Tuesday, August 4, 2009

The Family: The Avant-Garde of American Fundamentalism

With the August recess just underway -- resulting in a relatively slow news cycle when it comes to most things politics -- I figured I'd use this blog to talk about another issue boiling under the surface in Washington. Not the birthers, whom I refuse to give the time of day, and not the health care town halls supposedly being overtaken by pawns of the insurance industry. No, I'm talking of an issue that almost no one in the mainstream media -- aside from MSNBC's Rachel Maddow -- is touching.

I'm talking about C Street, the house in Washington where several members of Congress have lived over the years under the guise of spiritual and religious assistance to those Congressmen. More specifically, the Family.

While the Family seems well-intentioned on the surface -- who would really take issue with a Tuesday morning prayer breakfast or a Bible study session? -- this secretive organization is much more. If it wasn't, almost every Senator and Representative tied to it wouldn't suddenly be sewing his lips shut.

The Family, while doing everything it can covertly to bring back a sense of fundamentalism to all aspects of American life, has been linked to, among other things, the extramarital affairs of several politicians -- namely Nevada Senator John Ensign and even South Carolina governor Mark Sanford.

Insert Argentina and/or Appalachian Trail joke here.

In 2008, Jeff Sharlet (he of TheRevealer.org, Harper's and Rolling Stone) wrote a book called The Family: the Secret Fundamentalism at the Heart of American Power. Sharlet has been a guest on Maddow's television program in recent weeks, giving shocking and at-times disturbing accounts of what goes on within the walls of the house on C Street, called Ivanwald.

It saddens me that Maddow is the only member of the mainstream media who seems willing to take on this story, because it not only describes an underground political movement that I think would scare most sane American's, but because it threatens the separation of church and state that our Founding Fathers felt was so critical to our nation's survival.

I happen to firmly believe in the separation of church and state. Not just because I'm not Christian -- I don't want any faith leaking its way into government, even my own -- but because I realize how vast and diverse this country is. Not every Christian is the same, nor is every Jew, or Buddhist, or Muslim or pagan or atheist.

To have government lean toward one faith is to exclude -- on purpose or otherwise -- those who do not follow that spiritual path. It's one of the many reasons I abandoned the Republican Party; by embracing the evangelicals and painting the picture that all good Americans are God-fearing Christians, the party excluded and alienated those like me who did not believe as such.

While that was a minor annoyance, the Family and C Street have the potential to be much more. As Sharlet -- who spent several months at C Street undercover to write this book, puts it, this is the avant-garde of American fundamentalism.

From the introduction to Sharlet's book:

"Avant-garde is a term usually reserved for innovators, artists who live strange and dangerous lives and translate their strange and dangerous thoughts into pictures or poetry or fantastical buildings. The term has a political ancestry as well; Lenin used it to describe the elite cadres he believed could spark a revolution. It is in this sense that the men to whom my brothers apprenticed themselves, a seventy-year-old self-described invisible network of followers of Christ in government, business and the military, use the term avant-garde. They call themselves the Family, or the Fellowship, and they consider themselves a core of men responsible for changing the world." (page 3)

Also from the introduction:

"I have lived with these men for close to a month, not as a Christian -- a term they deride as too narrow for the world they are building in Jesus' honor -- but as a follower of Christ, the phrase they use to emphasize what matters most to their savior. Not faith or kindness, but obedience. I don't share their faith, in fact, but that does not concern them; I've obeyed, and that's enough." (page 2)

That sound very Christian to you? I could be wrong -- it's been quite a while since I read the Bible or attended church services -- but I remember Jesus as a loving sort of fellow, teaching the world to respect and love their fellow man. Unless we're talking Old Testament here, I don't remember much of anything about obeying.

That's not a religion. That's a cult (though I realize there are those who view religion and cults as one in the same). This is the underlying philosophy of a group of men (yes, men ... the Family is quite misogynistic) -- that these men have been chosen by God to rebuild the world in their image of Jesus. By using their positions of influence within Washington's political structure, the members of the Family are covertly blurring the line of separation between church and state.

Again, from Sharlet's introduction:

"I offer these explanations not as excuses for the consequences of American fundamentalism, an expansionist ideology of control better suited to empire than democracy, but to point to the defining tension of a creed that is both fearful and proud even as it proclaims itself joyous and humble. It is a martyr's faith in the hands of the powerful, its cross planted in the blood-soaked soil of manifest destiny. It is the strange and dangerous offspring of two intensely fertile sets of stories, 'America' and 'Christianity.'" (page 5)

This, I feel, examines the latent hypocrisy within the Family and its teachings. The members of C Street claim this to be a Christian place, thus implying everything that is good and admirable about the faith and those who practice it. However, given the thirst for power innate within the house's members and center of power, there's a conflict.

How can a Christian be at once joyous and humble, as well as fearful and proud? How can a Christian talk of loving his fellow man and extole the virtues of helping the less fortunate, only to turn around and call those who do not follow the teachings of Christ un-American? We saw plenty of that in the previous administration -- particularly in the 2004 elections, when George W. Bush wanted to place an amendment in the Constitution that would outlaw same-sex marriages.

I don't think Bush is a member of C Street, but you get the idea.

Another excerpt:

"Before moving to Ivanwald, I spent several months on the road, researching God in America for an earlier book. My quarry soon became the gods of America: a pantheon. Not Vishnu or Buddha or the Goddess, though they reside here too, but a heaven crowded with the many different Christs believed in by Americans. There's a Jesus in Miami's Cuban churches, for instance, who seems to do nothing but wrestle Castro; a Jesus in Heartland, Kansas, who dances around a fire with witches who also consider themselves Christians; a Jesus in Manhattan who dresses in drag; a baby Jesus in New Mexico who pulls cow tails and heals the lame or simply the sad by giving them earth to eat; a muscle-bound Jesus in South Central L.A. emblazoned across the chest of a man with a gun in his hand; a Jesus in an Orlando megachurch who wants you to own a black Beamer.

"So many Jesuses. And yet there has always been a certain order to America's Christs, a certain heirarchy. For centuries, the Christ of power was high church, distant and well-mannered. The austere, severe god of Cotton Mather, the Lord of the Ivy League and country club dinners." (page 5)

I've long held the belief that religion, regardless of the path one follows, is a deeply personal journey. Whether one is Christian or Jewish or pagan, your relationship with your deities is your business and your business alone. As such, our personal relationships with our deities are formed by our ideals and life experiences. My view of the Goddess may not resemble another pagan's, just as one Christian's view of Christ might not necessarily be the same as the person sitting next to him in church.

That's the beauty of spirituality -- that people can take over-reaching ideals and apply them to their own lives in ways that make sense to them. Religion isn't about who's right or wrong, and it's not about who's in power -- despite what the members of C Street might have you believe. Religion is a way for humanity to explain the often unexplainable, to find hope and love in what would otherwise be a bleak situation.

Jesus Christ means different things to different people; as long as the overall messages of love and tolerance get through, that's really all there is to it. The members of C Street view Jesus and Christianity not as a spiritual path of love and acceptance, but as an ideal with which to sharpen their swords and brandish their shields heading into what they believe is a moral battle for the fate of America.

If that strikes you as a scary thought, that's because it is.

One last thing; I'm not reading this book or writing these blog posts to decry Christianity. At its core, Christianity is a beautiful faith. Those who truly adhere to the teachings of Jesus Christ are excellent, caring people, and they understand that the way of the Lord is not to force their beliefs on others. To force your belief on someone else, or insinuate they are lesser than you because they disagree with your ideologies ... that's not only un-American, it's not very Christian.

It also appears to be one of the most frequent practices at C Street. We need to shine the light of truth on this group, expose it for what it is so we have a better idea of what's going on with our elected officials in Washington. We didn't elect these people to join secretive Christian cults; we elected them to do the will of the people. I think Sharlet's book is a must-read, even though I've just started it, and I think everyone needs to know what goes on in that house.

I leave you with these parting words, taken from page 9 of Sharlet's book:

"This is not a book about the Bible thumpers portrayed in Hollywood, pinched little hypocrits and broad-browed lunatics, representatives of that subset of American fundamentalism that declares itself a bitter nation within a nation. Rather, it's a story that begins on (C Street's) suburban lawn, with a group of men gripping each other's shoulders in prayer. It is the story of how they got there, where they are going and where the movement they joined came from; the story of an American fundamentalism, gentle and militant, conservative and revolutionary, that has been hiding in plain sight all along."

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