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Jeff Sharlet’s Book ‘The Family’: Governance by Fratboys

Today I received a copy of Jeff Sharlet’s 2008 book The Family: The Secret Fundamentalism at the Heart of American Power. It’s about the secret, amorphous, mysterious cabal of American and international politicians (think Uganda and its famous “Kill the Gays” bill) that to some extent controls Congress, the White House and foreign governments.

Somehow the author managed to worm his way into the innermost reaches of this secret-but-open group of up-and-comers, businessmen, lobbyists and elected officials. He says he wasn’t trying to produce an exposé, he was just a student of religion (half-Jewish, half-Episcopalian) trying to sort things out. He was not trying to act like an investigative reporter, but that’s what he’s turned into.

I’ve only read a few dozen pages, but already the names are dropping like December snows: Ronald Reagan, Chuck Grassley, Jimmy Carter, Billy Graham, Trent Lott, the CEO of Raytheon. This group is not, in Hillary Clinton’s famous term, “the vast right-wing conspiracy” you might have been expecting. It’s all informal, easy as the breeze on your shoulder. There’s no real organization (except there is); big money changes hands, but it results from social networking, not grand plans. Those who have money pass it on to those who need it, and soon there’s a new institute, a new list of talking points, a new initiative to save the world for Jesus Christ, portrayed here as a capitalist street fighter who doesn’t care if you’re religious or not, as long as you obey him. Indeed, calling yourself a “Christian” is considered off-putting, so you should just obey.

Do they study the Bible? Not really. Pray a lot? No. Go to church all the time? They’re too busy.

Liberals can easily imagine a rogue’s gallery of fat-cat theocrats getting together to control the world; but Sharlet dubs their movement “American fundamentalism,” as opposed to the Christian kind, because while they’re certainly devoted to the Nazarene, they are most distinguished by their desire to extend and entrench American power over other nations. That’s why Africa’s so interesting to them, even though they know that dominating that continent of chaos (and natural resources) will take a very long time.

The book isn’t what I expected – which may be a strength of the book. Because what the author reveals isn’t just a good-ole-boys network of the well-heeled, well-connected and well-dressed, but a casually inept group of fratboys with no utter clue.

How else did Sharlet get in without being thoroughly investigated?

Admission depends on being “recommended” by someone inside, but the criteria are lax in the extreme.

Within days of gaining entrance to a “Family” outpost in the Virginia suburbs of D.C., Sharlet witnesses a new Congressman, Rep. Todd Tiahrt (R-Kansas), being “tutored” by Doug Coe, the head of the outfit, as another Congressman looks on, dabbing his lips with a red bar napkin reading “Let Me Call You SWEETHEART… I Can’t Remember Your Name.”

I can barely imagine the fireworks if even a few women I know got hold of this.

Patriarchy and sexism are built into this “Family,” ’cause the Bible said so, y’know? The treatment of women that Sharlet describes is so backwards-’50s that even Ricky Nelson’s mother would complain.

But the guys are totally oblivious.

Mr. Coe, the grand poobah, is fond of comparing his amorphous “cells” of testosteroned athletes to Communists, Nazis and the Mafia – all of whom relied on secrecy. He’s frank in admiring organized crime, because the “made men” never talk. Thus they endure beyond all efforts to root them out and put them in jail.

The people they remind me of are the Ku Klux Klan.

I wonder why on earth any politician, regardless of party or ideology, would risk associating himself with these amateur fratboys. But the benefits outweigh the drawbacks.

It’s not by accident that the Family’s tax-free “church”-cum-boardinghouse on “C” Street in D.C. has been the scene recently of one sex scandal after another; Sen. John Ensign, Gov. Mark Sanford, Rep. Chip Pickering. These Gay-hating politicians feel no restraints on their own sexual misconduct; the group encourages it with its condescending view of the female sex.

No property taxes; this Republican boarding house on C Street is a "church."

“I’m too drunk to remember you, so Let Me Call You Sweetheart.” Of course there are dim-witted (and sometimes religious) women who go along with this.

Why shouldn’t Sanford, Pickering and Ensign screw around? They have a whole army of street-fighting Jesus action figures standing behind them. Political struggles come and go, invariably provoked by the “enemy,” who might be Satan or Al Qaeda or some Muslim guy sightseeing from Duluth.

Tom DeLay, Jim DeMint, Pete Domenici; Bob Taft, Randall Terry, Clarence Thomas. Ed Meese, Dick Lugar, Joe McCarthy; Ted Haggard, Sam Brownback, George W. Bush. There’s nowhere you can go and escape these people. The Constitution grants them the free right of association and the practice of religion, and we wouldn’t want it any other way.

But jeez, they’re vulnerable; would you want to belong to the political equivalent of the Mafia?

The fact that all these guys do is a testimony; belonging is a lot better than not – and Jeff Sharlet, Rachel Maddow, Keith Olbermann (and Josh Thomas) do not begin to have the clout of that house on “C” Street.++

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