FDL Book Salon Welcomes Jeff Sharlet, C Street: The Fundamentalist Threat to American Democracy
[As a courtesy to our guests, please keep comments to the book. Please take other conversations to a previous thread. – bev]
In 2008, I had the chance to host an FDL book salon with Jeff Sharlet when his book, The Family, was released. Drawing on his experiences living at one of the organization’s houses as well as his significant research into the history of this secretive religious group, Sharlet’s bestselling book exposed us all to this frightening circle of influence.
In his new book, Sharlet brings us up to date on the Family’s influence, focusing on the recent sex scandals tied to the C Street house and the organization’s activities overseas and then takes a look at the pervasive institutionalization of evangelical Christianity in our military. Each of these are tied to the disruption of our constitutional government that finds us so dismayed these days.
He begins with C Street and the sexual scandals of Sanford and friends. This is the story that hit the headlines and for a time drew wide attention to both the C Street house and its hidden owners. But Sharlet does not merely point to the obvious headlines. Instead he asked us to look at what these sexual scandals mean. As he noted in a recent interview:
Yes, absolutely — but sex matters, too. My friend JoAnn Wypijewski, writing in The Nation, said it best—”Christians thunder, liberals sneer, but it amounts to the same thing, counting sins.” Talking about political sex is actually a form of prudishness, a euphemism for real political problems. We are afraid to talk about secrecy, about the possibility that our elites don’t have our interests at heart, that they are not part of “us”; so we can only do so when that secrecy, that other intimacy, is made literal, physical, through sex scandal. Sex removes corruption from the world of ideas. Sex is an act. It is secret. It proves the politician is both not part of “us”—that he has other engagements, that he’s gone on the Appalachian Trail—and that he is: just like us, physical, bound to the world of grunting desires. Talking about sex allows us to talk about secrecy by encoding real political problems in universal questions of desire and deception. Sex talk as metaphor is usually fatalistic, and ultimately conservative. It’s always prudish, a substitution of naughty but bawdy sex for the dirt and despair of a broken democracy.
From C Street itself, Sharlet heads to Lebanon and Uganda where American politicians, acting on behalf of the Family – and often underwritten by taxpayer dollars – recruit members of foreign elites through “stealth evangelism.” These activities include “development centers” (funded by State Department grants) in Lebanon where promising youth are drawn in with offers of education and trips to the US, groomed to become “followers of Jesus” and represent the Family’s beliefs as they become leaders in their own governments. And they include the deep involvement of Family operatives in the Ugandan campaign to make homosexuality a capital offense. Sharlet recounts his trip to Uganda where he spoke with young gays as well as the politicians who wish to kill them – and those politicians are quite clear that they plans are sanctioned and encouraged by followers of Doug Coe here at home:
That was the crux of the matter for Bahati. To him, homosexuality is only a symbol for what he learned from the family is a greater plague: government by people, not by God. The “original sin” according to “Jesus Transcends All,” a sermon distributed to international guests at the National Prayer Breakfast … “was not murder, adultery, or any other action we call sin. The original sin was, and still is, human choice to be one’s own god, to control one’s own life, to be in charge.”
This rejection of human and constitutional governance figures as well in the final section of C Street which reports on the growing Christianization of the US military. While parts of this information have been available before, Sharlet’s reporting shows the ever more institutionalized role of this intensely right wing religiosity; a role that overrides civilian control, prodding soldiers to become Christian warriors, answerable only to God. The stories are chilling, from Gen. Petraeus endorsing the Christian book, Under Orders, as one that “should be in every rucksack” to the brutal harassment of soldiers who don’t demonstrate the right beliefs to Sharlet’s conversations with a Col. Young who describes “miracles” under his command including:
Of the fourteen Americans killed in Kandahar under Young’s watch, at least six were “Bible-believing Christians,” a disproportionately large number compared to the demographics of his command. He sounded joyous. Why was this a miracle? I asked. “God took the ones that were ready to go!”
Reading C Street is frightening – and important. Sharlet builds on his earlier work to show us how deeply this challenge to constitutional democracy has gone. As he notes:
The names don’t matter The fundamentalist threat to American democracy isn’t a person, a politician whose defeat would put the matter to rest once and for all. It’s an idea. In it’s most modest shape it’s the question posed by a future air force officer: “Who are we to question why God builds up nations?: — imperial narcissism so blind the questioner believes his fatalistic acceptance of his own power is a form of humility. In its bluntest expression it’s the “government by God” preached at C Street. In its most awful, it is the “God-led politics” of Uganda, the nightmare scenario of fundamentalism in power.
And this argument is the real contribution of Sharlet’s new book – beyond the accounts of individual politician and episodes, he reminds us that:
The threat isn’t theocracy, an idea nearly every fundamentalist denounces as the province of mullahs and the Middle Ages, but the conflation of democracy with authoritarianism. Not the jackbooted kind or even the iron fist within the velvet glove, but rather the “Father knows best” variety…
Understanding this “trickle-down paternalism” is critical if we are to work effectively against it — and Jeff Sharlet’s C Street is an exceptional guide to help us understand the work ahead.