Thursday, February 25, 2010

At last...

I have finished reading Jeff Sharlet's book The Family. I always list "The Top of the Pile" book--that is the book I am currently reading--along the sidebar of this page.

Sometimes, a book stays up for a good long time, until I either finish it or set it aside for another day. For a while, I had the biography of Andrew Jackson--American Lion--gracing my sidebar. That one I gave up on, at least for now. I will no doubt return to it. I gave up on it, partly because the contentious interaction in Washington while Jackson was president sounded too much!

I then went off and read a bunch of easier reads--such as Marilynne Robinson's Home. Then, I tackled Jeff Sharlet's
The Family. The subtitle tips the content--The Secret Fundamentalism at the Heart of American Power.

I first heard about the subject of Sharlet's book while watching MSNBC's coverage of the Governor Sanford story. You remember Governor Sanford? He went missing around Father's Day last year to . . .hike the Appalachian Trail. Um, no. To fly to Argentina to spend time with his mistress. He had an affair with an Argentinian woman. Following his return to the U.S., and his rambling tearful admission that he really wasn't hiking, Sanford sought spiritual guidance and counsel from fellow political folk at the C Street house in Washington, DC.

What's the C street house? Well, so glad you asked. Here's where The Family enters the picture. The C street house is owned by a secretive group called alternatively the Family or the Fellowship. The house is listed as a church, and thus is tax exempt property. It is also the place where, in addition to Governor Sanford, Senator Ensign was counselled about his on-going affair with the wife of his chief of staff. As if that wasn't bad enough, Senator Ensign then tried to buy off the woman and her husband. It is indeed a sordid story.

As if that twosome weren't enough, it is also where Representative Chip Pickering lived, while he had an affair. Interestingly enough, all three of these politicians thought it proper that President Bill Clinton should be impeached for his affair.

The story of the Family (or the Fellowship) is the subject of Jeff Sharlet's book. He did the kind of research that is almost unduplicatable--he lived in one of the Family's houses where they sort of indoctrinate people into their tenets. They do not advance a specific church theology, but they advance a specific Christian point of view--they hold Bible studies and prayer sessions. They seek to influence American, and for that matter international, politics.

That doesn't seem too bad, does it? Or does it. This is the group that is behind the recent bill introduced in Uganda that has made international news. Basically, the bill called for the death penalty for people who are found out to be gay. After the news began to emerge about this draconian bill, U.S. legislators affiliated with the Fellowship began to fall all over themselves disavowing any connection to the Ugandan bill.

It might to tempting to think--what's the problem with a group, even if it is secretive, that wants to infuse Christian concepts into our legislative process. I have thought long and hard about this question. And here's what I have come up with--first, I put forward the notion that a democracy and a theocracy cannot co-exist. If we were to be guided in all our legislative dealings with strictly Christian ideals, we would no longer have room for the portion of our population which is not Christian, or guided by Christian ideals.

Second, whose definition of Christian ideals would be used? Not all Christians agree, even on some essential tenets of faith. So who would decide? The current leaders of the Fellowship that Jeff Sharlet writes of eschew traditional organized religion. Instead, they call for Jesus + nothing. What does that mean?

Yes, it took me a long time to finish this book. Part of the reason, in addition to somewhat confusing content, was the dense writing style that Sharlet has. But, I made myself read through to the end. After all, a secretive group that has as its goal to change the fundamental way that we govern ourselves in this country is not something to be taken lightly. And it certainly isn't something that my wandering inattention should deter me from knowing about.

For the record, I am now reading Karen Armstrong's The Case for God. Much lighter reading, I assure you.


Jayne said...

One of the congressmen from our neighboring TN is one of the "C street" men and he's now running for Governor. The entire thing smells to high heaven to me and I can't believe that this day in time, a group like this can function with such an agenda.

NCmountainwoman said...

With tongue in cheek, I think I can answer your questions. First, we ARE a theocracy since our money says, "In God We Trust." Secondly, we use MY definition of Christian ideals.

From what I've read about the "fellowship" it is very frightening. I will definitely pick up the book.

Anvilcloud said...

How a supposedly Christian group could influence or condone Uganda's policy baffles me. It makes me wonder if my BIL is correct: that religion is a form a insanity.

possumlady said...

I had no idea this group influenced the Uganda policy!! How heinous. I have certainly heard of the C Street House and it has been reported on quite a bit here in DC. Every time the name is mentioned, I instinctively say out loud "Oh, yuck!" for obvious reasons.

Climenheise said...

Thsnks for the review of the book. I'm in agreement with your thoughts on the negative influence of the family -- but not on your take on Uganda. (Here you write about something I know more about.)

Whether Uganda's proposed legislation is good or not (the penalties at least re draconian), saying that some fundamentalist Christian in the USA is "behind the legislation" does not credit the Ugandans with the ability to craft their own legislation. Blaming Ugandan policy on American Fundamentalists can become a kind of continued imperialism, in which we assume that they cannot make up their own minds without our influence.

To put it another way, whether we agree with Uganda's policy or not, it is their policy and grows out of their own cultural understanding and history. A small example, in Ugandan history a sizeable group of early Christian martyrs were killed by the Ugandan king because they refused to take part in sex with him as young boys. I don't have the story clearly in mind, but you can check it out further.

KGMom said...

Daryl--granted, of course, that Ugandans are capable of directing their own legislative development, but see this NYTimes article on Ugandan conference which preceded by days the introduction of the legislation into the Ugandan parliament.
Also, the current Ugandan president is affiliated with the Family/Fellowship. Some U.S. senators have taken particular interest in Africa--e.g. Sen. Grassley from Iowa.

Climenheise said...

Interest in and agreement with are different from your original comment: "This is the group that is behind the recent bill introduced in Uganda that has made international news. " That sound as though they orchestrated it, much the way that conspiracy theorists have other groups orchestrating world events. Agreement with a position, and advocating for legislation, simply are not the same thing as directing from behind the scenes.

A related issue, which you might explore sometime in a blog (I should do the same), is the way that we see homosexuality as a civil rights issue in North America, while most countries in Africa and Asia have a quite different take on the practice. I remember hearing Bishop Sponge attribute African attitudes towards homosexuality to the fact that they are (in his words) "primitive". we end up with a skewed kind of tolerance that would silence many cultures simply because they do not hold the values that we do. (None of this gives my position on the Ugandan legislation, which I wish would not pass; but notes a basic colonial dynamic that persists in Western thinking.)

Climenheise said...

By the way, I find that I have also had to go to word recognition to stop spamming. Sad.

Anonymous said...

I was pleased to see that a group of ministers is urging the IRS to take away the tax-exempt status of the C Street house.

Like the bumper sticker says, "The Religious Right is neither."

Tossing Pebbles in the Stream said...

It baffles me how the agressive relgious right is allowed to represent itself as the spirtual heart of the US.

The founding fathers were for the most part men of the enlighenment, more influenced by reason than strict creedal religion. They were the liberal and progressive men of their day, deists, arians, god forbid, Unitarians. The US, if it were true to its founders, should be a liberal progressive secular society. I wonder if those on the religious right ever read Tom Paine, Ben Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, the Adams etc.

I just shake my head in disbelief when I read about the political religious right (as oppossed to the pietistic religious "right" conservatives who do not mix religion and politcs. They are dangerous people in our midst.