I’m currently reading “The Family,” Jeff Sharlet’s new book about the shadowy and incredibly influential organization behind the National Prayer Breakfast. Sharlet, who is Jewish, was, quite oddly, invited into The Family’s fundamentalist fold a few years back, from which he produced this Harper’s exposé. (The book is a scary read that expands heavily on that article, and which I’ll be reviewing for The Jewish Journal.)
Sharlet describes the organization’s theology as built upon Jesus the strongman and revolutionary, not the savior and street preacher. What seems to trouble him most is how this organization and its friends, which include many members of Congress and foreign leaders, often those with less than stellar human-rights records, combine religion with capitalism, fundamentalism with power. For example, this conversation between Rep. Todd Tiahrt, R-Kan., and The Family’s longtime leader Doug Coe:
God’s law and our laws should be identical. “People separate it out,” he warned Tiahrt. “‘Oh, okay, I got religion, that’s private.’ As if Jesus doesn’t know anything about building highways or Social Security. We gotta take Jesus out of the religious wrapping.”
“All right, how do we do that?” Tiahrt asked.
“A covenant,” Doug Coe answered. The congressman half smiled as if caught between confessing ignorance and pretending he knew what Doug Coe was talking about. “Like the Mafia,” Coe clarified. “Look at the strength of their bonds.” He made a fist and held it before Tiahrt’s face. Tiahrt nodded, squinting. “See, for them it’s honor,” Coe said. “For us, it’s Jesus.”
Doug Coe listed other men who had changed the world through the strength of the covenants they had forged with their “brothers”: “Look at Hitler,” he said. “Lenin, Ho Chi Minh, bin Laden.” The Family possessed a weapon those leaders lacked: the “total Jesus” of a brotherhood in Christ.
“That’s what you get with a covenant,” said Doug Coe. “Jesus plus nothing.”
Hitler gets positive treatment by The Family’s leaders throughout the book; not praise for his atrocities but admiration for his ability to mobilize the masses. Sick indeed but not without precedent in American Christianity. There was once a man named Frank Buchman, an upper-class evangelist, who Sharlet discusses in the book and also in this excerpt, “The F-Word,” for Counterpunch, which I don’t make a habit of reading:
“There is tremendous power,” preached Buchman, “in a minority guided by God.” In a sympathetic portrait published by The New York World-Telegram, Buchman named names. “But think what it would mean to the world if Hitler surrendered to the control of God. Or Mussolini. Or any dictator. Through such a man, God could control a nation overnight and solve every last, bewildering problem.” He thought the process had already started: “I thank heaven for a man like Adolf Hitler, who built a front line of defense against the anti-Christ of Communism,” he told the reporter.
Before the war, when men such as Henry Ford and Charles Lindbergh openly admired Hitler, it was still safe to name the style of government to which these words pointed: Human problems, Buchman declared, require “a God-controlled democracy, or perhaps I should say a theocracy.” Just as good, he added, would be a “God-controlled Fascist dictatorship.”
What surprised me, aside from remembering a time, long before mine, when right-wing nuts had a thing for the resolve of fascist dictators, is what Sharlet writes next in a portion that doesn’t appear in the book:
That dream survives today. Not just in the political ambitions of Christian Right politicians, currently an embattled species, but even more so in the seemingly sanguine lifestyle fundamentalism preached by mega-pastors such as Joel Osteen (author of Become a Better You), whose very name is trademarked, and Rick Warren, author of the mammoth-selling Purpose-Driven Life—and, as of April 2008, the official sponsor of Rwanda, which under his guidance has submitted to soul surgery on a national scale to become the world’s first “Purpose Driven Nation,” embracing Warren’s amiably-phrased mixture of obedience theology and Bible-based capitalism as an antidote to godlessness, whether that comes in form of genocide or socialism. Warren, despite his mild-mannered demeanor – or maybe because of it – doesn’t make distinctions. Either you’re with God, or you’re against Him.
And yet, Rick Warren, Joel Osteen, and the business-friendly fundamentalism of the post-Christian Right era don’t set off liberal alarms the way the pulpit pounders such as John Hagee, Pat Robertson, and James Dobson do. The irony is that the agenda of this new lifestyle evangelicalism is more far-reaching than that of the traditional Christian Right: the Christian Right wanted a seat at the table; lifestyle evangelicalism wants to build the table. It wants to set the very terms in which we imagine what’s possible, and to that end it dispenses with terms that might scare off liberals. It’s big tent fundamentalism – everybody in.
But the ultimate goals remain the same. True, Osteen steers clear of abortion for the most part, and Warren, every bit as opposed to homosexuality as Jerry Falwell was, prefers to talk about AIDS relief. But both men—and the new evangelicalism as a movement—continue to preach the merger of Christianity and capitalism pioneered three quarters of a century ago. On the surface, it’s self-help; scratch, and it’s revealed as a profoundly conservative ideology that conflates church and state, scripture and currency, faith and finance. There’s a sense in which Buchman’s vision of “God-controlled supernationalism” thrives today more surely than it ever did in the 1930s, a period of radical economic upheaval. Only, today we call it globalism.
The F-word, as I understand Sharlet, is not fascism but fundamentalism—“Nope,” he corrected me in an email I just received, “It’s ‘fascism,’ the most toxic word in American political discourse.”
fundamentalism has deep democratic roots as well as authoritarian inclinations. Fascism does not. In most of my interviews, I even defend Dobson and Robertson and co—I disagree with them, but they participate in the democratic process. Moreover, fascism reveres violence as redemptive; fundamentalism does not, even when it participates in state violence.
Certainly, I can agree with Sharlet that governments don’t work well when they are handed over to a dictator who claims to be doing the work of God; yes, God can use humans to further his kingdom on Earth, but humans have a mortal inclination to abusing power. King Henry VIII is an easy and clear example, as are a number of the popes of the Middle Ages. But this a critical—some would say cynical—way to look at Warren’s humanitarian efforts in Africa.
Maybe I’m naive for not seeing it the same.