Jeff Sharlet – The Family

August 28, 2009

Jeff Sharlet is a contributing editor for Harper’s and Rolling Stone, and a visiting research scholar at New York University’s Center for Religion and Media, where he has taught journalism and religious studies. He is the coauther, with Peter Manseau, of Killing the Buddha, and editor of His latest book, a New York Times bestseller, is The Family: The Secret Fundamentalism at the Heart of American Power.

In this in-depth interview with D.J. Grothe, Jeff Sharlet explains why secularists should not assume that just because there is a Democrat in the White House it follows that the religious fundamentalists’ power has waned. He talks about how a secretive Christian political organization called The Family is founded in a doctrine of “Biblical Capitalism” and the “totalitarianism of Christ” that draws no distinction between religion, economics and politics and he recounts its origins in a supposed revelation from God that attacked organized labor and stated that Christianity has historically been overly focused on the poor, the weak and the suffering. He draws distinctions between the “pulpit pounders and the Bible thumpers” and “the fundamentalist elite,” which is exemplified by The Family, which is comprised almost entirely of well-educated, affluent political and business leaders. He describes how The Family organizes Congressman into “private prayer cells,” and runs the C Street House, which was made famous through the political sex scandals of Senator John Ensign and Governor Mark Sanford.

He contrasts organizations like the Heritage Foundation and Christian leaders such as James Dobson and Pat Robertson with The Family, arguing that at least they are open with their agenda, as opposed to the Family, which unapologetically encourages secrecy by working to be “an invisible organization.” He describes how The Family’s relationship with the powerful is different than groups like Focus on the Family, and explains how their lack of rigid partisan or religious orthodoxy allows them to be more effective. He argues that The Family literally works to subvert democracy, and how the organization celebrates Hitler, Mao and Stalin as being among the few men the 20th Century who actually “understood the New Testament.” He reports that The Family acts consistently as an intermediary between US Politicians and military leaders and businessman on the one hand, and overseas dictators such as the Somali dictator Siyad Barre, Ugandan dictator Museveni, and Indonesia dictator Suharto on the other hand, often with disastrous consequences.

He details the history and importance of the National Prayer Breakfast to The Family’s agenda. He describes ways that writing his expose has resulted in a backlash against him. He lists ways that secularists and progressives can work to reduce the influence of The Family in government. And he reveals a number of elected officials in high office who have ties to The Family, including Republican United States Senators Chuck Grassley, John Ensign, Jim DeMint, James Inhofe, Sam Brownback, and Lindsey Graham; Democratic United States Senator Mark Pryor; South Carolina Governor Mark Sanford, Former United States Attorneys General John Ashcroft and Ed Meese; and Democratic Congressmen Mike McIntyre and Bart Stupak, among others.

Links Mentioned in this Episode

This is point of inquiry for Friday, August 28, 2009. 

Welcome to Point of inquiry. I’m DJ Grothe growthy point of inquiries, the radio show and the podcast of the Center for Inquiry, a think tank advancing reason, science and secular values in public affairs. And at the grass level. My guest this week is Jeff Sharlet, one of the most eye opening guests I think I’ve had in a long time. He’s visiting research scholar at New York University’s Center for Religion and Media. He’s a contributing editor for Harper’s and Rolling Stone and the coauthor with Peter Menso of Killing the Buddha. He’s also the editor of one of the best online journals on religion out there. It’s the Revealer dot org and he joins me on the show to talk about his book, The Family The Secret Fundamentalism at the Heart of American Power. Jeff Sharlet, welcome to Point of Inquiry. 

Hi, D.J.. Great to be here, Jeff. 

Been wanting to have you on the show for a longtime fan of your work, your blog, your first book, Killing the Buddha. You’re on now to talk about the family. Lots of seculars types hailed Obama’s recent election as a kind of defeat of the religious right. This book says, hold on there a minute. The religious right hasn’t gone away. Parts of the religious right are still incredibly influential right smack dab in the middle of power in DC, right? 

Yeah, exactly. The group that I’m writing about this group called The Family. 

They’ve been around for 70 years since 1935. They’ve been through Republican administrations and Democratic administrations. And the argument I’m making in the book is that we really need to look at the know that the flash in the pan kind of Christian. Right, but the enduring power of fundamentalism in American life. This group, the family which organizes congressmen to what they call sort of private prayer, sells and runs the C Street house that became famous this summer as a center political sex scandals. They’ve been around for a long time and they’re not going anywhere just because we have a Democrat in the White House. 

What struck me about this exposed A is that it’s not the kind of fundamentalism that secularist types often get wound up about. It’s not the no nothings trying to take over school boards. It’s not people yelling about evolution and gay rights. These are really sophisticated and powerful men. 

Exactly. I think when a lot of secular folks think of fundamentalism, they tend to imagine a great big monolith. 

They cannot look at it in terms made famous or infamous by The Washington Post, which once described most fundamentalists as something like rural, uneducated, poor and easily, that none of these things are true. And we actually look at the demographics. And when we look at the broad social movement of fundamentalism, we recognize that it’s not a monolith, but it’s drawing on many different tributaries. 

There are the pulp of pounders and the Bible thumpers and the folks here on late night radio and sometimes the MTV thing, crazy things. 

But there’s also a movement that I describe as the avant garde of American fundamentalism, the elite of fundamentalism exemplified by the family, which is comprised almost entirely of well-educated, affluent political folks, business folks. These are not outsiders pounding on the door trying to get in. 

These are not people struggling for control school boards. These are insiders. These are people who are in Washington and who see a religious justification for their use of power as essential to the construction of the kind of the political world view that they’re very aiming for. 

You just called it a political worldview and not just a religious worldview. It’s kind of a religious political ideology, not unlike a vision in radical Islam to remake politics in a religious vision. 

Exactly. The family was founded on the idea that economics, politics, religion, it’s all the same thing. It began back in the Great Depression with the idea that the economic malaise was a punishment from God for American decadence, for straying from strict obedience to biblical instruction. More recently, much more recently, I was spending some time at the C Street House where Senator Ensign and Governor Sanford and so on. I mean, think of their scandals this summer. And I was with Doug Coe, who’s the longtime leader of the family and a congressman named Todd Tiahrt from Kansas. And party hard with coming in with a sort of the typical Christian right issues and co. with urging him to think bigger. He’s saying, what would Jesus have to say about Social Security? What would Jesus have to say about building roads? In other words, they didn’t want to draw those boundaries between religion. And other matters, he referred to this as Jesus plus nothing. At other times, the family has called it the totalitarianism of Christ. There should be no distinction between economics, foreign affairs, politics and religion. 

I want to talk about this bigger world view of fundamentalism in a bit, especially kind of contrasting the family with folks like the Heritage Foundation, other groups on Capitol Hill. But first, you actually lived in one of their kind of houses there in the D.C. area, or I guess not on Capitol Hill, but in Arlington, Virginia. Not the C Street House, but another one. 

Yeah. That the headquarters of the families is a great, big, beautiful mansion out in Arlington, Virginia, overlooking the Potomac River. It’s called the Cedars. 

They bought it in 1978 with funds donated to them by various corporate executives, among them the then CEO of Raytheon, the defense contractor. And around that mansion, the group is sort of acquired a number of other properties, one of which was called Ivan Walls House for young men who are being groomed for future leadership. 

I spent a little less than a month living with that group and during that time, got to visit the C Street house made made him famous this summer by these political sex scandals. 

Mm hmm. What confuses me here. You know, the C Street house is where the big power players hang out. 

And and you mentioned the people being groomed for leadership. It’s it’s not really a monolithic kind of group of people. There’s Chuck Grassley. You mention he has had ties. So many others, Lindsey Graham. But Chuck Grassley, for instance, as a Republican, recently launched this kind of a.. Televangelists thing. Remember, he was calling for, you know, poring over the books of of the TV preachers and how they might be bilking people out of their dollars in an unwarranted way. So it’s not like there’s just a group of fundies over on that side of the fence and they’re all playing nice. This really is a kind of elite fundamentalism. 

And it really is the example you gave of Chuck Grassley in his investigation. It is an excellent one. 

Grassley has been involved with the family for years after I spent about a month living with him and then went to their archives at the Billy Graham Center, where they’ve done 600 boxes of papers, memos, budget membership lists, correspondence, everything going back decades. And Grassley was very well represented as a guy who has been particularly involved with the family’s interventions in foreign affairs overseas. But there’s this issue that you raise of graphic. 

Going after some of these televangelists is a fascinating one, because it’s one of the few times when there’s this schism between elite fundamentalism and populist fundamentalism has been laid so bare. And these two movements sort of are these two strands of the movement, hafize, sort of coming closer together and getting further apart. In 2008, there was an issue because Mike Huckabee was really gathering steam. Mike Huckabee, as you might imagine, of a man who has boasted, I kid you not of having cooked squirrels on a popcorn popper. Mike Huckabee does not come from the elite branch of fundamentalism, becomes much more from that populist world and didn’t have the support of the family. And one of the most open sort of signs of hostilities. 

One of Huckabee’s chief advisers, a guy named Doug Weed, went after Grassley for his investigation. The reason was Grass’s investigation was targeting the televangelists in particular, who are Huckabee’s biggest sort of sponsors. So there was a sense that this was a political intervention, that Grassley was trying to cut off Huckabee’s financial support. 

Now, that doesn’t mean that the guys he’s going after weren’t crooks. They may well be, but that didn’t seem to be the motivation. Well, Huckabee advisers said, look, you know, Grassley Grassley shouldn’t be throwing stones, as everybody knows. Grassley is involved with the least transparent group in Washington. And he talked about the family. He talked about the mansion, the cedars. They said, here’s this guy, Grassley, who’s involved with this extremely nontransparent group, this group that sometimes calls itself the Christian Mafia. And he’s the one leading the charge for greater integrity among televangelists. And sure enough, you know, after the campaign, Grassley has kind of backed off on that investigation. You know, he has not pushed it. It does seem to have been a political intervention. But what it shows us, and I think this is important for folks who care about the issues that are fault lines and fundamentalism. It’s not a monolith. There are fault lines there. Progressive secularists can exploit and saying, look, you know, let’s let’s work with one another. And in that context, an issue that I like to bring up when I’m talking with radio shows that are really targeted toward seculars, freethinkers, ATF and so on. Some of the most effective pushback against the family has come from the Christian right. In particular magazine called World Magazine, it’s a hard right fundamentalist magazine, but they took on the family this summer with a big investigative package, did a better job than New York Times. The Washington Post looked at the way. Frankly, I was kind of glad that they were confirming what I had been saying for a long time, that the families were moving money around in strange ways, that it’s encouraging politicians to to hide things from the public. It is developing acting as a middleman for relationships between U.S. politicians and dictators overseas. All these kinds of things. 

It was a fundamentalist group. It was on the frontline of doing that because like anybody else, they are fundamentalists out there who believe in openness and honesty. So those fault lines are really important when we think about how do you how do you confront the enduring power of fundamentalism? 

I imagine there’s also a kind of biblical Christian critique of folks like the family in that the doctrines that the family adopts or that they’re all into, they’re not what your corner Bible believe in church would care about. They’re not really about feeding the poor or saving souls or making the world a better place. Like Jesus may have talked about in scripture. Theirs is a political ideology. So as you’re describing all of this, to me, it sounds kind of like an old boys club. It’s religious. Yes. But it’s you know, it’s kind of like the Masons or some other secret club for members mutual advantage. They’ve kind of self referred, as you mentioned, that to themselves as the Christian mafia. Some reporters have actually called them a cult. But whatever they are, you’re saying they’re more than just a mutual aid society. They’re more than just getting together and scratching each other’s backs. They have doctrines. They have. They have a they’re they’re a sect. 

Exactly. They they have real beliefs. And we have to take their beliefs seriously. And I think that’s a mistake that secular some progressives make when when fighting fundamentalism is we tend to be dismissive of the ideas that are animating that movement instead of seeking to understand them. But when we look at the family, we look at its roots. As I said, it begins in the Great Depression with this idea that economic suffering is a punishment from God. What they do is they gather together a group of businessmen who then begins to sponsoring candidates and they build political power, but they see themselves as engaged in a religious project. The man who founded this family is a guy named Abraham Brady. Brady, back in April 1935 has what he believes is a new revelation from God that God comes in one night and gives him a vision. Brady is very upset about the power of organized labor, and he actually thinks that God comforts have tells him how to fight back against organized labor. What God says to him, according to Brady, is that for two thousand years, Christianity has been getting it wrong. It’s been overly focused on the poor, the weak, the suffering that down and out. And according to Brady, God actually used the phrase, the opting out. He wants Brady to serve the powerful, who wants him to be a missionary to and for the powerful to look around the world and see those who have been put in positions of influence, wealth, political status, and cultivate them because they believe that these people are actually anointed by God and that God is going to work to them. 

They wouldn’t be in power were it not for God putting them there. 

Exactly. Exactly. And that’s why the great the leader of the group, Verratti successor, took over in 1969 and needed to this day. 

Man named Ducos says, we work with power where we can build new power where we can not. And that enabled them to have a much more flexible relationship to power than the more conventional Christian right groups like Focus on the Family and so on. These groups that seem to be almost auxiliaries of the Republican Party. The family can work with Republicans and Democrats has in the past does now and oversees the work not just with Christians, but with leaders who they see as chosen by God for their particular nation. One example I talk about in the book, the bring back Chuck Grassley is the Somali dictator Sabari no longer alive? Saad Bari. In the 1980s, wanted to sort of become a patron. It become a client of the United States, a Soviet that backed him through various geopolitical maneuvers. The Soviets had dumped him. He needed a backer, not a likely candidate for Christian right. Supported describe himself as a Koranic Marxist, hung pictures around the country of himself, Muhammad and Marx. But the bottom line for him was power. And he reached out not to U.S. State Department. Through the family and eventually build up a relationship with Senator Chuck Grassley, who would go and pray with Sabari, would bring defense contractors with him and said, I want you to pray to Jesus with me already understanding the trade off. 

You said, fine, I’ll pray to Jesus. And here’s what I want in return. I want my defense budget doubled. I want meetings with the White House. And I want to kind of hands off policy from a U.S. wide crackdown on some rebels in the north. 

The family wrote back in effect, done, done and done. So it was the family arranged meeting for Bari’s defense minister with the then chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. General Don Vestey is defending the defense budget with nearly doubled. And he waged a war of, well, biblical proportions, you might say, on its own country for which it never recovered. Which is why he thinks Somalia is not a big power player. But Somalis in the news a lot. 

Somalis now is today a haven for al-Qaeda. It’s the it’s the headquarters of these pirates that are interrupting international shipping. It’s a country without a government and that government was destroyed. I think we can safely say in large part through the intervention of a religiously driven U.S. foreign policy, that was really a direct odds with U.S. interests in the region in that religiously driven foreign policy. 

It’s based on a doctrine that they might talk about at the family as biblical capitalism. They’re also kind of on one side of the globalism issue. You know, they’re advancing a kind of Christian capitalistic vision of globalism around the world. 

Exactly. They believe that capitalism was for being in the Bible. And in some senses, if you’re a wealthy business person because God wants to be wealthy, if you’re poor, it’s because God wants you to be poor. And your job is to learn how to accept that. 

Now, it doesn’t mean that they have contempt for the poor. They think they’re going to help the poor. They think here’s how we’re going to help the poor. God is going to make this is that business man wealthy. And he is going to pass on the blessings to the rest of us. 

Sort of like trickle down Christianity use. It’s called it trickle down fundamentalism or whatever. Share the wealth, but it starts at the top. And if not, share the wealth, at least, you know, the wealthy get wealthy and the leftovers enrich everybody else. That’s the theory of biblical capitalism. 

Well, you know, I look at a contemporary example. 

A guy named Dennis Barki was the founder and head of a giant energy corporation called A-s and wrote a business bestseller about running a as called Joy at work. And it was all about putting sort of his Christian principles into action as a corporate leader. 

Now he’s arguing that if you do this well, you don’t need labor unions because the bosses will decide what’s best for you. That, you know, if you have a good Christian business man in charge. Why do you need to look out for your own interests? He’ll look out for your interest, for you. So that kind of real gross paternalism at the same time. One of the stories I tell and the family is of bakkies business practices putting to action is in the mid 90s through the family. He means that decade. If you’ve gone to guy named 070, would they consider their key man for Africa? They consider the guy who is really their point man for Africa. And Museveni ends up giving Baqi a 500 million dollar no bid contract for a massive hydroelectric project in his country, Uganda. And it’s a complete disaster on every score. The story starts to become almost comical. Baccy sends over as his representative there, a guy who works for the family, whose name it’s it’s almost Dickensian. 

His name is Christian, right. 

Christian WRI DHT, a Christian. Right. Christian, right. Goes over his very promptly accused of doling out bribes. Of course, he doesn’t face any kind of serious legal troubles because why? He’s got a friend at the very top in this country, the dictator himself. That kind of crony is the business relationship really sort of exemplifies what the family means by people call capitalism. When that when the book first came out, a fellow from the Cato Institute reviewed it. Cato Institute is a fairly conservative and very free market think tank in Washington, a libertarian think tank, but not necessarily religious right, not necessarily religious right, but very dedicated to free markets. I thought he was going to hate the book because a family uses this language of free markets, but not at all. He took one look at this and he said this isn’t free. These are not free market economics. This is what he called self-interest by proxy. It’s crony capitalism. But again, what makes it powerful, what makes it endure is it’s not just. Simple corruption, it’s not just you scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours. It is animated by this real belief that you’re doing God’s work. So these guys are able to pursue these ends. But with self-satisfaction of believing that they are actually helping the world. 

What’s their real agenda? If it’s not just personal gain? I mentioned Heritage Foundation earlier, probably the most influential policy House on Capitol Hill. They, you know, talk all about free market economics. Judeo-Christian values meets capitalism kind of as the agenda of Heritage Foundation. How is that different than the family, the family? It just it it feels like is you’re talking about it. It’s more insidious than just a think tank advancing an ideology. 

Well, there’s a lot of overlap. Ed Meese is a real player in the Heritage Foundation. It’s also a core member, as they put it, of the family performer. Reagan’s former attorney general is still very much a powerbroker in Washington. And just back to this, where recently the Heritage Foundation is going to be distributing a curriculum for, I think, its high schools and colleges. That was made up by a guy coming out of another organization connected to the family. There’s a lot of overlap. But the real the real issue there is that the Heritage Foundation, how even give the Heritage Foundation some credit. They’re out there in the public and they have an idea or a policy that they want to advance. They publish a paper. 

You can you can subscribe to their journal. You agree with it or disagree with it? You can do that. The family is working behind the scenes that’s there. That’s not me accusing them of this. They themselves describe themselves internally as an invisible organization. Dovecote, you’re the group says in a sermon that’s now been put online. He can hear it says, The more invisible you can make your organization, the more influence it will have. 

So they’re unapologetic about almost being like this, not secret society. But this you know, it’s a conspiracy of people behind closed doors to advance an agenda. 

The more that I know on a project are proud of it. You know, this summer we had a series of political sex scandals linked to one of their properties, the C Street House on Capitol Hill. And as a result, a number of congressmen connected to the family in the C Street house were sort of put on the spot by their local press. So we had Zach Wamp, congressman from Tennessee, then living in the family C Street house, paying below market rent, which is a gift he should be reporting. He’s not been doing this for 12 years. And his local paper that down there in Chattanooga comes to him and and asks what is about and why all the secrecy? And he sort of hands and haws and says, in effect, that has to be secret because that’s what enables them to do what they do. If people if people knew what they were doing, it wouldn’t be able to do it. 

Mm hmm. Which is an astonishing, astonishing reaction out from a politician. 

Another fellow involved, Senator Jim DeMint, another resident of the C Street House, another guy who is essentially taking subsidized housing from the family and defending what goes on there. He says that the secrecy and privacy allows them to hold one another accountable. 

Accountability is something in his mind. 

It takes place behind closed doors rather than transparency and openness, making people accountable. The secrecy and privacy do that. 

Exactly. And again and again, you know, there’s so many great examples that came out this summer. 

Senator James Inhofe of Oklahoma right now, the longtime associate of the family, big global warming skeptic. 

He’s kind of on the wrong side of all the big issues from my vantage. All these folks are peas in a pod. And that way they all have the same ideology. They adopt the same kind of public policy agenda. Right. 

But they they do. But the distinction that I make and I think this is important, is what enables the family to be a more effective organization than than traditional as Christian right groups. There’s no rigid orthodoxy Jim Underdown. 

They don’t really have a statement of beliefs. They’ll work with whomever they can work with to advance a larger agenda. It’s not like you have to sign on the dotted line and say you believe in this version of the second coming of Jesus or or that you have these views on those social issues. Right. They they cast a wider net in that sense. 

What you have to agree to is you have to agree to not talk about the family. That’s part of it. There is actually a document that lays out what you agree to. You don’t, but you’re not going to talk about it, that you’re going to join what you organized for you as a prayer cell. 

So a group of other people of your sort of similar social status with whom you’ll meet, you’ll give those men. It’ll be gender segregated. You’ll give those men veto power over your life and you’ll get to getting off. And what does Jesus want on this issue or that issue? Well, I give the example. What if Jesus had to say about Social Security? 

What does Jesus have to say about building roads? The answer in their history is almost. Always privatize because they do believe in this sort of was a fair economics. But an example of how they’re not as rigid as some of these other organizations can be seen in Kansas right now. I think part of the Kansas congressional delegation is very involved, the family, Senator Sam Brownback, whose entire career has been made to the families. 

Brownback gave me a lot of access and talked about living in a family house, much like the one I did when he first came to Washington as an intern for Bob Dole years and years ago. 

Well, now he is leaving the Senate, hoping to move into the governor’s mansion. And there’s a race on to replace him with two Republicans running against each other, Congressman Jerry Moran and Congressman Todd Tiahrt. Jerry Moran is in the family C Street House. And Congressman Tiahrt, as I said earlier in the show, goes to the C Street House for special counsel. So both guys are family guys, which means the family is not saying, you know, we’re backing this. This man is that man. It also means that they went either way. 

Mm hmm. There are a lot of other characters that you recount in the book and elsewhere in your reporting on the family that are connected with this organization, Lindsey Graham. I kind of like him. He seems reasonable. He’s a family man, so to speak. John Ashcroft from, you know, Missouri here, also connected. There’s just it’s a who’s who of many power players on Capitol Hill. They’re connected to the family. 

It is. And, you know, so far we’ve been talking only about Republicans. There’s a group of those by 80 percent Republican. But there’s some Democrats involved. 

Historically, they were Dixiecrats, segregationist Southern Democrats like Strom Thurmond and his Democratic days was actually vice president of the organization, Herman Talmage, a guy named Absolom, Willis Robertson, senator from Virginia, and Pat Robertson’s father. More recently, you’ve got guys, Congressman Mike McIntyre, Democrat from North Carolina. One of his big issues is the need for the Ten Commandments on public buildings. He feels the Ten Commandments should be pretty much everywhere. We’ve got Congressman Bart Stupak, conservative Democrat from up in Michigan, who is leading the fight to effectively scuttle any kind of health legislation around the issue of abortion. He’s he’s very at abortion. 

There’s also Mark Pryor. He’s another Democrat. But as a Democrat is against, you know, some of Obama’s labor agenda. There’s a you know, so it’s. You’re saying it’s not just Democrat or Republican. 

Exactly. It’s all it’s all right. You know, Senator Mark Pryor can say is every example of this. 

Senator Mark Pryor is anti Zabor, anti-gay, anti-abortion, pro war Democrat, a right winger who happens to be in the Democratic Party. 

When I spoke to Senator Pryor, he told me that he had through the family, he had learned and learned that the separation of church and state was sort of exaggerated by seculars. And he learned that the true meaning of bipartisanship was that I’m quoting here, Jesus didn’t come to take sides. He came to take over. Well, that’s a very conservative right wing kind of understanding of the relationship between religion and politics. 

Just because a Democrat doesn’t make him a leftist. But I do think it points to one of the reasons the family has largely sort of avoided scrutiny is because so many of my colleagues in the political press do you tend to think in terms of a political spectrum bounded on the left by the sort of the center of the Democratic Party and on the right by the respectable Republicans and everything else they dismiss as fringe? They don’t recognize that the political life and the religious life, the United States is actually much more complex and includes these sort of overlaps of perspectives and that dedicated religious activists, like those of a family who are not going to be bound by partizan orthodoxies, are really going to be able to build powerful establishments by drawing on the royalties of politicians and businessmen and also military leaders from many different camps. 

You were just suggesting one reason maybe the mainstream media hasn’t made bigger news out of this. It took you your kind of a I mean, a lone voice in the report, Tage, of this issue. Now, more people were talking about it because your books a bestseller. But what floors me is that it took you to do an exposition. This is your explanation for why the media hasn’t made bigger news about this. Does that also apply to a secularists or liberal kind of progressive organizations? Haven’t made a bigger deal out of this either. You hear the kind of progressive organizations always hemming and hawing about Pat Robertson’s. 

Or James Dobson or, you know, these kind of out there in front culturally conservative organizations. And none of them have ever talked about the family. 

Yeah, it I think I think that’s exactly right. You know, I think what we have a lot of times also is we have progressive organizations where they’re going to do what they’re going to go and look for the most extreme example of fundamentalism and use that as a fundraiser. 

So I’m thinking in particular of a guy named Fred Phelps. Right. Westboro Baptist Church out in Kansas holds up signs, goes to the funerals of soldiers, other events, holds up signs, says God hates fags. 

And I don’t know how many times I’ve gotten fundraising letters from progressive organizations that have cited Fred Phelps. Fred Phelps has no constituency. 

What so ever except his family in his church. Right. 

Exactly. You know, when I went with Senator Sam Brownback in Kansas to Topeka, Kansas, to a fairly large church, they’re called Topeka Bible, Fred Phelps picketed that church, too. So we’ve got to stop focusing on these kind of sensational sort of visual representations. And let’s look at the real power structures of the right now, I should say. 

The press has tried to do so in the past. In 2002, Los Angeles Times put a Pulitzer Prize winning reporter together on the case for nearly a year, ran a big story and a one discovered some very important links that the family had played middleman between the Reagan administration and various of the Central American death squad leaders. And there was no traction. Last year, before my book came out, I worked with NBC Nightly News. They thought they had a big, big scoop. They had they linked Doug Coe, the leader of the group, to various politicians. They had video of Coe talking about the kind of fellowship that he wants politicians to aspire to, is like that of the great friendship enjoyed by Hitler, Himmler and gerbils. They thought this was a bombshell. We ran it. Andrea Mitchell on top of the hour. No traction. It took the sex scandals of the summer for the press to start paying attention. And even now, we’re still seeing the sort of frustrating religious illiteracy. And frankly, I referred to the terrific piece of investigative reporting by The New York Times and Senator John Ensign and his sex scandal lying to the families. 

Senator Ensign, given in the C Street house, wrote a four thousand word piece noting that all the players in the scandal are all linked by their membership in this organization. Not a word in this piece about what does this organization believe? 

Well, Jeff, shifting away from this kind of say, you’re the lone voice out there. Maybe it’s getting a little more traction because of the sex scandals, but it’s not just about the kind of the power of this organization behind the scenes. They do one thing that’s kind of out there in the open every year. That’s the National Prayer Breakfast. How does that fit into their agenda? Why is that so central for them? 

National Prayer Breakfast. They began back in 1953. They wanted a public ritual, as they put it, to consecrate the governing class to Jesus. And they had approached FDR with this. He’d said no, they’d approach Truman with it. He said no. They approached Eisenhower with it. And Eisenhower didn’t want to do it either. He knew it was a violation of the First Amendment, but he owed political favors, in particular to Billy Graham, who had connections to the group. And Billy Graham actually writes about this in his autobiography, Just As I Am. How how the men I knew were in charge of the family then came to him and said, can you intercede for us? And so Eisenhower attended, hoping that it would not become a tradition. It did. It’s been addressed by every president, the United States, since then. Congress goes. Your invitation comes on congressional letterhead. If you’re a reporter like me, you RSVP to the White House as every appearance of an official U.S. government event. And indeed, I’ve spoken to congressmen and think it is and think it goes back to the early days of the republic. And yet, look at the internal planning documents. You discover rhetoric like this. Anything can happen. I’m quoting from one of these doctrines. Anything can happen. Even the Koran can be read. But Jesus is there in all caps. He is infiltrating the world. 

And the family speaks of the National Prayer Breakfast as really almost sort of an introduction. They invite all these powerful people. C-SPAN broadcast a few hours of a breakfast is pretty dull. What they don’t broadcast is the week long lobbying fest that goes around it as a family organizes seminars for defense contractors, oil executives, banking executives, and brings them into relationship with foreign leaders from around the world. And when you look at the foreign press time and time again, we find much greater honesty about what this thing is about. You find, you know, leader of Albania or Macedonia, Serbia, Guatemala, Honduras, y you go into the National Prayer Breakfast, we get access to American. Politicians are very open about what they’re doing. And, you know, the family is aware that this is not that they’re naive. 

I’d like to put things in people’s own words. And so for this attorney, David Kwoh, former special assistant to President Bush, one of the men responsible for implementing faith based initiatives. He’s a big supporter of the family. In his book Tempting Fate, he says their reach in the governments around the world is impossible to overstate or even grasp. In the prayer, breakfast is one of the tools with which they use to extend that reach. 

Why? Why isn’t that just really front page news everywhere? 

You know, I think it should be, and it has been on occasion elsewhere. 

One my favorite sort of little stories that’s been out of the book is obviously write a book like this and other reporters kind of pick up the ball. And so while The New York Times, The Washington Post haven’t done much in seeing good investigations going on in Kansas and Oklahoma, North Carolina, Mississippi, Tennessee, essentially local reporters who haven’t gotten the memo about respecting the establishment are asking the tough questions. The best response, though, came in Norway, of all places, Norway we can think of with a very liberal country. 

Several years ago, they elected a socially conservative government and some reporters from one of their big dailies had read some work. I’d written about the family for Harper’s magazine decided to poke around. The government discovered that their new prime minister guy named Bondevik was traveling around the world to these prayer breakfast events on the public dime, discovered that their ambassador was taking regular meetings with John Ashcroft at the family’s headquarters, the Cedars. So they did what a paper should do. They sent over a team of reporters. They asked everybody tough questions. They put on the front page for two weeks in a row. It was a sort of Norwegian Watergate, and it contributed to the downfall of that government as not just liberals, but conservatives in these politicians who didn’t have the integrity to explain the commitments. You know, there’s a level on which I think I’ve tended to disagree with a lot of my liberal friends. I will defend James Dobson and Pat Robertson. I don’t agree with a single thing they say. I don’t like the way they say it, but they say it in the public square. Right. 

So I know what they’re saying and I can disagree with it. 

Conservatives who want to go out and have that fight in the public square, they’re participating in democracy, the family, a group that actually rejects democracy. They think democracy is a kind of a useless vehicle. They’re working behind the scenes trying to very literally subvert democracy. 

You mentioned the family being suspicious, to say the least, of democracy, small d democracy. They hold up Hitler, Stalin, Mao Tse, too, in ways that many people, even, you know, Christians on the far right would be astonished, shocked by. 

Yes, absolutely. Doug Coe, the leader of the group. A bit of one of his sermons you can find online now because of work I’ve done says, you know how Jesus said you have to hate your mother, father, brother, sister. 

And this is a sort of a distortion of a particular biblical verse. 

Thank you. Need that spiritual commitment, because that’s what Hitler Mao said. Mao even had the kids killing their parents. But it wasn’t murder because it was for building the new nation, the new kingdom. And that kind of rhetoric, I think, is distressing, even especially to many fundamentalists. Dutko. Another another thing he likes to say when he sort of advising Congress, many gizem them sort of the is who are the three men in the 20th century who best understood the New Testament. So you might say maybe Martin Luther King or maybe a more conservative than, say, Billy Graham. But the answer is looking for it. It is, again, Hitler, Stalin now. And he’ll say these are evil men. I don’t like what these men did, but they understood power. He said, where most people read the New Testament and find a message of mercy, of forgiveness. The family reads it sees the common denominator. The underlying theme is power. And so they look to these strong men like Hitler, Stalin and Mao as exemplars of wielding power, which saw bad enough as theology, as ideology, as rhetoric. But when you take that idea and you extend it out to the world to supports a dictator like sidebar in Somalia, 17 Uganda or the late Suharto in Indonesia killed one point two million of his own citizens. Even the CIA, no bastion of leftist thinking, said this is one of the worst mass killings in the 20th century. The family called it a spiritual revolution and promptly began sending him congressmen, delegations of congressmen, oil executives. Those congressmen became his greatest champions in Congress as United States. Literally drove foreign policy off the cliff and armed this murderous group use those weapons to commit genocide in East Timor. That’s what happens when you take those brutal ideas. You put them out into practice in the world. 

Jeff, we talked about how in a sense, you have been, at least earlier on a lone voice. You were the reporter. Did the exposé on this. You know, everyone’s not hitting this beat. Why you. Do you have some, like, A.I. religious right agenda where you just want to stick it to the church? You’re like some diehard secularist want to undermine people’s faith. Well, in other words, a, explain to me your motivations. Why was it you that ended up getting into all of this? 

Well, I don’t want to disappoint the secular listeners to this show, but no, it’s not me that I’m not an anti religious person. In fact, I came upon this group was working on my first book called Killing the Buddha, wrote it with a friend, Peter Manseau. Killing the Buddha is a Buddhist idea that the Buddha you meet on the road is not the real Buddha, but an expression of your longings. They’re going to kill that Buddha. You can keep on moving on down to a greater understanding. It’s kind of a mandate for asking tough questions. But this book was actually what we were doing is we’re looking for people who did that in American life. And so we spent a year traveling the country living with all sorts of unusual religious communities. And I have to say, we like them. We didn’t necessarily agree with a lot, but we like these people. We enjoy spending time with them. It was in that context that I ended up living with this group, the Family, for a little bit less than a month. And frankly, I didn’t want to do any Christian right stories. I don’t think I was interested in Christian right stories. You know, I knew the caricature that Jerry Falwell thing, the Bible Thumper thing, big guy, sweaty guy in that tight suit, you know, pounding his pulpit. And I wasn’t interested in that story, but maybe because I was looking at the real radical diversity and pluralism of belief and unbelieving that states maybe that attuned me to seeing things that I think other reporters hadn’t noticed, maybe include me into asking more questions about just what is it that you do here? What do you believe? Where did these ideas come from? 

I care about those questions. I think in a way that a lot of conventional political reporters don’t. After that, it’s just a matter of having stumbled into the story. You know, I get described sometimes as undercover reporter and all this kind of thing as if I’m some kind of James Bond kind of character. I’m really not. I’m an Inspector Clouseau of journalists. I think go and I knock the front door and kind of bumble in and discovered the story that you were completely on the up and up with the people you talked to. 

When you wrote the family, you took notes openly. You told people you were writing a book. It’s not like you went there under false pretenses to to get a secret. 

No. You know, yet to get in the family, you have to be recommended. I was recommended by a man I’d known for 12 years who was so positive on why he was in accounting there. He thought that I would enjoy it, too. I said, you know, I don’t share your belief. He said, that’s all right. You just have to obey. We don’t think belief really matters. Obedience matters. And I’m quite certain that you’ll you’ll very quickly come around to seeing this as a positive thing. So I went in there and again, at that point, I didn’t know that it was a political story. But I was fairly open about what I was doing. The what I think I enjoy the advantage of with the family’s firm conviction, that is sort of all powerful. And then if I was there because God wanted me to be there, there’s also sort of a strange lack of curiosity. I went in there, I told them what I’d written, everything. They never bothered to check any of it out. I could have seen it online and they could have guessed that I might not be sympathetic to this kind of anti-democratic project. But they weren’t interested in checking out and hurt my feelings. They weren’t interested in my writing. 

Yeah. And maybe they thought killing the Buddha was like some anti Buddhist, you know, pro Christian screed or something. 

They may have. 

You know, I’ve never told a lie in this context, but you can’t control what other people want to think. And, you know, when you’re writing about religion, I think I’ve encountered this again and again. You go to any sort of group and they say, oh, well, there’s no religion here. We don’t do religion. Well, we have. Here’s the truth. 


And there are very certain that because in possession of the truth, if they explain it to you and if you are willing to listen and that’s an important difference, I don’t go in like Mike Wallace shoving a microphone in people’s faces and asking tough questions. I say, tell me about how this works. 

I’m confused about this idea of Hitler as a metaphor for Jesus. Tell me more about that. Explain that to me. And they do. And I was able to then sort of bring that story into the book. And then again, as I say, combine it with incredibly. 

Discovery of this massive archive in the Billy Graham Center archive is a treasure trove of information about the relationship between religion and politics in the 20th century. 

That’s a Wheaton College there at Wheaton College in Wheaton, Illinois. The Billy Graham Center archives. And they’ve since restricted some of the archives. But there’s still quite a bit you have access to. And I’m glad to see there’s quite a few academic scholars, journalists from around the world. I’ve heard from folks in Brazil, South Africa, Chile, Japan, who are mining these archives looking for a new understanding into the role that religion has played in politics and bringing sunlight to that role and allowing us to think, think a few of them. 

What democratically, Jeff, if this research has brought sunlight to these kind of dark recesses of American power with the family as an organization tentacled out and in charge of so much or wielding so much influence? Your book certainly isn’t kind of a happy book for the family. It doesn’t say, hey, here’s a great organization everyone should be happy about. It’s alarming. You know, it keep you up at night. You read this stuff. Has there been any backlash? Have you experienced any kind of personal negative reaction because you wrote this book, or is it just all kind of people slap in your back in and high five ing you for writing the experts? 

I’m waiting for those high fives. But no, I first wrote about this in Harper’s Magazine. And so actually in Chapter nine of the family, I tell some of the stories, some of the reactions and nothing too serious. I mean, some almost sort of absurd. But I had a speaking engagement in Berlin, in Germany to talk about this issue. And as a part of a speaking series paid for by the U.S. Embassy, I get off the plane and my German host says there’s a problem. Your ambassador says he cannot pay for you because you are an enemy of Jesus. It took him about 20 minutes to convince me that he was serious. He was our ambassador at that time was former Senator Dan Coats of Indiana, who were very involved in the Family Guy. So conservative that when Bush considered him for secretary of defense, the beginning of his first term, Cheney vetoed him to right wing second prize. They made him our ambassador to Germany. So there was that kind of reaction this summer. I suppose I’ve had to endure the slings and arrows of a bunch of politicians. Senator Pryor down there in Arkansas tried to tell the Arkansas press that the wire and that I’d never spoken to him. So that was I was pretty easily handled. I called up people and I said, that’s great. You know, I’m going to be on The Rachel Maddow Show Tonight Show. I play the transcript of our conversation. And he backed down on that. Congressman P. Hart called me unscrupulous and said he does not give it the C Street House, which was a sort of oddly unscrupulous answer to the question. You know, people reporters are asking him about his involvement. And he dodged the question. So all these kinds of name calling, you know, some nasty e-mails. 

But the point is, you don’t feel like the Christian mafia has you marked. 

I don’t they don’t have me, Mark, to do violence because they don’t need to. 

I mean, that’s not how it works in the United States. We don’t live in a culture where journalists get killed. That happens a lot around the world. But there are other ways to silence someone. And in that instance, I can kind of give you some examples I think were very troubling. TIME magazine, for instance, did an interview with me about the book. We edited it. They asked me for fact checking materials. Very unusual for an interview. But I understood this is controversial stuff. I provided the documents. We signed off the others side. Good. Were satisfied. Then I get a call from the reporter done the interview said, I’m just so ashamed and embarrassed. 

My editors are killing this. They don’t want to offend some people. I’ve never I’ve never had this experience working at time. So that kind of thing or you know, I mean, there’s the question of settling scores with critics. 

But then I really have to ask why The Washington Post assigned a review of my book to a guy who had lived in a family house like me and a guy who was e-mailing me, even as he’s reviewing the book, a violation of their ethics policy and made the most peculiar argument is that the family can’t be bad because liberals like Senator Mark Hatfield were involved. Mark Hatfield was a anti Vietnam War Republican. 

Sharlet says that these guys had relationships with dictators. How could they have relationships with kids if they were liberals? It’s a sort of strange, tautological reasoning, you know. How do they have relationships with dictators? I don’t know. When I went to Senator Hatfield archive, I found a lot of correspondence related to Suharto, the dictator of Indonesia. So it’s that kind of pushback which is really much more effective. There’s no conspiracy required. There’s a culture of conventional wisdom. And conventional wisdom says right now that the religious right is dead because we have a Democrat in office, as if tens of millions of Americans somehow melted away when we have a change of administration. It’s an enduring theme in American life and our challenge is to understand it. And if we care about separation of church and state to push back effectively, to fight negligently. 

And that leads me to kind of our closing question. Someone reads your book, reads your experts say I should let our listeners know that you can get a copy of the family. The Secret Fundamentalism at the Heart of American Power through our website. Point of inquiry, dawg. Well, Jeff, if someone reads this book, they get all riled up and concerned. 

They want to do the pushback. You just mentioned. What can they do about it? Specifically the families here to stay? It’s not like, you know, we can write our elected officials and make them, you know, close up shop. 

No, but what we can do is exactly what they say. They believe in us. We can hold them accountable. 

You know, I think that there’s a semantic problem in the way we think about our political life. People say that we live in a democracy, that democracy is not something you live in. It’s something you get up every day and you make you go and you do your job and you live your life, but you have to stay engaged. And whether that means if you want to get engaged on this issue, get in touch with the congressman. Ask him or her about their relationship with this group. Maybe they don’t have a relationship. Maybe they do. And that can be effective. By the way, there’s numerous stories of politicians around the country who steer clear of the family. You know, you’ve got to wonder right now, for instance, what freshman congressman moving to Washington is going to tell his wife that he’s going to move into the family’s house on C Street. You know, the place where they helped cover up three three sex scandals? There is that kind of push. It’s effective. The other thing you can do is you can get in touch with your local press and say, hey, here’s an issue I’d like I’d like to see investigated out over in Tennessee. You’ve got the Nashville, Tennessee, Chattanooga paper looking at the role that Zach Wamp, Congressman Zach Wamp family member, has played in the construction of a mega church chapel in Fort Campbell, Kentucky, working with a group of other family politicians. They’re asking tough questions about that. All these levels at which you can push back, you don’t push back against the whole organization. You can just say, look, and this issue right here, maybe I live in Kentucky at Fort Campbell is near me. They’re building a mega church chapel. They have a lot of chapels. Why are they doing that? Let’s hold them accountable. Let’s make them present those answers. And let’s ask intelligent questions, too. When a politician like John Ashcroft in this example is always just stunning to me, because when John Ashcroft became attorney general, there’s a lot of attention paid to the importance of his religious belief and his politics. And you see again and again these profiles are said John Ashcroft is a regular prayer meeting that he that he holds before he starts business every day. You know, it never happened in any of these profiles in The New Yorker. The New York Times and these places, they never said. What do you pray for? Who do you pray with? What do you think prayer does? Those kinds of questions that are legitimate, respectful. If a politician tells us that his or her faith is part of his political decision making process. Well, then let’s ask questions about that. And if the answer would be as an Ashcroft case, that he prays with members of the family and that he is involved with his theology that holds that the Jews are no longer God’s chosen people and that you can learn about power by looking at Hitler and Stalin and Mao, all those kind of crazy stuff. I think there would be some problems for that politician, but it just starts with a simple, simple question, just asking tough questions. 

Jeff Sharlet, thank you so much for joining me on Points of Inquiry. My pleasure. Thanks, T.J.. 

The world is under assault today by religious extremists to invoke their particular notion of God to try and control what others think can do. One magazine is dedicated to keeping you up to date with analysis that cuts through the noise and the surprising courage to appear politically incorrect. That magazine is Free Inquiry, the world’s leading journal of secular humanist opinion and commentary. Subscribe to free inquiry today. One year, six controversial issues for nineteen ninety five. Call one 800 four five eight one three six six. Or visit us on the web at Secular Humanism, dawg. 

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Point of inquiry is produced by Thomas Donnelly and recorded from St. Louis, Missouri, Point of Inquiry’s music is composed for us by Emmy Award winning Michael Quailing. Contributors to today’s show included Sarah Jordan and Debbie Goddard. I’m your host, DJ Grothe. 

DJ Grothe

D.J. Grothe is on the Board of Directors for the Institute for Science and Human Values, and is a speaker on various topics that touch on the intersection of education, science and belief. He was once the president of the James Randi Educational Foundation and was former Director of Outreach Programs for the Center for Inquiry and associate editor of Free Inquiry magazine. He previously hosted the weekly radio show and podcast Point of Inquiry, exploring the implications of the scientific outlook with leading thinkers.