The Family’s Threat to American Democracy

Editor’s note: This a post that first appeared on The Progressive Reader. Author Jeff Sharlet gives an interview about his latest book on the fundamentalist Christian network called the Family.

Two years ago, in a brilliant work of investigative reporting, Jeff Sharlet introduced readers to the Family, an elite, highly secretive, and deeply anti-democratic network of fundamentalist Christians whose members include some of the nation’s highest ranking politicians. Now he’s back with a sequel updating his earlier reporting and tracing the Family’s carefully concealed efforts to shape national policy at home and abroad. Sharlet recently talked by phone with PBC about his new book, C Street: The Fundamentalist Threat to American Democracy.

[Buy C Street: [Amazon | Barnes & Noble | Powell's]

It’s clear from your books that the Family isn’t just another fundamentalist Christian political organization. What sets it apart?

The Family’s fundamentalism doesn’t have its focus on the Bible-thumping, pulpit-pounding issues, but with economics. These are folks who take the invisible hand of the market very literally: they think it’s God’s hand. They think that if you’re poor, God wants you to be poor, and if you’re rich, God wants you to be rich, and that trying to change that through democracy is a kind of blasphemy.

Which ties into their elitism.

Right. The Family began with the idea that Christianity had been getting it wrong for two thousand years by focusing on the poor, the suffering, the weak, the down-and-out; that God was calling this organization to be missionaries to those they called the “up-and-outs,” the top men, the “key men,” the politicians.

Family members say they’re just a group of friends.

Yes, but they’re a group of friends with tax records, and those records show real estate, property, donations, money moving overseas. There are officers, there’s a board of directors, and there’s a leader, Doug Coe, who’s known sometimes as the “first brother” because he’s considered to be closer to God than anyone else. There’s also a family dynasty; his sons, David and Tim, look to be his successors.

You argue that it’s the most influential Christian conservative political organization in the United States. What makes it so influential?

It’s influential by dint of its members. Think about who has lived at the C Street–John Ensign, Jim DeMint, Tom Coburn, Rep. Zach Wump, Jim Inhoffe, Sam Brownback, John Thune: they’re mostly Republicans, but there are conservative Democrats, too, Rep. Bart Stupak, Sen. Mark Pryor, and you see this convergence of a bipartisan fundamentalist conservative movement going all the way back to the 1930s.

Can you give an example of where they’ve influenced American policy?

You get something like former Congressman Mark Siljander, a leader of the movement, who went to Sudan with other leaders to meet Omar al Bashir, the president, the first sitting head of state ever indicted for genocide, in Darfur. Siljander said, “My meeting with Bashir just melted my heart. And we prayed to Jesus together. And I love him and stand by him, and I don’t want sanctions.” And he’s been an advocate with his very powerful friends against sanctions on Sudan. He says the best way to love Bashir, the dictator of an oil-rich country, is to keep doing business with him. (He pled guilty in July to obstruction of justice, of acting as the unregistered agent of a foreign power, that power being Sudan.)

You see it most terrifyingly in this book in Uganda. Jim Inhofe went to Uganda and became a mentor to a man named David Bahati, who is, very frankly, trying to commit genocide, to wipe out gay folks in Africa. I asked him [Bahati] what the connection was between that and The Family, and he said, “No connection, it’s the same thing.” The Family has tried to distance itself from this, but they’ve stood by the political leaders in Uganda, who they helped move into power as they pursued the most violent, the most murderous anti-gay campaign in the world.

It’s shocking to read in this book of the inroads they’ve made in the military.

Researching the last book I came across an organization called Christian Embassy, a kind of sister organization to The Family that’s focused on the Pentagon. I got hold of a promotional video in which senior officers are testifying-in uniform, on duty-to their Christian faith and putting it ahead of their military duty. Now, you can do that in your private life, but you can’t do it in the military. That’s a court martial offense! A Pentagon Inspector General’s report followed up on my report on this. It was kind of a whitewash, and most of these guys ended up getting promoted. So I looked into who did that IG report, and it turned out he’s on the board of directors of The Family. That seems like a conflict of interest. But when I dug in a little more, it got worse: he had founded Christian Embassy in the Pentagon!

And then you get cadets in the Air Force saying to you very plainly that they’re there to train to fight for God. I met cadets at the most elite war college in America who said God had sent them there to fight spiritual war. They define their mission in the military as reclaiming territory for Christ; and in that they’re echoing the language of senior commanders–this is not fringe, this is not marginal.

The book is subtitled “The Fundamentalist Threat to American Democracy.” How do you see that threat?

The threat is not theocracy, it’s not jackboots. It’s this paternalistic idea that authority is top-down, not bottom-up. And that’s a message that’s as offensive, frankly, to many Christians, including many conservative Christians, as it is to secular folks.

How worried should we be?

When it comes to fundamentalism, the question that’s most pertinent is not, “What are they going to do?” It’s, “What have they already done? How have they already changed American life?” When you dig into The Family’s archives, the first big issue they put their muscle into was in 1947, the Taft-Hartley Act, the bill that really gutted the New Deal. If you wonder why we don’t have a strong labor movement in this country, or universal health care, go back to Taft-Hartley. Even things like what Stupak did with abortion. He kind of lost that one, but now there’s a process under way they’re calling “Stupak-ing the states”; reproductive rights state by state by state are basically gone. And that same process takes place on any number of issues. Progressives have got to stop focusing on fear scenarios of what’s coming and start looking at what’s already happened-what they haven’t been paying attention to.

 

Photo credit: Adrian Van Leen

103 comments

Martha Eberle
Martha Eberle8 years ago

I heard about Sharlet's expose, The Family, about two years ago, and it terrified me that this group was in such power in Congress. The sanctimoniousness of these MEN is scary. The power they wield is scary. The only thing to do with such heathens is to keep exposing them, turning over the rock, so that citizens can see them for who they are. Such distortion of power is anathema to democracy.

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Adam G.
Adam G8 years ago

just another in the long list of proofs that religion is evil. maybe they're so concerned about "the end times" that this "family" has decided to stop waiting & start apocalypse themselves...

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Tori W.
Past Member 8 years ago

well...i'm sufficiently scared...not surprised...just scared...i knew money people were behind all of this...i just didn't have their names or how they were organized...interesting...and now i have to get his books...and this is not the Christianity that I studied...it is again some man taking Christianity and twisting the message to serve himself, not God...and calling it the Christian religion.... he really needs a Christian conversion just to prove to himself how very wrong he is....Christianity is not about this family..it is not here to serve man...but we are to serve God....just because men choose to twist the message is a choice they made ,,,

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Kimberly M.
Kimberly M8 years ago

We see this influence every day...in the righ-wing fringe wingnuttery batshit-a-thon paraded across Fox News....it is so sad (and frustrating).

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Mike and Janis B.
Janis B8 years ago

These people are another name for the most opposite idea to Christianity that we have ever heard. But the Devil will twist these things and actually make people open to such ideas, it is nothing to do with true Bible teaching but SIN and what is the middle letter in that?

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Salome Waters
Salome Waters8 years ago

This is TERRIFYING!

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Marilyn L.
Marilyn L8 years ago

It's not The Family I'm worried about (and I'm gay). I am worried that our cowardly Congressional Leaders say nothing and do nothing about them. They should have expose them long time ago.

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Bernard Cronyn
8 years ago

Wanting "to Control the World" and actually doing it are rather different a bit like wanting to "Win the Lottery" and actually finding the winning ticket. I guess old Sharlett will make a buck or two out of his book even if Amazon is rapidly marking it down to get rid of the clutter in their store rooms. Personally I would not lose much sleep over these guys and many others such as the Scientologists because of a simple thing called basic arithmetic. They simply lack the membership numbers, aggression, military muscle and finance to really change my lifestyle. However there is a powerful political-religious entity out there that has a membership base of around 1.57 billion backed by some of the richest people and nations on this planet, with access to some of the finest military hardware that Uncle Sam can supply. These guys are whole different ball-game, I promise you.

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Bernard Cronyn
8 years ago

Wanting "to Control the World" and actually doing it are rather different a bit like wanting to "Win the Lottery" and actually finding the winning ticket. I guess old Sharlett will make a buck or two out of his book even if Amazon is rapidly marking it down to get rid of the clutter in their store rooms. Personally I would not lose much sleep over these guys and many others such as the Scientologists because of a simple thing called basic arithmetic. They simply lack the membership numbers, aggression, military muscle and finance to really change my lifestyle. However there is a powerful political-religious entity out there that has a membership base of around 1.57 billion backed by some of the richest people and nations on this planet, with access to some of the finest military hardware that Uncle Sam can supply. These guys are whole different ball-game, I promise you.

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Carlene V.
Carlene V8 years ago

Great article. Another religious group of nut cases gone over the edge with serious consequences. C Street does exist, if you need more proof go to MSNBC and look under Rachel Maddow/C Street.

Outrageous the way they "think", who they perceive themselves to be and their agenda with religion and politics. Sadly, they are often safe from scutiny of their indiscretions, and do their deeds in the name of God, of course.

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