Archives For Jeff Sharlet

Though I’ve written thousands of posts for The Wild Hunt, I couldn’t help but feel a certain sense of excitement writing today’s. Not just because I’ve been away for over a week, but because this is the first post of a newly independent Wild Hunt. A Wild Hunt that, while maintaining many of the things you’ve grown to love about our site, will also see a number of changes. The first will be that The Wild Hunt is no longer a solo venture. I am proud to welcome two new writer/reporters who will be making regular contributions each month here at this site: Rynn Fox and Heather Greene (Miraselena). Both have excellent resumes and backgrounds, and I’m excited about not only for what they’ll bring to you as readers, but also what they’ll allow me to do: spend more time writing and researching original journalism for the Pagan community.

In addition, The Wild Hunt is standing on principle, and will not only be paying our two new reporters, but will also be paying all contributors to the site from this point forward. I’ve seen a troubling trend within our culture to expect content and excellent reporting to happen without support from the community the writers are serving. While there is amazing free content out there, and many, many, talented writers who are doing this for the love of it, I feel there needs to be a space where this work is nurtured, supported, and paid for. From guest posts by top-notch writers like Eric Scott, a contributing editor at Killing The Buddha, to the contemplative writings of Teo Bishop, or the latest breaking story from a Pagan Newswire Collective bureau. So with my first post of the newly independent Wild Hunt, let me announce our annual Fall Funding Drive.

Fall fund large

http://www.indiegogo.com/the-wild-hunt-fall-funding

Over the next month I’m hoping to raise $6000 to not only cover costs here, but to use that money to turn The Wild Hunt into an enterprise that pushes this site to a different level, one that sustains, trains, and propagates excellence in Pagan journalism, analysis, and commentary. Head over to the official IndieGoGo site for a full explanation of what the money will be used for, the various perks of becoming a Wild Hunt funder, and why your donation is so important. So spread the word, and if can, please contribute!

Now, having said all that, it’s been a while since we’ve unleashed those hounds, hasn’t it? Let’s take a look at some stories that have been percolating while I’ve been away.

That’s all I have for now, but expect much more in the days and weeks (and hopefully years) to come! Thanks to all of you for your support, and I hope you’ll spread the word about our Fall Funding Drive and consider donating to help us achieve our goals!

Thanks to Valerie Herron for allowing me the use of her lovely “Cernunnos” illustration for The Wild Hunt.

Today the political elite of the United States engaged in an annual tradition, the National Prayer Breakfast, attended by every president since Eisenhower, and held up by supporters as a peace-making, problem-solving moment of unity.

President Obama at the 2012 National Prayer Breakfast.

President Obama at the 2012 National Prayer Breakfast.

“The purpose of the National Prayer Breakfast, which will be held for the 60th time on Thursday, is to attempt to bridge political and even religious differences through what is called “the spirit of Jesus of Nazareth” in order that leaders consider a Higher Authority to Whom they are ultimately accountable and answerable. [...] One can debate whether the National Prayer Breakfast engages in a type of “civil religion,” but there is much good that emerges from it. For at least a short time, politicians — from the President of the United States on down — acknowledge they are not as powerful as the Almighty.”

However, as Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW) point out,  the organizers of this event, the Fellowship Foundation (aka “The Family”) use its influence to further a noxious agenda.

“Outside of Washington, “The Family” has used its government clout to facilitate backdoor meetings between U.S. and foreign officials, and has persuaded members of Congress, including Sen. James Inhofe (R-OK), to engage in Fellowship-sanctioned evangelizing while traveling at taxpayer expense.  Salon.com uncovered, revolting detail, the lengths to which members of “The Family” went to help Laurent Gbagbo, the now former president and dictator of the Ivory Coast, hold on to power.  Mr. Gbagbo is now in The Hague awaiting trial by the International Criminal Court for crimes against humanity.  “The Family” has also supported abhorrent anti-gay legislation in Uganda.”

Journalist and author Jeff Sharlet, who as written two important books about this organization, “The Family: The Secret Fundamentalism at the Heart of American Power” and “C Street: The Fundamentalist Threat to American Democracy,” says that the Fellowship Foundation has been waging a war on the United States’ Establishment Clause since its formation.

“Domestically, The Family have long been at the heart of the Christianist assault on the First Amendment’s Establishment Clause – “Congress shall make no laws respecting the establishment of religion” – which is the guarantee of the Free Exercise Clause that makes America free (in theory, at least) for Pagan. In 1953, The Family established the National Prayer Breakfast; in 1954, Family politicians led the fight for “Under God” in the pledge and “In God We Trust” on our currency. More recently, Representative Tony Hall, a conservative Democrat from Ohio, made the National Day of Prayer a fixed, permanent affair, with White House observance orchestrated by Shirley Dobson – wife of Christian Right leader Jim Dobson.”

The fact that a group tied to abhorrent and lethal anti-gay legislation in Uganda, and committed to an agenda that mocks our constitution, is still awarded such position in our society says much about the venality of our political climate and the clout this group has been allowed to cultivate. Instead of an interfaith event, or secular gathering, our nation’s moment of unity is interpreted through the lens of Christianity, and a limited, conservative, empire-minded, Christianity at that. This audacious enforcement of a Christian America technically side-steps constitutional issues by being a “private” event, a fact that allows smaller, local, prayer breakfasts to invite notoriously controversial figures while avoiding litigation.

This year, thanks to Occupy Faith D.C., there’s an interfaith People’s Prayer Breakfast that calls on Americans “to pray and to stand in unity with those suffering economic hardship and inequality in our nation.”

“…where people of all faiths can both listen to and offer up the prayers of the poor. It’s an event where all are welcome, but we especially invite those who are impoverished or work with impoverished people groups to come and bring their prayers. We will offer up the prayers of children in the form of artwork on the theme of “enough for everyone”, first to God, and then to the attendees at the National Prayer Breakfast.”

So here we have two competing Prayer Breakfasts, and two competing views of our nation. One favors gathering power and establishing Christianity as the focal point of national unity, while the other opens its doors to all faiths, and concerns itself with those who aren’t being served or supported by our current system. One is about back room deals, while the other is about “breakout sessions.” Only one of these visions is one in which modern Paganism has a place at the table, and its that vision that our interfaith efforts work on building. As our community, our movement, continues to grow, we need to work on growing institutions and events that are inclusive, open, and support our core values. Eventually, with enough work, perhaps we can build a large enough interfaith coalition to challenge The Family’s Prayer Breakfast, to provide a robust counter-narrative that is truly in the grand spirit of our secular nation.

Top Story: As post-earthquake Haiti continues to make the news, mainstream media continues to explore the unique and complex religious atmosphere of the small Caribbean nation. Specifically, the relationship of Haitian Vodou with Catholic and Protestant forms of Christianity, and the growing chorus of voices that have risen up to defend this oft-misunderstood faith. At the religion-focused interview program “Speaking of Faith”, Krista Tippett re-visits her previously run program on Vodou, adding new content from interviewee Patrick Bellegarde-Smith in the wake of the earthquake.

“After the earthquake, we had a moving and illuminating exchange with Patrick Bellegarde-Smith and learned that he lost nine members of his extended family in it. We’ve updated our current program with excerpts from this correspondence.”

SOF’s programs are rich explorations of the chosen topic, and have covered minority faiths like Vodou and modern Paganism fairly and fully. I highly recommend downloading/listening to the re-aired “Living Vodou” episode. Sadly, not all ongoing discussions about Vodou are fair or open-minded. Rod “Crunchy Con” Dreher tries to spark a discussion of “comparative theology and culture” with the not-at-all leading or offensive title of: “If Haitian vodou isn’t demon worship, what is?”

“But as a Christian, I don’t believe this is merely a psychological phenomenon. I believe that the vodou entities are real — and malevolent. Despite the syncretism with Roman Catholicism vodou tries to accomplish, there is nothing authentically Christian about it, and I too would think that this religion draws spiritual darkness around its followers and their communities. That does not mean that it causes earthquakes, for goodness sake! But I think it’s a mistake to see vodou as benign or positive. Serious question: if what you see on that photo slideshow isn’t demon worship — demons defined as malign spiritual entities — from a Christian (or Muslim, or Jewish) point of view, what is?

But don’t misunderstand him! He just wants to explore “the limits of religious tolerance”, but beware, if you are “always” against passing value judgments on faiths you don’t understand, you might be an enabler of Mormon polygamy. He’s so charming, isn’t he? But wait there’s more! He also issues a dire spiritual warning to a Christian family that is raising their adopted Haitian orphans within the Vodou religion.

“I believe these well-intentioned people are playing with fire. Real spiritual fire.”

Yes, according to Dreher, caring Christian parents should obliterate any sign of non-Christian culture from traumatized Haitian orphans. Luckily the Fitzgibbons’ don’t share his rather narrow view of things.

“[Vodou] is interwoven into every bit of a Haitian person’s life,” said Paula Fitzgibbons, a former Lutheran pastor. “I’m at least presenting them with some part of their spiritual heritage. I can offer them enough that they will be familiar with Vodou when they get to the point of making their own choices about spirituality and religion.”

I’d make a guess as to who was actually more Christ-like, but being a unrepentant Pagan, I’ll refrain. You can read more about the Fitzgibbons family at their blog, “Raising Little Spirits”.

In Other News:

Patrick McCollum v. California: Americans United, who wrote an amicus brief on behalf of Wiccan chaplain Patrick McCollum, weighs in on the controversial WallBuilders brief that alleges the Religion Clauses should only apply to monotheists.

“Based on phony history, Wallbuilders’ court filing asks the 9th Circuit not to consider Americans United’s viewpoint. It states we don’t cite “true history” but a “revisionist history” since we claim the Founders wanted to extend religious liberty for all. Needless to say, the brief is offensive, disrespectful and essentially advocates that the government should feel free to discriminate against all non-Judeo-Christian religions. But what else can we expect from Wallbuilders? The organization’s founder and president, David Barton, is a well-known Religious Right propagandist who for years has pushed a fundamentalist “Christian nation” view of American history. He claims to be a historian, but he isn’t one. He earned a bachelor’s degree in “Christian Education” from Oral Roberts University and then taught math and science at a fundamentalist Christian school founded by his father. Wallbuilders’ brief, like Barton, is a serious joke. And we hope that the 9th Circuit pays it no mind.”

This story continues to seep into the mainstream press. There is still no response from the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation concerning recent developments. For all of my past coverage of this ongoing case, click here.

Religious Discrimination or Misuse of Storage Facilities? The Times-Georgian reports that the Carroll County Board of Commissioners has rejected a conditional-use permit for the owners of a Pagan retreat that would have allowed them to keep using storage buildings as temporary residences.

“Robert Crowe asked the board to approve a conditional-use permit for use of his 33-acre tract as a Dragon Hill Retreat STAR (Sacred Tribe of the Ancient Roots) Grove, allowing it to be used in activities of the Church of the Spiral Tree, an “ecumenical pagan church.” The request itself was made by James and Rita Middleton, both members of the Church of the Spiral Tree. As part of the activities of the church on the property, the permit would allow storage buildings that have been used as temporary residences on the property to remain as such. Crowe said he is Native American and he practices certain pagan rituals that by definition are rooted in an “earth and nature-based religion.” Crowe said the Carroll County Planning and Zoning Board recommended denial of the request on Jan. 26 simply because the proposed church would promote activities and beliefs to which the members of the board were opposed.”

While Crow alleges that “personal prejudices” led to the zoning board recommending against the permit, Commissioner George Chambers says that his vote against the permit appeal had nothing to do with religion.

“I don’t take issue with what anyone else’s beliefs are. The issue is a conditional-use permit on the houses,” Chambers said. “It wasn’t an issue of whether or not I agreed with their beliefs or what they do on the land as part of their church. My issue is not with that because the current zoning allows for that. My issue was with the houses.”

So, religious discrimination, or simply a zoning issue? Why were storage facilities being used as temporary housing? The retreat’s web site says that there are cabins and kitchens, so what’s going on? Is this selective enforcement because they are Pagans? Or was this appeal more a CYA maneuver?

The Pagan Circle at the Air Force Academy: While the newly installed stone circle for Pagan cadets at the Air Force Academy has garnered some anonymous “criticism” recently, it has also faced some vocal lashings from Christians who seemingly don’t believe in the equal treatment of religions within government institutions.

“What we label today as ‘pluralism,’ God called ‘idolatry,’” said Dr. Robert Jeffress, pastor of First Baptist Church of Dallas, in a commentary in The Washington Post. “The first commandment from God was, ‘You shall have no other gods before Me.’ “To openly violate this most basic law is to invite God’s judgment upon our nation.”

Meanwhile, Bill Donahue, the self-proclaimed advocate for all things Catholic, says that Christians are the real victims in the military (all that pluralism is “chilling” to Christian expression, don’t ya know), and Fox News finds two conservative think-tanks to explain how this incident isn’t really  a big deal.

“It’d be one thing if there was a harmful act, but to have competing symbols, I’m not sure I would put that in the category of destructive behavior,” London continued. “What is being expressed here is the view of the Judeo-Christian as opposed to the pagan tradition.”

You see, it was just a friendly discussion! An exchange of symbols. I’m sure they would agree that a Pagan idol placed within a Christian facility would be equally harmless, just another round in the showcase of competing expressions. You can read all of my stories concerning the Air Force Academy, here.

Skip Having Breakfast With The Family: In a final update, I just wanted to note that while President Obama did indeed attend the Family/Fellowship-sponsored National Prayer Breakfast despite calls for him to boycott, both Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton used the opportunity to indirectly criticize “The Family” and their support of Uganda’s noxious “kill the gays” bill.

“We may disagree about the best way to reform our health care system, but surely we can agree that no one ought to go broke when they get sick in the richest nation on Earth. We can take different approaches to ending inequality, but surely we can agree on the need to lift our children out of ignorance; to lift our neighbors from poverty. We may disagree about gay marriage, but surely we can agree that it is unconscionable to target gays and lesbians for who they are — whether it’s here in the United States or, as Hillary mentioned, more extremely in odious laws that are being proposed most recently in Uganda.”

It must have made for some uncomfortable moments over pancakes. To find out more about “The Family”, and why they are so dangerous, you can read my interview with journalist Jeff Sharlet, here.

That’s all I have for now, have a great day!

[I'm away at the Florida Pagan Gathering, and won't return to normal blogging activity until November 10th. In the meantime, I'm presenting some of my favorite posts to tide you over, consider it a "greatest hits" of The Wild Hunt. Today, I'm re-printing an interview I did with author and journalist Jeff Sharlet. Since first conducting this interview in July of 2008, his book "The Family" has become a New York Times best-seller, and he's appeared several times in major media outlets like the Rachel Maddow show and the Bill Maher show. Enjoy!]

If you have been around the religious blogosphere for awhile, you have most likely heard of Jeff Sharlet. An author and journalist, he helped found two seminal web sites full of insightful commentary on faith in today’s world (Killing the Buddha and The Revealer), co-wrote a book about religious subcultures in America (which included a trip to a Pagan festival), and filed dispatches on the intersections of religion and power for such publications as Rolling Stone, Harpers, and Mother Jones. His most recent book is “The Family: The Secret Fundamentalism at the Heart of American Power”, an expose of elite fundamentalism’s avant-garde.

Jeff Sharlet

Jeff Sharlet

I was lucky enough to conduct a short e-mail interview with Jeff about his new book, what Pagans have to fear from The Family, and what we can do about it.

Some members of modern Pagan faiths have long warned of a theocratic Christian cabal bent on taking over America, often with the usual suspects of conservative Christianity playing a part. These fears have often been debunked, but your book “The Family” seems to in part vindicate those voices, albeit not in the ways they imagined. Who are “The Family”, and are they really trying to take over the government?

They’re not trying to take over government; they’ve been a part of government for almost seventy years. The Family is a network of conservative Christian elites in government, military, and business bound together by what The Family’s founder, Abraham Vereide, called simply “The Idea.” The Idea came to Vereide one night in April, 1935. God, he’d later say, revealed to him that Christianity’s emphasis on the poor, the suffering, the weak, the down and out, was all wrong. God wanted Vereide to minister not to the poor, but the powerful. He called them the “up and out” — corporate executives, politicians. The Idea was that if you could win the hearts of these “key men,” they, in turn, would dispense blessings to the masses. It was, in effect, trickle down religion, and it’s been the creed of religious conservative elites ever since, the justification for their war on organized labor and their support for foreign dictators, from Papa Doc Duvalier to Suharto to the thugs supported through the Silk Road Act, sponsored by Family politicians Senator Sam Brownback and Rep. Joe Pitts.

Domestically, The Family have long been at the heart of the Christianist assault on the First Amendment’s Establishment Clause – “Congress shall make no laws respecting the establishment of religion” – which is the guarantee of the Free Exercise Clause that makes America free (in theory, at least) for Pagan. In 1953, The Family established the National Prayer Breakfast; in 1954, Family politicians led the fight for “Under God” in the pledge and “In God We Trust” on our currency. More recently, Representative Tony Hall, a conservative Democrat from Ohio, made the National Day of Prayer a fixed, permanent affair, with White House observance orchestrated by Shirley Dobson – wife of Christian Right leader Jim Dobson.

Faith-based initiatives was first theorized by Family politicians such as Ed Meese in the 1980s; the legislation that opened the door for it, the 1996 Charitable Choice Provision, came from the offices of two Family politicians, John Ashcroft and Dan Coats.

Historic members have included men such as Strom Thurmond, William Rehnquist, and Senator Homer “Snort” Capehart, inventor of the jukebox (good) and defender of Nazis (not so good). (There have never been a lot of women involved.)

Which is all to say that the question we need to ask about fundamentalists is not, “What are they going to do?” but “What have they already done?” Fundamentalism is not a cabal or a conspiracy; it’s an ideology, and for nearly 70 years it has led America away from democracy and toward empire.

The theology of The Family seems quite different from the usual Christian conservatives and fire-breathing fundamentalists we often see covered in the news (though some of them are members or associates of The Family as well). Can you expand on what they believe, and what “Jesus Plus Nothing” means to them?

I first heard the phrase “Jesus plus nothing” at a spiritual counseling session The Family’s longtime leader, Doug Coe, was giving Representative Tod Tiahrt, a Kansas Republican. Tiahrt was going on about the usual Christian Right concerns – abortion, queers, and Muslims. Coe waved it all off. He agreed with Tiahrt across the board, but he saw that list as too limited. What, he asked, does Jesus have to teach us about Social Security? About building roads? The Family’s vision of “Jesus plus nothing” leads them to seek a government conformed at every level, in every department, every office, to the will of their totalizing Jesus. There’s a sense in which this is a weirdly bureaucratic Christ. He doesn’t stand on street corners and shout about revelation; he whispers his message in the ears of his “New Chosen,” as some Family members call themselves. And the message is almost always the same: “privatize.” For seventy years, The Family has been dedicated to deregulating markets in order to free up the “invisible hand” of God.

I was intrigued by the notion of The Family performing “spiritual assassinations” on political leaders (making them “die in spirit” to Jesus), getting close enough to perform their “hit” through innocuous-seeming events like the National Prayer Breakfast (which they organize). Who are some high-profile “hits” we may have heard of?

Just to be clear – they’re not killing anybody. You’re referring to Chapter Eight, “Vietnamization,” in which I write about The Family’s admiration for the guerilla warfare tactics of the Vietcong. In 1966 – the same year Family leader Doug Coe announced that The Family was going “underground,” erasing its public profile – another Family leader, Clif Robinson, met with the U.S. ambassador to Laos, William Sullivan – strategist of the “secret” – and illegal – air war against that country. Robinson reported back to American Family leadership on what he learned.

“He said the strategy of the VC was the same as International Christian Leadership’s,” gushed Robinson, “except applied physically and militarily. They spend hours, days, weeks, what ever time is necessary setting up for the LEADERS and then either by ambush, assassination, or other intrigue, they do away with them—not the people, the leaders. He said to kill 32 top level people”—as the Vietcong had done the previous month—“was tantamount to immobilizing thousands.” The lesson was that the Fellowship should understand itself as a guerrilla force on the spiritual battlefield.

They wanted their “victims” to “die to self” – that is, to commit themselves totally to Jesus plus nothing. One of their greatest “hits” was Chuck Colson, the Watergate felon. In his mega-selling memoir, “Born Again,” Colson writes of being recruited into The Family, which he describes as “a veritable underground of Christ’s men all through government,” through Doug Coe and the CEO of missile manufacturer Raytheon. Colson would later declare that through The Family’s religion, he was able to accomplish much of what he had once hoped to do politically. “Dying to self” paradoxically gave him a supreme sense of self-righteousness, a confidence – and a political network – through which he’s built up one of the most powerful Christian Right organizations in the world.

Some journalists and bloggers focused quite a bit of attention on the fact that Hillary Clinton is a “friend” of The Family. That through her, The Family would have access and influence. Should we have been worried if Clinton won the Democratic Presidential nomination? How deep are her ties to the family, and are they already looking to become “friends” with Obama?

The Family’s faith is a religion of the status quo. We shouldn’t be worried about what MIGHT happen; we should be worried about what has happened. If you look around the world as it is and think, “A-Ok!”, then you’ve no problem with The Family. If you look at Washington and see a healthy, happy democracy, then you’ve no problem with The Family. But if you’re disturbed by a government that’s more responsive to corporations than to people, by a two-party system in which both sides vote for a war the public didn’t want, by a politics of private influence and quiet deals, then yes, we should have been worried about The Family’s influence in a Clinton administration. We should also be worried about its potential influence in an Obama administration. The Family has endured for 70 years, longer than any other major Christian Right organization, not through doctrinal purity but by compromise with the powers that be. Power is their bottom line.

When Hillary had it, they wanted in. As she writes in her memoir, “Living History,” she joined a Family prayer group comprised of conservative politicians’ wives in 1993. She calls Doug Coe – a man who claims that Hitler, Stalin, and Mao understood the New Testament better than almost any other leaders in the 20th century – “a genuinely loving spiritual mentor and guide.” And she used The Family to tack right, teaming up with men such as Senator Sam Brownback and former Senator Rick Santorum on legislation that subtly redefined human rights as Christian issues.

This is not to say Hillary is a stealth fundamentalist. She is what she appears to be – a centrist Democrat. To be honest, I voted for her in the NY primary, because of her health plan. I’m glad Obama won; but I’m worried about his willingness to discard principles in pursuit of a false unity. The most troubling example of that is his plan to actually expand faith-based initiatives. Of course, he adds that organizations won’t be allowed to discriminate. But anyone who’s reported on faith-based initiatives firsthand will tell you that such regulations are impossible to enforce. Some Obama supporters say he’s just doing what he has to do to win. That’s exactly the way elite fundamentalists want it – to “win,” you have to play by their rules. I don’t think that’s true. I’m hoping that ultimately, Obama doesn’t, either.

You talk about the differences and similarities between the “populist” and “elitist” branches of American fundamentalism (together forming a “popular front”). With The Family typifying an elitist manifestation, and evangelical mega-churches like Colorado’s New Life Church (formerly headed by disgraced pastor Ted Haggard) typifying the “populist” branch. I was struck by how New Life actively worked to drive out Pagan Witches and other undesirables from their city. Is driving out the “Witches” (the religious “other”) a shared goal between the populist and elitist branches? Or simply the consequence of fundamentalist Christianity coming into power?

Some populist fundamentalists have actually criticized The Family for their willingness to make peace with and conference with those whom they lump under the label of “New Agers.” That was years ago, when Family leaders, like many conservative evangelicals, saw the wide array of beliefs they lumped under “New Age” as a threat to Christianity. They don’t, anymore – not because they’ve made their peace with those beliefs but because they don’t think those followers of those beliefs have much power. Ultimately, the inner circle of The Family considers all non-monotheistic beliefs “demonic.” At their C Street House for congressmen, they used to have a prayer calendar listing spiritual war targets for the day – Tibetan Buddhism, Hinduism, Wicca, etc.

In an interview with Alternet you described The Family as “ultimately something worse” than fascism. Since “fascism” is usually considered the ultimate manifestation of political evil, on the right and left, what makes this group worse?

The fact that it’s far more effective. Fascism, properly understood, was a relatively short-lived European ideology. There have been other examples of it since, but by far the most powerful ideology since 1945 has been not fascism, but empire. One church historian says of The Family that they’re not right-wing and certainly not left-wing, but “empire-wing.” Fascism may be a purer evil, but empire is a more pervasive one, and ultimately more dangerous because it’s able to call on the loyalties of well-intentioned people who’d never go near fascism. But if you’re a Vietnamese kid napalmed in 1968, or an Iraqi kid with your hands blown off in 2008, empire is every bit as bad as fascism. Or, for that matter, if you’re a Bangladeshi or a Chinese sweat shop worker or an Afghani forced to grow and process heroin to survive, the economic ramifications of empire are as bad as the explicit political repression of fascism. And for decades, what traditional fascism has cropped up around the world – in Central America, in some African nations, for instance – has been made possible only through the support of empire.

On point you make in the book is that secular America keeps trying to announce the death of fundamentalism, of conservative Christian power, but that these frequent declarations are rarely real. That the “defeats” are merely part of a natural ebb and flow of fundamentalism in America. Instead of shrinking, conservative “muscular” Christianity grows ever stronger and is very much a part of the American fabric. Is the much-touted recent “evangelical crack-up” just another natural ebb? Will we see audacious power-grabs by fundamentalist forces in the near future?

We see audacious power-grabs right now! For instance, Rwanda has recently become the first official “Purpose-Driven Nation,” remade in the image of evangelical pastor Rick Warren’s bestselling “Purpose Driven Life” with the support of U.S. dollars and faith-based initiatives. Closer to home, the Justice Department is supporting a program called “Fugitive Safe Surrender,” in which U.S. Marshals go into a low-income community and for four days move the entire legal apparatus into a megachurch, encouraging anyone with legal problems to sort them out under the sign of the cross. I attended one in Akron; church greeters talked to you about Jesus in the parking lot, then you walked through a metal detector, then you met a sheriff with a gun and a pastor with a Bible. Take your pick. And this program has Democratic support! Chuck Schumer’s gone on record saying it’s great, because it gets potential criminals off the street and allows poor people who’d be screwed by the justice system to have the help of the church. “Church-court” – that’s audacious. There’s no “evangelical crack-up,” no matter how much the New York Times may wish it so. Rather, there’s an evangelical transformation – and an expansion. Evangelicals are addressing issues liberals thought they owned, such as poverty and AIDS. That doesn’t make evangelical conservatives less conservative; it makes their agenda more far-reaching, for better or worse.

Some of the old lions of the Christian Right are dead or are dying. The new generation is softer-toned in style. But conservative evangelicalism has been a huge part of American life for 200 years. It’s not going away just because Jerry Falwell went to heaven. Or wherever.

So how do those opposed to what The Family is trying to do fight back? What is this groups Achilles heel? Is there anything anyone can do to minimize their influence on America and the world?

Of course! The first step is what we’re doing right here: talking about these issues, educating ourselves. The Family prospers when the public doesn’t pay attention. One of my favorite examples of a public fighting back occurred in 2004 in Norway. After I first wrote about The Family for Harper’s, some Norwegian journalists noticed that their new, socially conservative prime minister was jetting around the world to prayer breakfasts on the public dime. So they came to America and investigated. They discovered that this social conservative movement had strong ties with The Family, that their ambassador was taking policy meetings with John Ashcroft at The Family’s headquarters. So they put it on the front page of the paper, for two weeks. A mini Norwegian Watergate. And that government got the boot. That expose wasn’t the only factor, but it was one of them. When Doug Coe showed up in Norway this spring to talk with the king of Norway, the papers responded again, with a banner headline and a picture of Coe: “Hitler-admirer received by King.”

THAT’S public accountability. Let’s try it in America! Let’s tell Obama that we respect his desire to include people of faith – all faiths and no faith – in the public square, but we want him to recognize that not everybody is operating in good faith. Let’s pay attention to our local representatives. In 2004, a Democratic challenger to Rep. Frank Wolf, a longtime Family associate and conservative Republican from Northern Virginia, publicized Wolf’s Family ties. The Washington Post immediately editorialized that such a connection was impossible – and THEN sent a reporter to prove it so. So we need to hold the media accountable, too. We need them to ask smarter – and tougher – questions about religion. When we encounter monotheist politicians – that is, those who consider only monotheism legitimate – we need to give them loud refreshers in the history of the Founders, who were quite clear that they meant the First Amendment to extend to everyone, regardless of their beliefs.

I’m not a Pagan, but I’d also love to see some Pagan candidates for office. We’ll all benefit from that. Even if Pagans don’t win major offices – and they won’t, at least for awhile – their very presence in the public square helps everybody think about what pluralism means, what democracy means. Democracy isn’t something we HAVE, it’s something we make. The Family doesn’t like it. They call it “the din of the vox populi.” The din of the voice of the people. So we know what we need to do: Let’s make some noise.

Previous Wild Hunt interviews: Starhawk, Gus diZerega, Jeff Sharlet, Brendan Cathbad Myers, Rita Moran, Janet Farrar and Gavin Bone, Phyllis Curott, Tim Ward, Lupa, J.C. Hallman, Margot Adler.

If you have been around the religious blogosphere for awhile, you have most likely heard of Jeff Sharlet. An author and journalist, he helped found two seminal web sites full of insightful commentary on faith in today’s world (Killing the Buddha and The Revealer), co-wrote a book about religious subcultures in America (which included a trip to a Pagan festival), and filed dispatches on the intersections of religion and power for such publications as Rolling Stone, Harpers, and Mother Jones. His most recent book is “The Family: The Secret Fundamentalism at the Heart of American Power”, an expose of elite fundamentalism’s avant-garde.

Jeff Sharlet

Jeff Sharlet

I was lucky enough to conduct a short e-mail interview with Jeff about his new book, what Pagans have to fear from The Family, and what we can do about it.

Some members of modern Pagan faiths have long warned of a theocratic Christian cabal bent on taking over America, often with the usual suspects of conservative Christianity playing a part. These fears have often been debunked, but your book “The Family” seems to in part vindicate those voices, albeit not in the ways they imagined. Who are “The Family”, and are they really trying to take over the government?

They’re not trying to take over government; they’ve been a part of government for almost seventy years. The Family is a network of conservative Christian elites in government, military, and business bound together by what The Family’s founder, Abraham Vereide, called simply “The Idea.” The Idea came to Vereide one night in April, 1935. God, he’d later say, revealed to him that Christianity’s emphasis on the poor, the suffering, the weak, the down and out, was all wrong. God wanted Vereide to minister not to the poor, but the powerful. He called them the “up and out” — corporate executives, politicians. The Idea was that if you could win the hearts of these “key men,” they, in turn, would dispense blessings to the masses. It was, in effect, trickle down religion, and it’s been the creed of religious conservative elites ever since, the justification for their war on organized labor and their support for foreign dictators, from Papa Doc Duvalier to Suharto to the thugs supported through the Silk Road Act, sponsored by Family politicians Senator Sam Brownback and Rep. Joe Pitts.

Domestically, The Family have long been at the heart of the Christianist assault on the First Amendment’s Establishment Clause – “Congress shall make no laws respecting the establishment of religion” – which is the guarantee of the Free Exercise Clause that makes America free (in theory, at least) for Pagan. In 1953, The Family established the National Prayer Breakfast; in 1954, Family politicians led the fight for “Under God” in the pledge and “In God We Trust” on our currency. More recently, Representative Tony Hall, a conservative Democrat from Ohio, made the National Day of Prayer a fixed, permanent affair, with White House observance orchestrated by Shirley Dobson – wife of Christian Right leader Jim Dobson.

Faith-based initiatives was first theorized by Family politicians such as Ed Meese in the 1980s; the legislation that opened the door for it, the 1996 Charitable Choice Provision, came from the offices of two Family politicians, John Ashcroft and Dan Coats.

Historic members have included men such as Strom Thurmond, William Rehnquist, and Senator Homer “Snort” Capehart, inventor of the jukebox (good) and defender of Nazis (not so good). (There have never been a lot of women involved.)

Which is all to say that the question we need to ask about fundamentalists is not, “What are they going to do?” but “What have they already done?” Fundamentalism is not a cabal or a conspiracy; it’s an ideology, and for nearly 70 years it has led America away from democracy and toward empire.

The theology of The Family seems quite different from the usual Christian conservatives and fire-breathing fundamentalists we often see covered in the news (though some of them are members or associates of The Family as well). Can you expand on what they believe, and what “Jesus Plus Nothing” means to them?

I first heard the phrase “Jesus plus nothing” at a spiritual counseling session The Family’s longtime leader, Doug Coe, was giving Representative Tod Tiahrt, a Kansas Republican. Tiahrt was going on about the usual Christian Right concerns – abortion, queers, and Muslims. Coe waved it all off. He agreed with Tiahrt across the board, but he saw that list as too limited. What, he asked, does Jesus have to teach us about Social Security? About building roads? The Family’s vision of “Jesus plus nothing” leads them to seek a government conformed at every level, in every department, every office, to the will of their totalizing Jesus. There’s a sense in which this is a weirdly bureaucratic Christ. He doesn’t stand on street corners and shout about revelation; he whispers his message in the ears of his “New Chosen,” as some Family members call themselves. And the message is almost always the same: “privatize.” For seventy years, The Family has been dedicated to deregulating markets in order to free up the “invisible hand” of God.

I was intrigued by the notion of The Family performing “spiritual assassinations” on political leaders (making them “die in spirit” to Jesus), getting close enough to perform their “hit” through innocuous-seeming events like the National Prayer Breakfast (which they organize). Who are some high-profile “hits” we may have heard of?

Just to be clear – they’re not killing anybody. You’re referring to Chapter Eight, “Vietnamization,” in which I write about The Family’s admiration for the guerilla warfare tactics of the Vietcong. In 1966 – the same year Family leader Doug Coe announced that The Family was going “underground,” erasing its public profile – another Family leader, Clif Robinson, met with the U.S. ambassador to Laos, William Sullivan – strategist of the “secret” – and illegal – air war against that country. Robinson reported back to American Family leadership on what he learned.

“He said the strategy of the VC was the same as International Christian Leadership’s,” gushed Robinson, “except applied physically and militarily. They spend hours, days, weeks, what ever time is necessary setting up for the LEADERS and then either by ambush, assassination, or other intrigue, they do away with them—not the people, the leaders. He said to kill 32 top level people”—as the Vietcong had done the previous month—“was tantamount to immobilizing thousands.” The lesson was that the Fellowship should understand itself as a guerrilla force on the spiritual battlefield.

They wanted their “victims” to “die to self” – that is, to commit themselves totally to Jesus plus nothing. One of their greatest “hits” was Chuck Colson, the Watergate felon. In his mega-selling memoir, “Born Again,” Colson writes of being recruited into The Family, which he describes as “a veritable underground of Christ’s men all through government,” through Doug Coe and the CEO of missile manufacturer Raytheon. Colson would later declare that through The Family’s religion, he was able to accomp
lish much of what he had once hoped to do politically. “Dying to self” paradoxically gave him a supreme sense of self-righteousness, a confidence – and a political network – through which he’s built up one of the most powerful Christian Right organizations in the world.

Some journalists and bloggers focused quite a bit of attention on the fact that Hillary Clinton is a “friend” of The Family. That through her, The Family would have access and influence. Should we have been worried if Clinton won the Democratic Presidential nomination? How deep are her ties to the family, and are they already looking to become “friends” with Obama?

The Family’s faith is a religion of the status quo. We shouldn’t be worried about what MIGHT happen; we should be worried about what has happened. If you look around the world as it is and think, “A-Ok!”, then you’ve no problem with The Family. If you look at Washington and see a healthy, happy democracy, then you’ve no problem with The Family. But if you’re disturbed by a government that’s more responsive to corporations than to people, by a two-party system in which both sides vote for a war the public didn’t want, by a politics of private influence and quiet deals, then yes, we should have been worried about The Family’s influence in a Clinton administration. We should also be worried about its potential influence in an Obama administration. The Family has endured for 70 years, longer than any other major Christian Right organization, not through doctrinal purity but by compromise with the powers that be. Power is their bottom line.

When Hillary had it, they wanted in. As she writes in her memoir, “Living History,” she joined a Family prayer group comprised of conservative politicians’ wives in 1993. She calls Doug Coe – a man who claims that Hitler, Stalin, and Mao understood the New Testament better than almost any other leaders in the 20th century – “a genuinely loving spiritual mentor and guide.” And she used The Family to tack right, teaming up with men such as Senator Sam Brownback and former Senator Rick Santorum on legislation that subtly redefined human rights as Christian issues.

This is not to say Hillary is a stealth fundamentalist. She is what she appears to be – a centrist Democrat. To be honest, I voted for her in the NY primary, because of her health plan. I’m glad Obama won; but I’m worried about his willingness to discard principles in pursuit of a false unity. The most troubling example of that is his plan to actually expand faith-based initiatives. Of course, he adds that organizations won’t be allowed to discriminate. But anyone who’s reported on faith-based initiatives firsthand will tell you that such regulations are impossible to enforce. Some Obama supporters say he’s just doing what he has to do to win. That’s exactly the way elite fundamentalists want it – to “win,” you have to play by their rules. I don’t think that’s true. I’m hoping that ultimately, Obama doesn’t, either.

You talk about the differences and similarities between the “populist” and “elitist” branches of American fundamentalism (together forming a “popular front”). With The Family typifying an elitist manifestation, and evangelical mega-churches like Colorado’s New Life Church (formerly headed by disgraced pastor Ted Haggard) typifying the “populist” branch. I was struck by how New Life actively worked to drive out Pagan Witches and other undesirables from their city. Is driving out the “Witches” (the religious “other”) a shared goal between the populist and elitist branches? Or simply the consequence of fundamentalist Christianity coming into power?

Some populist fundamentalists have actually criticized The Family for their willingness to make peace with and conference with those whom they lump under the label of “New Agers.” That was years ago, when Family leaders, like many conservative evangelicals, saw the wide array of beliefs they lumped under “New Age” as a threat to Christianity. They don’t, anymore – not because they’ve made their peace with those beliefs but because they don’t think those followers of those beliefs have much power. Ultimately, the inner circle of The Family considers all non-monotheistic beliefs “demonic.” At their C Street House for congressmen, they used to have a prayer calendar listing spiritual war targets for the day – Tibetan Buddhism, Hinduism, Wicca, etc.

In an interview with Alternet you described The Family as “ultimately something worse” than fascism. Since “fascism” is usually considered the ultimate manifestation of political evil, on the right and left, what makes this group worse?

The fact that it’s far more effective. Fascism, properly understood, was a relatively short-lived European ideology. There have been other examples of it since, but by far the most powerful ideology since 1945 has been not fascism, but empire. One church historian says of The Family that they’re not right-wing and certainly not left-wing, but “empire-wing.” Fascism may be a purer evil, but empire is a more pervasive one, and ultimately more dangerous because it’s able to call on the loyalties of well-intentioned people who’d never go near fascism. But if you’re a Vietnamese kid napalmed in 1968, or an Iraqi kid with your hands blown off in 2008, empire is every bit as bad as fascism. Or, for that matter, if you’re a Bangladeshi or a Chinese sweat shop worker or an Afghani forced to grow and process heroin to survive, the economic ramifications of empire are as bad as the explicit political repression of fascism. And for decades, what traditional fascism has cropped up around the world – in Central America, in some African nations, for instance – has been made possible only through the support of empire.

On point you make in the book is that secular America keeps trying to announce the death of fundamentalism, of conservative Christian power, but that these frequent declarations are rarely real. That the “defeats” are merely part of a natural ebb and flow of fundamentalism in America. Instead of shrinking, conservative “muscular” Christianity grows ever stronger and is very much a part of the American fabric. Is the much-touted recent “evangelical crack-up” just another natural ebb? Will we see audacious power-grabs by fundamentalist forces in the near future?

We see audacious power-grabs right now! For instance, Rwanda has recently become the first official “Purpose-Driven Nation,” remade in the image of evangelical pastor Rick Warren’s bestselling “Purpose Driven Life” with the support of U.S. dollars and faith-based initiatives. Closer to home, the Justice Department is supporting a program called “Fugitive Safe Surrender,” in which U.S. Marshals go into a low-income community and for four days move the entire legal apparatus into a megachurch, encouraging anyone with legal problems to sort them out under the sign of the cross. I attended one in Akron; church greeters talked to you about Jesus in the parking lot, then you walked through a metal detector, then you met a sheriff with a gun and a pastor with a Bible. Take your pick. And this program has Democratic support! Chuck Schumer’s gone on record saying it’s great, because it gets potential criminals off the street and allows poor people who’d be screwed by the justice system to have the help of the church. “Church-court” – that’s audacious. There’s no “evangelical crack-up,” no matter how much the New York Times may wish it so. Rather, there’s an evangelical transformation – and an expansion. Evangelicals are addressing issues liberals thought they owned, such as poverty and AIDS. That doesn’t make evangelical conservatives less conservative; it makes their agenda more far-reaching, for better or worse.

Some of the old lions of the Christian Right are dead or are dying. The new generation is softer-toned in style. But conservative evange
licalism has been a huge part of American life for 200 years. It’s not going away just because Jerry Falwell went to heaven. Or wherever.

So how do those opposed to what The Family is trying to do fight back? What is this groups Achilles heel? Is there anything anyone can do to minimize their influence on America and the world?

Of course! The first step is what we’re doing right here: talking about these issues, educating ourselves. The Family prospers when the public doesn’t pay attention. One of my favorite examples of a public fighting back occurred in 2004 in Norway. After I first wrote about The Family for Harper’s, some Norwegian journalists noticed that their new, socially conservative prime minister was jetting around the world to prayer breakfasts on the public dime. So they came to America and investigated. They discovered that this social conservative movement had strong ties with The Family, that their ambassador was taking policy meetings with John Ashcroft at The Family’s headquarters. So they put it on the front page of the paper, for two weeks. A mini Norwegian Watergate. And that government got the boot. That expose wasn’t the only factor, but it was one of them. When Doug Coe showed up in Norway this spring to talk with the king of Norway, the papers responded again, with a banner headline and a picture of Coe: “Hitler-admirer received by King.”

THAT’S public accountability. Let’s try it in America! Let’s tell Obama that we respect his desire to include people of faith – all faiths and no faith – in the public square, but we want him to recognize that not everybody is operating in good faith. Let’s pay attention to our local representatives. In 2004, a Democratic challenger to Rep. Frank Wolf, a longtime Family associate and conservative Republican from Northern Virginia, publicized Wolf’s Family ties. The Washington Post immediately editorialized that such a connection was impossible – and THEN sent a reporter to prove it so. So we need to hold the media accountable, too. We need them to ask smarter – and tougher – questions about religion. When we encounter monotheist politicians – that is, those who consider only monotheism legitimate – we need to give them loud refreshers in the history of the Founders, who were quite clear that they meant the First Amendment to extend to everyone, regardless of their beliefs.

I’m not a Pagan, but I’d also love to see some Pagan candidates for office. We’ll all benefit from that. Even if Pagans don’t win major offices – and they won’t, at least for awhile – their very presence in the public square helps everybody think about what pluralism means, what democracy means. Democracy isn’t something we HAVE, it’s something we make. The Family doesn’t like it. They call it “the din of the vox populi.” The din of the voice of the people. So we know what we need to do: Let’s make some noise.

Author, journalist, and The Revealer co-founder Jeff Sharlet has written a masterful essay for The Nation that looks at issues of conscience, religious freedom, and the separation of church and state. Sharlet reviews “Liberty of Conscience: In Defense of America’s Tradition of Religious Equality” by Martha Nussbaum, and “Founding Faith Providence, Politics, and the Birth of Religious Freedom in America” by Steven Waldman, and compares their approaches to ideas of religious equality and freedom.

“Nussbaum’s book, a fundamentally flawed but wise consideration of the subtle distinctions between “freedom” and “equality,” may help cultivate it in years to come. Meanwhile, Founding Faith–a new book by Steven Waldman, a former religion reporter–is the sort of carefully crafted crowd pleaser that trades [Roger] Williams’s liberty of conscience for the solace of centrism.”

Sharlet criticizes Beliefnet founder Steven Waldman for creating a false set of “extremes” that we need to “compromise” on to achieve harmony and peace between secularists and Christian conservatives.

“Waldman wins his centrist peace by dismissing Christian conservatives’ majoritarian bullying and secularists’ insistence on separation of church and state as “extremes” that can be reconciled by the former acknowledging pluralism and the latter accepting that separation is neither strict nor meant to be universal. Doing so, however, would require fundamentalists to give up the most important claim of their faith–its exclusivity–and secularists to ignore history. Significantly, Waldman pays only brief lip service to an essential development in American law, the principle of incorporation–the Fourteenth Amendment’s extension of the Bill of Rights to the states. Incorporation is the tidiest rebuttal to Justice Thomas’s antebellum legal dreams and Waldman’s contention that the protection of minority views as an essential function of separation is a ‘liberal fallacy.’”

In the end, both authors are criticized for minimizing the “Christian nationalist challenge” facing us, and overlooking many of the pitfalls of their respective “compromises”. But any encapsulation of this important analysis by me won’t do it full justice, I strongly recommend heading over and reading the entire thing. While I’m at it, check out Sharlet’s new book, “The Family: The Secret Fundamentalism at the Heart of American Power”, a chilling look into Christian fundamentalism’s most elite organization.

Meanwhile, I’ll keep plugging away with the “liberal fallacy” that religious minorities deserve protection under the legal and political principle of church-state separation.

A perennial problem for modern Pagans is how the press represents us and our viewpoints. Our beliefs are either boiled down to meaningless catch-phrases, or worse, completely misinterpreted. It is a rare journalist who takes the time to portray our perspectives correctly and makes the effort to understand our motivations. One writer who has covered modern Pagans well in the past is Peter Manseau.

Manseau, along with co-author Jeff Sharlet, tried a new experiment in religious journalism that ended up a book called “Killing the Buddha: A Heretic’s Bible”. The book featured two chapters in which the authors tried their best to give an voice to the modern Pagans they met during their travels. While their reporting on us wasn’t always flattering, it was honest and sincere, a quantum leap forward in covering our faiths. At the beginning of December (during the media-storm that was the Pope’s visit to Turkey), Manseau delivered his secret to good religion reporting. Role-playing.

“Before I write about any sort of believer or community of faith, I indulge in a little role-playing fantasy. What might it feel like to have such fervor that I find myself speaking in tongues? Who would I be if I was a pagan among Christians in the Bible Belt? What would I be thinking if it were me riding high in a chair at a Hasidic wedding, floating on a sea of black hats? In place of belief I call upon that skill we all had as children but often lose by the time we become adults, or parents, or popes: “make believe.”…If only we could cease praying to our conceptions of God just long enough to wonder what it might be like to pray to another. Just imagine.”

If only more reporters would take the time to see from our perspective, to “make believe”, then perhaps all those poorly written news stories about Pagans would disappear (or at least lessen). Lets say it is my holiday wish for this blog! Oh, and if your looking for last-minute holiday gifts, Manseau’s latest book “Vows: The Story of a Priest, a Nun, and Their Son” (recently released in paperback) is an excellent read.