. However, Davidson argues that this is evidence of lobbies directing foreign policy. The furthest I’d be willing to go, based on what he’s presented in this book, is that business and special interests are very adept at taking advantage of governmental policies.

One piece of evidence, for example, is in reference to America’s (admittedly far-from-stellar) actions in South America. The author points to testimony from Chiquita Brands executives admitting to funding right-wing paramilitary groups as evidence that

“U.S. foreign policy in Central America had... been privatised by the economically oriented special interests that represent businesses such as United Fruit/Chiquita Brands. It is their parochial interests that had come to define the U.S. national interest in this part of the world.”

While this may very well be true, the example he presents contains no evidence that this action was done on the government’s behalf – it looks like it was actually done irrespective and counter government policies and aims. Davidson also places responsibility for the Spanish-American War (1898), the Mexican War (1846-48), the annexation of Hawaii (1898) and the subjugation of the Philippines (1898) at the feet of business interests.

While it may read as if I am discounting Davidson’s argument as a whole, I should clarify that I am not. I believe the inference of corporate influence is very strong, however no author or academic can ‘prove’ direct influence over or subordination of policy to special interests – regardless of how ‘obvious’ it might be to us that the media and lobbies ‘greatly influence’ government discourse and decision-making. It is quite probable that policymakers are influenced by what they see, hear and read about any given subject – especially considering lobbies expertise at exploiting the media as their mouthpiece – but this does not mean they will take their cues from outside interests.

The book is well written, and should be accessible to all, though some sentences are a bit clunky, with the occasional malapropism that the editor should have caught (“purposively”). At times, it feels like the author is using the book as his soap-box to outline his grievances with the George W. Bush administration, American business, the Israel Lobby, and so forth. While this is disappointing, it is hardly surprising or new, and Davidson at least doesn’t descend into writing ad hominem, unsubstantiated attacks.

Regardless of whether or not you agree with his arguments, or if you believe the evidence he provides could be considered definitive ‘proof’ for non-governmental influence, Foreign Policy, Inc. will give you plenty of information to help formulate your own opinions, as well as locate the information in an easily-digestible history of special interest activity in the United States. Benefitting from extensive research, Davidson has written an excellent introduction to the role of special interests in the American foreign policy process.

Given the importance and wide-reaching impact of US foreign policy, greater understanding of the process by which it is made is invaluable and essential. This book will set you in the right direction.

Despite its minor shortcomings, I would definitely recommend this book.

Also try: Stefan Halper & Jonathan Clarke, Silence of the Rational Center (2006); Noam Chomsky & Edward Herman, Manufacturing Consent (1988, 2008); Valerio Volpi, The Roots of Contemporary Imperialism (2009); Stephen M. Walt & John J. Mearsheimer, The Israel Lobby (2007); Greg Palast, The Best Democracy Money Can Buy (2004); John Newhouse, “Diplomacy, Inc.” (Foreign Affairs, May/June 2009)

Wednesday, 2 September 2009

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

Sharlet-TheFamily

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)