This is the last part of my review of Jeff Sharlet’s, “The Family: The Secret Fundamentalism at the Heart of American Power.” In the process of my review, I have contended that the subtitle is extremely misleading. As the terms are commonly defined, the organization (if it can be called that) headed by Doug Coe—pictured above—is not really “secret” nor is it a part of Christian Fundamentalism. I also question whether it can properly be connected with those the public regards as part of the “Christian Right.” I think in many ways, the Foundation/Family needs to be defined in another way.
The ironic part (yes, Jeff—I know the meaning of the word) of my assertion is that once the Family is properly categorized, I think Jeff’s book becomes more controversial not less so. In many ways, by trying to connect “the Family” to these other groups, it deminishes the effect the book should engender. The impact would be larger if the Family was placed into its own category entirely. But I anticipate my conclusions.
First, Sharlet does a good job of noting that the Family is not a conspiracy (though reviewers, endorsers, and the publisher do their best to paint it in those terms). In fact, he notes the Family, despite the power it welds over various politicians and some of the undesirable results it has endorsed, is doing nothing illegal.
The Family’s not a conspiracy. They are part of a strain of American elite religious conservatism. They are not breaking the laws. In some cases they’re making the laws… (From Sharlet’s interview in the Marketplace)
I actually do dismiss all conspiracy theories. The Family isn’t a conspiracy itself—they’re not breaking the laws, they’re making the laws. The problem isn’t that they’re breaking rules, it’s that they are making a case for a conservative, imperial ideology that too many politicians find appealing…The common denominator is power, not theological orthodoxy. (RDL)
One is tempted to say, after reading these quotes, “What then is all the excitement about?” A group of Christians, of a conservative bent at least economically, are basically giving justification for politicians to do what they want to do anyway. They are speaking to the Power and Principalities and giving them a means to rationalize what they are doing. As such, they become a Power and Principality themselves. As such, in some cases, they may tip the scales of a political decision in a way they want it to go, but the power this group welds must be combined with other powers (oil companies and the aerospace industry for instance) for it to become effective. At worst they appear to be an informal lobbying group for their own particular viewpoint on Christian faith.
I don’t agree with it but I have to acknowledge that worse things have been done in the name of religion or Christianity. Still, again, I don’t want the actions of the Family to reinforce the negative judgment people right now have for what Sharlet calls “popular fundamentalism” or the “regular Christian Right.” The Family is very different from these groups. So different that to make such a connection is almost unjust. In many instances, Sharlet in his interviews intimidates this very assertion:
The press can’t “see” The Family because they don’t look like fundamentalists are supposed to look like. They’re sophisticated, polished, internationalistic, polite. (RDL)
I assert more that in this visual myopia, the press is judging rightly. The polished, sophisticated exterior reveals the same interior. The Family does not look like fundamentalists because they are not fundamentalists. What they are, Sharlet identifies quite often. I highlight the word to make my point quickly.
We discovered that as far back as the 1940′s, when The Family began organizing congressmen, the groups founder, Abraham Vereide, was praising Hitler’s “youth work” as a model to be adopted by Americans. He denounced Hitler himself, but he admired fascism’s cultivation of elites.. (HARP2)
Instead, the media, then and now, tends to acquiesce to elite secretiveness.. (HARP2)
According to their belief in themselves as a “new chosen,” an anointed elite that have replaced the Jews in God’s esteem.. (HARP2)
The Bible itself is for the masses; in the Fellowship, Christ reveals a higher set of commands to the anointed few. (RDL)
Another thing that I think is very important is the distinction I make in the book is between the popular front of fundamentalism which is James Dobson, Focus on the Family, and Pat Robertson, and this self described avante guarde of Fundamentalism, this elite….They are only insiders. They are not interested in your soul or mine. They are interested in converting the elite and working as insiders. (LLS)
The Family’s not a conspiracy. They are part of a strain of American elite religious conservatism. (Marketplace)
The Family regard themselves, above all else, as “the elite.” In that status, their only concern is to speak to “the elite,” to those in power. Therein lies their secretive nature. They don’t speak to the public because they denigrate their importance. Why waste your time dealing with the masses if the masses are ineffective and inconsequential? They are “under the radar because that is the nature of “elites.” They can’t sully their hands dealing with “commoners.”
This perspective alone totally separates The Family from Evangelicals, the Christian Right, and the Fundamentalist. All of these groups care very much about the masses, especially about those whom they consider outside of Christ and destined for the eternal flames. Even if their concern is to “get a notch on their belt for Jesus” by converting you, the point is that they think you are worth their time to convert. In the same way, the members of the Christian Right, for all their bluster, work through the American Democratic process. They seek to build coalitions in order to convince the voting populace to change the culture in their direction. They work their voting blocks to do just that: vote. They trust, rightly or wrongly, that rhetoric and persuasion are the means to make such a change; not smoky back rooms—even if those back rooms begin with prayer.
The Family does none of these things. The work quietly because to do otherwise would be to reduce their status as the elite. That is the word that describes them best: elites and elitists.
And that should have been Sharlet’s title: The Family: the Religious Elite that Undergirds American Politics. Such a title would not have insinuated guilt to the innocent and it would have been more accurate. As an added bonus, I think it is more alarming than the original.
An elite can only be fought if the battle is concentrated on that elite. If the effort is spread out to include other targets then it will fail. That is why Sharlet’s book publisher, in choosing that subtitle and focus, blunted the effectiveness of what Sharlet could have accomplished. If the Family is truly as fascist as Sharlet contends—a fact for which I have to take his word, not seeing the source documents myself—then this defused focus will only allow them to continue and thrive.