Archive for the ‘Religion’ Category

familyAfter seeing Jon Stewart interview the author on a recent Daily Show, I bought The Family and am about a third of the way through it. It’s just come out in paper. The hardback was published in 2008, but is especially timely now that the hapless Gov. of South Carolina, Mark Sanford, spilled the beans (some of them, anyway) about the C Street House in DC.

The C Street House, it turns out, is just one manifestation of the Family’s many activities detailed by Sharlet. The most public is the National Prayer Breakfast, held every year since 1953. But there are many others, quite private. And, frankly, quite scary.

As Sharlet portrays it, the Family (it’s also known by other names) is a peculiar Christian fundamentalist movement whose influence reaches far into the executive and legislative branches and into the military, and not solely in this country. They dislike the term Christian, however, preferring instead “followers of Christ.” Such reluctance will be the first indication to a lot of Christians I know that there’s something a bit off-kilter about them.

In a nutshell, they (or many of them) seem to be motivated by a desire, says Sharlet, to establish a Jesus-centered theocracy in the U.S. That’s not to say an overthrow of our democracy, but just making sure that leaders in politics, business, the military and more share their rigid conception of Jesus. They follow a Jesus who speaks not to the poor but to the powerful. (There are no poor folks at the National Prayer Breakfast). In a kind of theological Reaganomics, the blessings this Jesus bestows on the rich and powerful, whom God has entrusted with positions of leadership, will trickle down to the lower classes.

Sharlet is a visiting researcher at NYU’s Center for Religion and Media. He does a fascinating job tracing the fundamentalist/theocratic impulse in this country from Jonathan Edwards and the Great Awakening of the 17th century through the influential 19th-century evangelist Charles Grandison Finney. But the Family of today is the creation of two 20th-century men, an immigrant Norwegian preacher named Abraham (‘Abram’) Vereide and his successor Doug Coe. I’d never heard of either before reading this book.

Is any of this true? I have no doubt it is. Is it all true? I dunno. Sharlet clearly knows his theology as well as his history. But he undermines his case at times. He spent a month at a training retreat near DC, where the leaders clearly thought he was interested in joining them. He professes no original intent to write about the experience. That just does not pass the smell test.

And his Progressive sympathies lead him to some questionable assumptions. He rightly points out that some Family members in the 1930s, in their zeal to fight godless communism (read: labor unions) were WAY too close to being Nazi apologists, if not outright sympathizers. And granted that some Family members may have been involved in the Marshall Plan as a means to bring Jesus to bear against the Red menace, that doesn’t negate the powerful positives from the effort. Just look at the Treaty of Versailles to see that the Allies learned a lesson.

And it’s simplistic to treat the Greek civil war of the late 40’s as Nazi sympathizers in the government fighting anti-Nazis, some of them communists. Ask the Poles, Czechs or Hungarians about their conflicts.

Still, I plan to finish the book. It’s a fascinating topic to me, and I’ve learned a great deal. It’s no stretch to think that secularists and people of other faiths as well as liberal Christians will be appalled by the distorted theology of the Family. But I think that even conservative and fundamentalist evangelicals will be disgusted. Ever since the 2nd-century Gnostics, Christianity has known that secret theologies turn inward and has battled them with openness. As Paul wrote to the Corinthians, “We preach Christ crucified” — not Christ the CEO.

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