By Ink Alone: The Christian Boogeyman is Coming
by Matt Stevens
Conspiracy still happening, but this time its not international economics, but Fundamentalist American Jesus-Love
Jeff Sharlet writes a scary and extremely interesting book detailing the powerful Christian organization1 The Family and their ties to American men and women of power. Sharlet also uses his book to detail the history of fundamentalism and the rise of in the past 50 years. Sharlet is also a writer for Harpers, Rolling Stone, and created The Reveler.
In our previous review, we checked out The Shock Doctrine by Naomi Klein. That book was chock-full of conspiracy theories regarding the power of the Chicago Boys and their rise to power in South America and Eastern Europe and more so, their ability to force extremely austere conservative economic policies on populations who didn’t want them. You can also read our other reviews here, here, and here.
Sharlet goes in a different direction than Klein, focusing on home grown Christian Fundamentalism and the power it has over American politics and American society. The Family, the basis of this book is a highly secret organization who’s only public acknowledgment comes from the National Prayer Breakfast that it hosts each year. But the Family is much more than just an organization that seeks to acknowledge God’s presence in American, they seek to remake over America in an image of Jesus.
The Family sprung from the mind of a Norwegian immigrant, Abram Vereide, as a response to communism in Seattle. Vereide, a traveling preacher, started working with the Seattle elite to combat communism, unions, and general “materialism” in America. Vereide soon moved to Washington DC, and started attracting the political elites of America with his strange brand of faith.
It is important to note that The Family is not a church and it does not have an ideology or a creed. It practices a type of belief that Sharlet describes as Jesus plus nothing, or J+0=?. Sharlet also emphasizes the “big-man” theory of religion and economics. Vereide and other industrial titans, originally based out of Seattle, but soon incorporating much of America, that unions were unnecessary, conflict between labor and management (capital) was a drag on the economy, on society, on faith, on the ability of men to connect to God, but most importantly, on the profit margin of the large corporations.
Vereide’s big-man theory holds that it is the job of the company executives to take care of the menial labor workers and to ensure the proper respect of power. Labor workers should respect the ability and the skill of the big-men to see all of the problems and their ability to solve men. This theory ties in nicely to Vereide’s preaching in that a man has faith in Jesus then Jesus has faith in that man. That man has the right, or more scarily, the need to do what he feels is right to ensure the propagation of Jesus (his own power) across the land.
A reader notices quickly that Vereide and The Family are not a Christian organization. They do not practice Christian values of loving your neighbor, giving to the poor, the good Christian ideals that many of us were raised within. They practices a Jesus-Love. A love of power and control that they see Jesus achieved. A love of Jesus excuses them from many of the Christian teachings.
Sharlet goes on to point out that Vereide ceded control to Doug Coe in 1966, and Coe still holds the reigns today, though due to health problems he may be losing grip of the organization. Coe was also a Western based preacher (Oregon) who wanted to move in the hands of power. Coe extended the Family oversees, attaching it to dictators and anyone who would openly embrace and express their Jesus love.
It is important to note that Coe and Vereide both saw their organization as a resource for “Christians” in America and overseas to meet with each other and bond. They don’t have an official ideology. They don’t lobby specifically for anything. Most of the major actors within the current Congress won’t admit to any specific causes that Coe or other key principals wanted them to push. But Kansas Senator Sam Brownback, a key leader in the elected area (The Family also has numerous connections within the DC bureaucracies) emphasizes that those making decisions usually simply know how Jesus would want them to legislate. The Family simply is a place to find Jesus, and if necessary, to find other people who support following Jesus.
Sharlet makes no bones that he is not a fan of the religion being pushed by The Family. He is a secular liberal. And while he does come off as incredulous to much of The Family, particularly the fire that many of the leaders have, he writes what I think is a fair description.
Sharlet then spends the second half of the book detailing the rise of Fundamentalism in America. He doesn’t tell the Billy Graham, Pat Robertson, or Jerry Falwell, but the of the rise of their antecedents, the evangelists who laid the stones for them. He also visits Colorado Springs, the home of Ted Haggard and James Dobson. Haggard, the founder of New Life, a megachurch, was made even more infamous nationally when his meth-fueled sexual exploits with a male prostitute were made public. Dobson and Haggard are the face of the hard core Christian Fundamentalist that hates gays, abortions, and love free markets. Joel Osteen and Rick Warren, who was last seen not anointing the guys running for president, are the face of a more hopeful less “Christian Great People vs. the evil secular liberals.”
Warren and Osteen are much more palatable to Sharlet because they seek to make their followers lives fuller and better, without attacking those outside of their belief structure. Haggard and Dobson are much more us vs. them in their preaching. One of the most interesting conversations that Sharlet records is when he is meeting with a small bible study group in Colorado Springs. Most of the people in the group work in the immensely huge Christian industry, from publishing to recruitment to simply construction work. They were discussing how so much focus of the speech is anti-secularism and the leaders were creating an us vs. them mentality. Sharlet asked them which side they were on, and most decried that they were not on a side. They didn’t truly believe all the little things that Haggard and Dobson and the rest of the “over-the-top” preachers claimed was critical to Jesus-Love. One of the guys said “We are here,” meaning in Colorado Springs. They had chosen their side.
Sharlet does not come to a real conclusion at the end of his book. His last chapter is a brief story of encountering what he sees as the future of fundamentalism in America. Small communal groups that meet in houses and discuss questions about religion, faith, and how to act. Whether this is the true future of fundamentalism or simply what Sharlet and many more liberals want, who don’t want religion dominating the American political and social discourse.
I give this book four out of five Melons, because it was a very interesting read, and very important for people who believe that this country is embracing too much a fundamentalist rhetoric. The best sign of this election is that neither Obama or McCain has a bone of fundamentalism in him. Obama’s church in Chicago, while a conservative black church, was also about community involvement, and did not preach free markets at the expense of society, like Dobson, Haggard, and so many other preacher have and still do.
1 The Family is not really an organization. They have few written documents, fewer set notions of theology and an impossible to organize structure. Their power players don’t talk about the group except to other power players, and they are rather secretive about what else the group does.