07 March 2012

The Family: The Secret Fundamentalism at the Heart of American Power by Jeff Sharlet

I don’t remember how I came to add The Family to my reading list, but I finally got around to it, and I’m glad I did.

As the title says, the book revolves around an examination of a group called “The Family,” a fundamentalist group that prides itself on its invisibility, despite being an organizing force behind a wide range of events both historical and current, including the National Prayer Breakfast.

Organized in 1935 by Abram Vereide to oppose the new deal, labor unions, and the threat of socialism, the organization that would come to be called The Family formed a sort of nexus of fundamentalism, training its members that “Jesus plus nothing” is all that was required to change the world.  This informed their worldview as the organization revved up to combat communism during the Cold War, and later transformed itself from an elite organization to one that has embraced the populist front, joining the fight against abortion and homosexuality.

It’s far from an expose, though, and Sharlet is, wisely, careful to avoid choosing sides.  He takes great pains, while illuminating the fundamentalist mythologizing of American history that there is an equally ubiquitous secular mythologizing of that same history.  Likewise, he outlines the current battles over the separation of church and state and uses the recent battles to give us perspective, explaining how Jefferson’s “wall of separation” was only applied judicially in the twentieth century, and that prior to that Christian values had a great deal of synonymity with American jurisprudence.  He also points out that when the Pledge of Allegiance was introduced, it lacked the phrase “under God” for several revisions; whether it is good or bad that it was introduced in 1954, the fact remains it was introduced.

Sharlet takes great pains to avoid making value judgments about the Family’s goals, only seeking to explain them.  He is careful to explain that the Family is, despite how it may seem, a more-or-less apolitical entity, counting members of both the Republican and Democratic parties amongst its ranks.  However, he also includes a quote by Julius Nyere, the first president of Tanzania, as he defended his country’s political system: “The United States is also a one-party state.  But with typical American extravagance, they have two of them.”

Perhaps Sharlet’s most insightful analysis is that Fundamentalism arises out of that age-old problem that all religion confronts: the problem of human suffering.  In his last chapter, he writes:

“Evangelism and fundamentalism arise in response to the dilemma of suffering, a problem all religious beliefs must try to reconcile; they try to eliminate it by offering certainty, by creating and perpetuating a story about how the world is supposed to be.”

This was a distillation of something I have long felt to be at the heart of much of religion, expressed eloquently.  He posits that, rather than accepting things (and saying that the suffering will be rewarded in the afterlife), the Family functions by ignoring that suffering, and accepting that it is simply how things are supposed to be.  However, what is most damning about the Family - in my opinion at least - is the unrepentant role they have taken in causing that suffering in the pursuit of American Empire.  Sharlet avoids ever directly pointing that finger, but I have no problem doing so.

The Family was a fascinating, though at times terrifying, read.  It examined many often-overlooked aspects of the Christian Right, and it managed to overcome my inherent prejudices and allowed me to examine their point of view.  While I don’t necessarily agree with them, I am glad for the glimpse of understanding that I’ve been given.


Books: Nothing right now; catching up on issues of Wine Spectator and Scientific American.

Bottles: Tried a new Argentinian wine last night, can't remember the name.  It was a Malbec from 2008 and it was pretty good.

Writing: Finished re-read.  I'm pretty happy with it for the most part, but I see some areas that definitely need improvement.

Guitar: Still working on "Shine On."  Several exercises as well.