BOOKS: by Bill JamesNews Weekly
THE FAMILY: Power, Politics and Fundamentalism's Shadow Elite, by Jeff Sharlet
, November 22, 2008
Vast right-wing "conspiracy" exposedTHE FAMILY:
Power, Politics and Fundamentalism's Shadow Elite
by Jeff Sharlet
(Brisbane: University of Queensland Press)
Paperback: 455 pages
Rec. price: AUD$34.95When it comes to conspiracy theories, The Family is a classic of the genre. Jeff Sharlet claims to have infiltrated and exposed a right-wing secret society which is out to impose "theocracy" on the United States and the world.
I approached this book as, amongst other things, an Australian and an evangelical.
As an Australian, I was interested to find that one of Sharlet's heroes is the Australian Harry Bridges, a communist (though Sharlet denies it) activist who worshipped the 20th century's second-worst mass murderer Stalin, and who, at Stalin's command, extended his allegiance to the 20th century's third-worst mass murderer, Hitler, during the period of the 1939-41 Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact. Sharlet's description of Bridges as "pure hearted" inhabits the same territory as Manning Clark's infamous eulogy of Lenin as "Christ-like".
As an evangelical, I discovered that Sharlet treats as characteristic of evangelicalism various beliefs, practices and terminology which are not only far from typical, but have actually been rigorously critiqued or repudiated by the evangelical mainstream. For example, he treats the late theonomist John Rushdoony as representative of putative evangelical aspirations to theocracy. In fact, the overwhelming majority of evangelicals ignore, reject, or have never heard of him.
Sharlet poses as an authority on evangelicalism, a term which in Sharlet-speak is interchangeable with fundamentalism, and which he describes, in language as parochially American as it is hyperbolical, as "the biggest political and cultural movement of our times". He even claims to be something of an authority on Jonathan Edwards and Charles Finney.
Oddly enough, despite all this expertise, he is obviously unfamiliar with various evangelical doctrinal positions. For example, anyone with a modicum of theological literacy would be taken aback by his suggestion that the late Paul Tillich is a contemporary evangelical icon. Tillich's liberal, existential theology is at the other end of the spectrum from evangelicalism.
Sharlet's ignorance, perhaps a side-effect of his evangelicalism-bashing mania, is also evidenced in his extraordinary claim that evangelicals are only interested in the souls of individuals, and therefore uninvolved in ministering to their material needs.
Sharlet needs to get out more. In particular, he needs to get out to the developing world, where there are countless evangelical grass-roots projects, some of them dating back centuries - hospitals, clinics, children's homes - catering to very real felt needs.Social responsibility
If he is interested in the theology underlying these efforts, he might start with the 1982 joint report of the Lausanne Committee and the World Evangelical Fellowship titled Evangelism and Social Responsibility: An Evangelical Commitment
It is by no means clear whether the two éminences grises
who, according to Sharlet, have led the Family since 1935, are evangelicals either, even if they have contacts within the evangelical world. Both come across as decidedly woolly in matters of doctrine. The names of this Elijah-Elisha duo are Abram Vereide and Doug Coe. Never heard of them? Neither had I. Just proves how effectively and insidiously they have burrowed into the establishment, and what immense and dangerous powers they must wield!
Sharlet's attitude toward the involvement of evangelicals in politics is paranoid and sensationalist. No-one denies that Christian lobbyists and pressure groups exist, including, no doubt, members of the Family. However, that is what democracy is all about.
Sharlet and everyone else, not just religious people, have a worldview and an agenda, and are entitled to promote it in the public square.
He attempts to privilege secularism by invoking Jefferson's "wall of separation" between church and state; but no such term appears in the American Constitution, which only bans any establishment of religion, or any interference with its free exercise.
In popular Western culture, the media have stereotyped evangelicalism in terms of two alleged signature causes: opposition to homosexuality and abortion.
In recent decades, the expansion of gay rights, including bans on tendentiously-labelled "hate speech", and recognition of gay marriage, along with the inability of a succession of conservative administrations to overthrow the US judiciary's 1973 Roe vs. Wade
coup (not to mention a raft of petty, spiteful regulations against customs such as Christmas trees) demonstrate that secularism, not "theocracy", is currently the ideology of hegemonic dominance.Enthusiasts for capitalism
One of Sharlet's idées fixes
is the support of some evangelicals for the free market. It is true, of course, that neither Scripture nor creeds prescribe a particular economic system, and there are plenty of Christians, (some of whom are as dogmatic as some of the enthusiasts for capitalism, and just as ready to pull strings in Washington) who would support Sharlet's soft-socialist welfare-state model. Once again, it is an issue on which religious people in a liberal democracy can, and do, push different barrows.
Another of Sharlet's preoccupations comes out in his running criticism of realpolitik
. He strenuously objects to the American policy (backed enthusiastically by the Family, according to his account) of supporting anti-communist governments.
However, his position is, to put the kindest construction upon it, inconsistent. If realpolitik
(i.e., the support of less than democratic or liberal leaders) is ipso facto
immoral, then he should denounce Roosevelt's support for Stalin to counterbalance Hitler in World War II, and Nixon's gesture of friendship toward Mao in 1972 to counterbalance the Soviet Union.
In fact, Sharlet's whole approach to the Cold War is frivolous and sophistical. He (just) admits the possibility of appalling crimes against humanity on the part of Maoist, Stalinist and other communist regimes, but claims that they are none of his concern.
That does not stop him from trivialising any steps that were taken to prevent them. For example, he mocks the Korean War, without which the people of South Korea would have finished up under the system of total deprivation of human rights (including mass, avoidable starvation) imposed on the North by Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il.
His judgementalism is unrelenting toward anyone who ever had the slightest contact with fascism (it is worth remembering that, before the war, Churchill voiced admiration for Mussolini, and Lloyd George for Hitler), but he cannot find one word of criticism for the infinitely greater scandal of the countless Western leftists ("liberals", as Americans call them, in an Orwellian inversion of that term) who adulated figures such as Stalin and Mao throughout much of the 20th century.
There is a terrible moral ambivalence in Sharlet. He can summon inexhaustible reserves of indignation to condemn 20th-century atrocities such as the massacres which accompanied the suppression of the 1965 Maoist coup in Indonesia, or even just to ridicule as hicks and kooks and rednecks those of his countrymen who follow Christianity, Catholic as well as Protestant.
On the other hand, the 20th century's worst crimes against humanity, in China and the Soviet Union, apparently leave him unmoved. No compassion, no anger, not even a mention.Au fond
, Sharlet's The Family
represents an extended and self-indulgent wallow in Christianity-bashing. Sharlet is fertilising his left-secularist credentials by vilifying the historical and creedal version of Christianity which he believes it is incumbent upon all right-thinking people to deplore.
The same attitude can be found in Australia amongst those who read the Fairfax press and listen to the ABC. Phillip Adams recently referred to the rest of the world's supposed amazement at America's religiosity. By "the rest of the world" he meant the minority of secular humanists like himself. In literal terms, the vast majority of "the rest of the world" subscribes to some sort of religion.Hysterical
The tributes to Sharlet's book all come from the same left-secularist tail which aspires to wag the dog. They include a hysterical warning from Barbara Ehrenreich to "just don't read it alone at night", which tells us little about the book, but functions as a pledge of her ideological purity.
A reviewer from the New York Times
refers to "Jesus Christ, fuehrer", thus falling foul of Godwin's Law which states that the first person in a dispute to invoke Hitler or the Nazis against their opponent loses the argument.
The reader of Sharlet's overheated prose finally closes the book just wishing that the author would take a cold shower and a nice lie down.