The Family: Power, Politics and Fundamentalism's Shadow Elite

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Univ. of Queensland Press, 2008 - Fundamentalism - 454 pages
A journalist's penetrating and controversial look at the untold story of Christian fundamentalism's most elite organisation- a self-described 'invisible' global network dedicated to a religion of power for the powerful. They are 'the Family' - fundamentalism's avant-garde, waging spiritual war in the halls of American power and around the globe. They consider themselves the 'new chosen'- congressmen, generals and foreign dictators who meet in confidential 'cells', to pray and plan for a 'leadership led by God', to be won not by force but through 'quiet diplomacy'. Jeff Sharlet is the only journalist to have reported from inside its walls.
The Family is about the other half of American fundamentalist power - not its angry masses, but its sophisticated elites. In public, they host Prayer Breakfasts; in private they preach a gospel of 'biblical capitalism', military might and American empire. Citing Hitler, Lenin and Mao as leadership models, the Family's current leader, Doug Coe, declares, 'We work with power where we can, build new power where we can't'.
Part history, part investigative journalism, The Family is a compelling account of how fundamentalism came to be interwoven with American power and the no-holds-barred economics of globalisation. No other book about the Right has exposed the Family or revealed its far-reaching impact on democracy, and no future reckoning of fundamentalism will be able to ignore it.

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Two stars for being readable, a report by a talented writer. However, here is a guy with an axe to grind. I wish he could have written about his motivation for writing this book. Here is an angry tone, a petty focus on irrelevant details that serve to unnecessarily and patronizingly demean those who he writes about. Somewhat paranoid tone, too. Does he really think that there is an international conspiracy to take over the reigns of power? A vivid conspiracy theorist.
My take is here is a good researcher who had an agenda before he began. While he uncovered some juicy details, he misses the big picture. Knowing the evangelical world, I can say this guy really missed the forest for the trees. Those who like to bash evangelicals will have some additional tidbits to use in arguments. Those who know the evangelical world will be embarrassed for the guy and his tragicomic conceit.

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I grew up in The Church. Rather than name a denomination (and possibly offend readers), let me just say it was an archetypal Southern institution that had no reservations preaching the dual gospels of Jesus Christ and Ronald Reagan.
As an older kid (past the age of accountability, soon to be a teenager), I was exposed to a protracted campaign warning against the deadly slippery slope of secularism. What I remember most was the belief that there were closet Satanists lurking everywhere, performing human sacrifices and raping virgins and children. I was told that I was only one needle drop on an Iron Maiden record, one toke on a joint, or one roll of a 12 sided (Dungeons & Dragons) die away from falling into Satan's clutches. And The Church... Man, it was serious about this.
Fast forward five years, or better, 25 years, and it's pretty clear all those midnight masses and ritual sacrifices were a boogey man. The Satanists weren't in the PTA and Better Business Bureau after all. To be sure, somewhere there was probably a Satanist alone in his bedroom putting on black makeup and listening to goth - not metal, but it was nowhere near on the order The Church warned us about.
With this in mind, I can't help but wonder if Jeff Sharlet hasn't jumped to some conclusions in The Family. Don't misunderstand me, there's definitely something going on. I'm just not convinced it's as big and smart as Mr. Sharlet says it is. The thing about a secret is that it becomes exponentially harder to keep with each level of complication. Presuming there is a secret, evil right wing conspiracy operating worldwide is nearly as preposterous as assuming those foreign chapters submit to the ordination of US rule. To think this organization has enemies and expelled factions and still maintains its secrecy is a further stretch still. I do not doubt something's going on, but feel Jeff Sharlet has exaggerated its shape.
The author does a fine job of explaining the concept behind "dominionism" and "covenantism" (pursuit of a first century Christian theocracy and the belief that American evangelicals have inherited God's covenant from the Jews, respectively). He details the challenge to separation of church and state and its effects on civil liberties. The author explains how compassion is cleverly edited out of the Christian belief as the fundamentalist movement migrates from the tent revivals of America's democratic past and into the elite echelons and the suburbs that service them. But other authors have done this effectively without making fantastic links to Nazism and Watergate (I refer to Kevin Phillips's American Theocracy and Reza Aslan's How To Win A Cosmic War).
The philosophical premise behind The Family (or Fellowship, as it is alternatively called) is so well detailed, in fact, that it makes this reader sad to find its authority compromised by superfluous, circumstantial conclusions.
I'll repeat the refrain a final time: Something is definitely going on. If one has observed the culture war against gay rights and abortion, opposition to defining hate crimes, religious uniformity (and reading rooms) in the Pentagon, US service men and women with rifles bearing Bible verses incrypted in the serial numbers, heard Pat Robertson say Haiti made a pact with the devil, or seen Jesus Camp, then he knows something's going on. But all things being equal, the simplest answer is usually correct. In this reader's opinion, all the things Mr. Sharlet describes are correct and brilliantly observed, minus one important one: The Family itself, as an evil and all-powerful puppeteer, is very difficult to believe.




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