What if someone were to tell you that your Congressman routinely bandies around phrases such as “Jesus plus nothing,” used to mean the complete rule of Jesus, and compares the desired reach to that of Hitler or Ho Chi Minh? If this makes you at all apprehensive, then Jeff Sharlet’s “C Street: The Fundamentalist Threat to American Democracy” is a must-read.
“Jesus plus nothing” is the mantra of the Fellowship, also known as the Family, a secret, fundamentalist Christian organization peopled primarily by devout policy makers and high-ranking individuals. Though the nonbeliever’s view of religion can often be dismissive when faced with such catchphrases, in “C Street,” a nonfiction account of the extended reach of the Family, these phrases fuel moral crusades with real, and terrifying, impact.
Sharlet first introduced the world to the unseen hand of the Fellowship in “The Family” in 2008, in which he reported on the organization’s beginnings in the 18th century, uncovered the role of the Family in America’s legislative system and uncovered the role of religious fundamentalism in our supposedly secular nation.
In his latest book, Sharlet traces the powerful orthodoxy’s chilling influence on governments both inside and outside of the United States as well as the devastating effects of fundamentalism within the military. He uses the Fellowship’s Capitol Hill boarding house, C Street, as a passageway to a broader discussion of the Family’s influences, which range from mediating the marital disputes of Congressmen to increased military aid for countries whose prominent politicians have connections (spiritual or otherwise) with the Family.
“C Street” is thoroughly researched; in addition to his travels and interviews, Sharlet says he spent weeks photocopying documents from archives all over the country. In particular, he went through nearly 600 boxes of documents at the Billy Graham archives in Wheaton, Illinois, where he stayed in a rented room furnished only with an air mattress and a card table.
Sharlet begins his story at the C Street Center Inc., a nonprofit offshoot of the Family in a red brick house on Capitol Hill to “assist [congressmen] in better understandings of the teachings of Christ, and applying it to their jobs.”
Members of C Street, “the underground network of Christ’s men in Washington,” include Sens. Don Nickles (R-Oklahoma), Charles Grassley (R-Iowa), Pete Domenici (R-New Mexico), John Ensign (R-Nevada), James Inhofe (R-Oklahoma), Bill Nelson (D-Florida) and Bill Nelson (D-Florida), as well as Reps. Jim DeMint (R-South Carolina), Frank Wolf (R-Virginia.), Joseph Pitts (R Pennsylvania), Zach Wamp (R-Tennessee) and Bart Stupak (D-Michigan), and believe they have been appointed by God.
Their actions in the name of the Lord include prayer meetings at the Department of Defense and the Pentagon, and helping Governor Sanford, Representative Pickering and Senator Ensign (whom Sharlet describes as having “the most impressive tan in the Technicolor portrait gallery of golf-happy, twenty-first-century political America”) cover up extramarital affairs and continue their political careers. In one case, the Family even pays off Ensign’s former aide – with whom he was having an affair while he was living at C Street.
This is a mild version of the Family’s philosophy – “the best way to help the weak is to help the strong.” Yet, it is their naïve, but powerful, influence on religious rhetoric used in conflicts and legislature abroad that leads one from simply raised eyebrows to widened eyes.
According to Sharlet, the Family had “cells in the governments of seventy nations by the late 1960s, more than double that of just a few years earlier.” These cells operated, as many of the Family’s projects do, through God – “the Catholic generals and colonels who rotated coup by coup through the leadership of Brazil, Guatemala, El Salvador … consented to the Protestant ministrations of the Fellowship in return for access to American congressman.”
More recently, after meetings between members of Sri Lanka’s own prayer breakfast and Congressional representatives of the Family, the small, Southeast Asian country received more than $50 million in military aid between 2004-2007. In the previous three years, from 2000 to 2003, it only received a fifth of that amount, and in 2008, Sri Lanka was accused of “intentionally and repeatedly” wantonly shelling civilians, hospitals and humanitarian operations with weapons that, it is likely, came from American military aid.
Most vivid is Sharlet’s focus on the Fellowship’s activities in Uganda, where, in 2009, a bill was introduced into the Ugandan Parliament that would condemn to death individuals convicted of “aggravated homosexuality,” which includes “simply sex, more than once,” and three years in prison “for failure to report a homosexual within twenty-four hours of learning of his or her crime.”
Sharlet draws links between the Family and evangelical church leaders and politicians championing the bill in Uganda (including David Bahati, who introduced the legislation into Parliament); the Family has donated millions of dollars to Uganda for “leadership development” – more, writes Sharlet, than it has invested in any other foreign country.
Though he draws the line at saying that the virulently anti-gay bill in Uganda means that the Family supports the death penalty for gay people, he notes that that “the real question is instead one of ideological transmission, the transfer of ideas…. the Family didn’t pull the trigger; they provided the gun.”
Sharlet travels to the East African country to meet politicians, who blithely call the closet “a strong African tradition,” and speak confidently of their “American friends,” various American evangelicals, including some from the family, but also speaks to a young, gay man on the run, illustrating with affecting anecdotes the human lives ruined by such a tide of “morality.”
Near the end of the book, Sharlet brings the story back home again: to the role of the Family in the military. He tells the story of a US unit in Iraq which heads into combat with “Jesus Killed Muhammed” painted in both English and Arabic on one of their tanks, as well as Muslim and Jewish soldiers who crack under the constant religious taunting.
The book itself reads like a hyper-real nightmare; the detailed glimpses of emotionally stifled Congressional love affairs come with the added intimacy of love letter excerpts, and Sharlet’s conversations with evangelical politicians in Uganda are especially well-fleshed. For example, during one conversation with an evangelical politician, Sharlet became keenly aware that he could also be prosecuted under Uganda’s homophobic legislation – for promoting homosexuality by not turning in any gay people he may know.
The extent of the connections between the Family and chastised senators, the Sri Lankan government’s decision to drop bombs on civilians, a virulently homophobic bill in Uganda or extreme religious pressure applied to soldiers in combat zones are at times somewhat murky, but this is itself a symptom of how the Fellowship functions – “the more invisible you can make your organization,” Doug Coe, associate director of the Fellowship, says in “C Street,” “the more influence it will have.”
The Family divides its finances “between several smaller offshoots, some off-the-books accounting … and the Fellowship Foundation.” In addition, Sharlet notes, it shifts around its properties and supporting organizations – for example, the Downing Foundation in Englewood, Colorado, describes its mission as supporting the Family’s Fellowship Foundation – “to which it sends an average of $88,000 a year.”
Sharlet highlights numerous front organizations, though there are other sources of funding for the Family’s expenses that are even less kosher – for example, Sen. Tom Coburn charged American taxpayers $11,000 for a trip to Lebanon to, Coburn says, build prayer groups – in one of the most religiously contested areas in the world.
Though a review in The Washington Post calls Sharlet’s thesis of an America without contraception or public schools “almost unhinged,” the recent rise of the Tea Party since “C Street’s” publication and legislation such as unemployment benefits held hostage to tax cuts for the wealthiest American cast doubt on whether we can dismiss the threat posed by the actions of the Family to positions such as gay rights, religious freedom or the separation between church and state.
This brings us to one of Sharlet’s central points in the book: how do we hold lawmakers accountable who believe they have a divine right to rule?
Mikey Weinstein, a former Air Force commander and founder and president of the Military Religious Freedom Foundation, who deals with calls daily from soldiers with testimony of religious harassment, says the only way to combat the influence of the “multi-dimensional, theocratic, dominating, democracy-destroying monster” that is the Family is to court-martial them all.
Sharlet, however, is more circumspect. “I’m doing it the best way I know how … it’s also the only honest way. You compete with them in terms of free speech,” he said. “You keep the pressure on, you keep people asking questions and you make it in the Family’s best interest to become transparent.”
Full disclosure: Mikey Weinstein is a member of Truthout’s board of advisers.