Spring 2009, Vol. 12, No. 1

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Spiritual Politics blog

Articles in this issue:

Table of Contents

From the Editor:
Family Ties

Sanford and Wife

Who Killed George Tiller?

Obama in Cairo

When Push Comes to Twitter

Airing the Syrian Laundry

Our Crowd

The Irish Map of Hell

The Baptists Shrink

The Episcopalian Split

Claiming The King's Soul


New books

From the Editor:
Family Ties by Mark Silk 

Back in March of 2008, when Hillary Clinton was desperately struggling to get ahead of Barack Obama and Barack Obama was desperately struggling to get Jeremiah Wright behind him, Barbara Ehrenreich wrote a piece for the Nation explaining why Clinton was not tearing into her rival’s past association with the hot-tempered pastor. “When it comes to unsavory religious affiliations,” Ehrenreich wrote, “she’s a lot more vulnerable than Obama.”

Clinton’s vulnerability came from her affiliation with The Family (a.k.a. The Fellowship), the secretive prayer-and-counseling organization that popped into the news last June as the spiritual home-away-from-home of the scandal-ridden likes of Gov. Mark Sanford and Sen. John Ensign.

Thanks to Jeff Sharlet’s 2008 book, The Family—which Ehrenreich was promoting—the Clinton connection was hardly a secret. But you’d be hard-pressed to find a mention of it in the summer media tempest that included 200 interviews of Sharlet and a featured week in “Doonesbury” for The Family’s C Street congressional dormitory.

Reflecting on the media’s limited capacity to get the story straight in an October 1 interview on Religion Dispatches, Sharlet offered a number of explanations: journalists’ aversion to weirdness, incapacity to meet the intellectual challenge, religious illiteracy, and inability to grasp a Washington power tale that wasn’t structured on partisan lines. The problem, however, lay not only with the journalists, but also with his own tendency to overstate his case.

Sharlet is a smart guy and a talented long-form journalist who made his bones looking into some of the odder corners of the American religious landscape. He’s a man of the left who has dedicated himself to reminding his ideological fellows that (yes, Virginia) religion really exists in America and, not only that, can make a big difference in how Americans do their respective things.

And so it was, that having been tipped off about a curious religious group operating in Washington called The Family, he set out to investigate. After spending some time as a participant-observer at the group’s headquarters, he came away with a notable story for Harper’s. Here was a distinctive organization of national leaders and wannabes that was devoted to Jesus, maybe not so committed to the democratic processes that had brought some of them to power, and eager to keep their light under a bushel—except when it came to ushering selected newcomers into their ranks.

The book came about because Sharlet learned that the group had dumped cartons and cartons of its records into the Billy Graham archive at Wheaton College. Off he went to bury among what turned out to be documentation going back to its origins in the 1930s. By far the most valuable part of his book has to do with what he learned there—all the more valuable because, it seems, The Family is now keeping some of the stuff away from prying eyes.

The archives revealed the story of Abram Vereide, a Norwegian immigrant who founded the group out of a deep-seated Christian pietism and his distress at the social disruption created by the Depression.

Vereide’s Big Idea was to sell Jesus to whatever powerful people he could get to, in the expectation that bringing them together would be a way to maintain the socio-economic status quo. In due course he made his way to Washington, hooked up with a sufficient number of the powerful, and created prayer cells and a network that eventually reached around the world. The pitch didn’t involve a particular church or even exactly Christianity: It was “Jesus Alone,” via Bible-reading and praying together.

Forty years ago, leadership of the group passed to Doug Coe, a rather more reticent character who managed to achieve a kind of cult status among a portion of the Washington elite. Altogether, over the course of 70 years, the important people attracted to The Family have included a few Democrats along with the Republicans, and some unsavory foreign leaders. Being part of the Family network did not hurt their careers.

It is unfortunate that Sharlet did not provide a more systematic account of The Family’s activities. That would have made the book more academic, but more useful. As is, it is not easy to determine to what extent the Family’s activities have actually made a difference.

In any group that seeks to have an impact, insiders tend to exaggerate their importance: We had a terrific meeting with X, Y told us what a difference we’re making in country G, Z’s speech was greeted with vast enthusiasm, etc.

While Sharlet allows as how the Family experienced failure from time to time—e.g. in Germany after the war—his claims about its importance in advancing the causes of, for example, Suharto in Indonesia and Siad Barre in Somalia, require far more detailed treatment than he provides. The problem is that whatever the Family network may have done to advance this or that individual, this or that issue, it was not (necessarily) alone in doing the advancing. Sharlet deserves credit for opening a new field of inquiry, but it will take more comprehensive studies of particular episodes to judge how much The Family moved the needle.

These will be important in assessing The Family’s influence in Washington generally. Arguably, the organization was most important during the early years of the Cold War, when its establishmentarian style of bringing like-minded leaders together across party lines was in closest tune with the national inclination. Here, what the book leaves out is the larger political-religious context.

Portraying Vereide as the key figure in giving America’s conduct of the Cold War its religious spin, Sharlet does not so much as nod toward John Foster Dulles or Henry Luce, the role of the Catholic Church, or the way “Judeo-Christian” language was fashioned to provide a religious umbrella for including Americans of (as it then seemed) all faiths in the common cause of fighting Communism. He does make brief reference to Reinhold Niebuhr (though he gets the dating of his intellectual evolution wrong)—but the point is, The Family was simply swimming in a much larger tide. There is a hermetic, conspiracy-hunting quality to the book that leads Sharlet to miss the forest for his tree.

Nor is it just the forest of Cold War religiosity. Sharlet tells us his father was a Sovietologist who advised the CIA, and he himself might best be described as a Fundamentologist—one who teases out the inside story of American religious evil behind the scrim of public utterances and appearances. The Family offers up what amounts to a secret history of religion in America, as seen through what Sharlet calls “fundamentalism” (or sometimes “American fundamentalism”).

This is not fundamentalism as historians of American religion know it—that is, the fundamentalism of the particular theological propositions advanced in the pamphlet series, The Fundamentals. Sharlet is not unaware of that fundamentalism, which he once or twice refers to as “theological fundamentalism.” But his fundamentalism is a different animal—or rather, two different animals: elite and populist. The Family represents elite fundamentalism; the populist wing is represented by the familiar religious right.

There is something Humpty-Dumptyish about this usage, as in Through the Looking Glass:

       “When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty said in a rather a scornful
        tone, “it means just what I choose it to mean—neither more nor less.”
       “The question is,” said Alice, “whether you can make words
        mean different things.”
       “The question is,” said Humpty Dumpty, “which is to be master—
        that’s all.”

 Sharlet means to be the master of an American fundamentalism that stretches all the way back to Jonathan Edwards in the 1730s, stretches through the Second Awakening, and remains alive and more powerful than ever today. The key elements of this spiritual ideology are, he claims, “heart religion” à la Edwards (not the Awakening’s prime mover, the English divine George Whitefield); and permanent revival à la the 19th-century revivalist Charles Grandison Finney. Plus a commitment to theocracy, a concomitant distaste for democracy, and a thirst for empire.

Theocracy in Sharlet’s hands is also a bit Dumptyish, or at least confused. Protestant revivalism, which lies at the core of American evangelicalism, is generally seen as expressing a democratic impulse; that’s the theme of Nathan Hatch’s celebrated book on the Second Awakening, The Democratization of American Christianity. Certainly there are theocratic moments in American religious history, including Puritan Boston and Brigham Young’s Mormon Zion, but they are not part of Sharlet’s story.

He mistakes theocracy—religious governance—for the desire to exercise the Great Commission and Christianize humankind. The latter has always been a prime aim, the prime aim, of evangelicals. But that does not make them theocrats, notwithstanding Sharlet’s reproach for “[o]ur refusal to recognize the theocratic strand running throughout American history.”

The Family belongs to the progressive tradition of American historiography represented by Vernon Parrington’s classic Main Currents in American Thought (1928). That book rendered American history as a left-liberal story of good versus evil, which was to say, the forces of Jeffersonian democracy versus the forces of business capitalism. Parrington took a dim view of the young 20th century: Jeffersonian farmers making common cause with greedy businessmen to create a particularly noxious form of capitalist hegemony.

For his part, Sharlet sees the 21st century as witnessing the combined forces of populist and elite fundamentalism, more powerful than either ever was alone. The good guys of American religion barely make an appearance—a bit of William Jennings Bryan here, a bit of Martin Luther King, Jr. there. The fundamentalists, by contrast, have a lot to their credit:

“Consider the accomplishments of the movement, its populist and its elite branches combined: foreign policy on a near-constant footing of Manichean urgency for the last hundred years; “free markets” imprinted on the American mind as some sort of natural law; a manic-depressive sexuality that puzzles both prudes and libertines throughout the rest of the world; and a schizophrenic sense of democracy as founded on individual rights and yet indebted to a higher authority that trumps personal liberties.”


What might a more accurate picture The Family’s place in American history look like? Let me hazard a sketch.

The organization emerges not out of the broad stream of revivalist evangelicalism but from the peculiar businessman’s Christianity of the 1920s. (In this, Sharlet is not wrong to call attention to Bruce Bartlett’s The Man Nobody Knows.) After World War II, it glommed onto the Eisenhower revival, making a permanent place for itself on the Washington scene via its National Prayer Breakfast.

It participated in what Jeremy Gunn calls (in his book Spiritual Weapons) the American National Religion—one that combined governmental theism with a commitment to capitalism and a military second to none. Like other establishmentarian groups, it made connections for its friends; unlike them, it had a secret creed accessible only to those in the inner circle. Its effectiveness was based to no small degree on the fact that it was able to attract—indeed, was bent on attracting—fellow travelers who enjoyed the spiritual fellowship and networking but knew nothing of the Jesus Alone program.

In due course, along came the religious right and a revived American evangelicalism. Were some religious rightists drawn into the Family orbit? Of course. But so was Hillary Clinton, who (Sharlet notes) was a frequent visitor to the notorious C Street house as late as 2005.

“How much power can a movement have if it’s sufficiently vague in its principles to encompass both Sam Brownback and Hillary Clinton?” he reasonably asks. His answer is the anti-establishmentarian’s conviction that the entire enterprise of bringing the key people together to maintain order is necessarily a bad, anti-democratic thing.

No doubt, our current secretary of state is a quintessentially establishment creature, from her Renaissance Weekends to her Family Reformation. And establishments can mess up badly. But the anti-establishment approach has its downside too: Consider the influence on American policy of the conservative and neocon foundations and think tanks of the post-Reagan era.

The Family has now been subjected to its own worst nightmare, publicly mocked as a den of creepy Christians scurrying to keep their sins under wraps. Doubtless, some of the insiders see themselves following in His footsteps, wending their way to Calvary as they are pelted by the Rachel Maddows and Gary Trudeaus.

Meanwhile, as Sharlet points out in his Religion Dispatches interview, the conservative Democrats who were living at C Street—Rep. Bart Stupak (D-MI) and Rep. Heath Schuler (D-NC) —have clammed up about their association, while Sen. Mark Pryor (D-AR)’s staff has sought to distance their boss from the organization. Where once it was part of the Cold War consensus, now The Family is being drawn out of its bipartisan stance, into a GOP Alone closet—one more partisan Beltway operation trying to put its thumb on the scale.

No doubt, the National Prayer Breakfast will take place as usual next February, attended by the usual suspects, up to and including the president. But thanks to Gov. Sanford and Sen. Ensign, Jeff Sharlet will have succeeded in preventing The Family from ever again basking in the splendor of its secret celebrity. A good thing too.

 Spiritual Politics
Mark Silk's blog on religion and politics.


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