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Harper’s contributing editor Jeff Sharlet is the only journalist to report on the Family’s C Street power base on Capitol Hill from the inside. Now he has updated his reporting with a new comprehensive look at the Family’s quiet and carefully obscured influence on American government, foreign policy, and the military, and a survey of the scandals that have finally put C Street on the nation’s political map. I put six questions to Sharlet about his new book, C Street: The Fundamentalist Threat to American Democracy.
1. Let’s start with a bit of Scripture. Acts 9:15 says, “This man is my chosen instrument to take my name… before the Gentiles and their kings.” How is this understood by the men who gather in C Street?
The clue is in the emphasis the Family puts on those last two words. “Their kings” is italicized in the document from which I quote it in the book, “Eight Core Aspects of the vision and methods.” It was distributed to potential new members of the Family, the organization behind C Street, at the 2010 National Prayer Breakfast, the Family’s only public event. Every year, the Family uses American political leaders—they refer to them as “bait”—to attract foreign leaders they want to evangelize. The focus is on leaders, or “kings.” The Family twists Acts 9:15 into a justification for a complete inversion of Christianity, a faith that, whatever else one thinks of it, was born of a radically egalitarian premise. To the C Streeters, Christianity is all about elites. They pay lip service to helping the poor, but they believe the best way to help the weak is to help the strong.
2. How does that interpretation help us understand the role that the masters of C Street played in the scandals surrounding John Ensign, Chip Pickering, and Mark Sanford?
What makes C Street and the Family so unusual in the landscape of American fundamentalism is their explicit dedication to the ruling class. Help the weak by helping the strong means tending to the interests of men such as Ensign, Sanford, and Pickering. In Ensign’s case, where C Street attempted to negotiate payments for Ensign’s mistress’s family, you see the principle of what some Family leaders call “biblical capitalism” put into practice — they bargained a price for services rendered. In Sanford’s case, they actually managed his distraught wife, instructing her to refrain from any angry words—they’d take care of reprimands—and to keep her husband sexually satisfied. And Pickering, Pickering was just tawdry—they looked the other way while he rendezvoused with his mistress, a telecom heiress, in his C Street room. Such cover ups, were, to the Family, God’s work—anything to keep their chosen ones, their “kings,” in power.
3. Is there a risk that by focusing on the series of sexual scandals surrounding C Street residents like Ensign, Pickering, and Sanford, the public is missing the bigger story surrounding C Street?
Yes, absolutely — but sex matters, too. My friend JoAnn Wypijewski, writing in The Nation, said it best—”Christians thunder, liberals sneer, but it amounts to the same thing, counting sins.” Talking about political sex is actually a form of prudishness, a euphemism for real political problems. We are afraid to talk about secrecy, about the possibility that our elites don’t have our interests at heart, that they are not part of “us”; so we can only do so when that secrecy, that other intimacy, is made literal, physical, through sex scandal. Sex removes corruption from the world of ideas. Sex is an act. It is secret. It proves the politician is both not part of “us”—that he has other engagements, that he’s gone on the Appalachian Trail—and that he is: just like us, physical, bound to the world of grunting desires. Talking about sex allows us to talk about secrecy by encoding real political problems in universal questions of desire and deception. Sex talk as metaphor is usually fatalistic, and ultimately conservative. It’s always prudish, a substitution of naughty but bawdy sex for the dirt and despair of a broken democracy.
And that’s the bigger story, the story I try to tell in the book by following the money and the ideas of C Street out into the world. In my last book, The Family, I worked with archives to trace the history of those ideas; in this one, I follow them in the present moment, to places like Lebanon, where Senator Tom Coburn is putting U.S. power behind the proselytizing of Muslim leaders in one of the most religiously precarious places in the world; to Sudan, where former congressman Mark Siljander, a Family leader who recently pled guilty to a number of charges related to his illegal lobbying, was championing Omar al-Bashir, the first sitting head of state to be indicted for genocide; and to Uganda, where the Family’s local branch—the Ugandan C Street, so to speak—has put the idea of a different kind of genocide, the eradication of a nation’s gay population, on simmer.
4. In a recent piece for The New Yorker, Peter Boyer suggests that the alarms you sound about C Street are overblown. It’s a “frathouse for Christians” occupied by men who may occasionally do some foolish things but are essentially harmless. What did you think of Boyer’s piece?
I prefer journalism. A week before the piece appeared, a fact checker for The New Yorker contacted me about the piece. I was curious about what kind of research Boyer had done, and, frankly, concerned that he might have used some of my work, since The New Yorker had an advance copy of C Street. Not at all, the fact checker assured me—Boyer had done his own archival research. An hour later I received an email entitled “Correction”: “Peter did not visit the archives, though he has seen archival material.” Material, she added, supplied to him by a leader of the Family.
Lazy reporting aside, the real danger of a piece like Boyer’s is that it perpetuates unexamined claims made by the Family. A reader of the piece might be mistaken for believing that the Family had played an instrumental role in putting an end to Uganda’s murderous anti-gay campaign. An email correspondence between the Americans, some of the Ugandans, and A. Larry Ross, a leading evangelical publicist, speaks not of confronting the consequences of their influence but of “managing PR”—Ross even writes of managing fact checking for The New Yorker. The truth, meanwhile, is that the anti-gay campaign continues, and its leader—also the Family’s “key man” in the Ugandan parliament—insists that he’s received no pressure from the Family to slow down. He also told me he’d never heard from Boyer. That pattern plays out through the piece, a study in knee-jerk centrism informed mainly by his subjects’ professions of their good intentions. Real research, the kind where you engage with documents and critics, results in a different story.
5. You found evidence that the Family had engaged in stealth evangelism in Lebanon, mobilizing considerable public resources in the process. What were the apparent objectives of their Lebanese program?
The creation of what former congressman Mark Siljander, a Family leader who wrote a book on their approach to Islam, calls “Messianic Muslims.” Misbah Ahdab, a popular Muslim MP, credits C Streeter Sen. Tom Coburn with helping to open his eyes to the centrality of Jesus, though he still calls himself a Muslim—he wouldn’t be elected otherwise. Samir Kreidie, another “Messianic Muslim” who hosted Coburn and fellow C Streeter Rep. Mike Doyle (D., Pa.) during a 2009 visit (Doyle traveled on the Family’s dime; Coburn charged his missionary work to taxpayers) sums up what he’s learned from the Family as “Jesus for the world.” Of course, anybody is free to convert, but these guys are actually encouraged not to convert—to keep calling themselves Muslims. That, to me, is dishonest, and also very, very dangerous in a place like Lebanon. I worked with a fellow journalist, Kiera Feldman, to follow Coburn’s path through the country. His most interesting stop was at a school in the northern Lebanese village of Syr, run by a Lebanese American who was a former top aide to Paul Bremer in Iraq. We spoke to former teachers and students, who’d gotten involved thinking that this was a simple initiative to develop young leaders, only to discover that it was all about stealth evangelism. Now, one of our sources, a former teacher named Toufic Agha, is receiving death threats for having spoken with us, and he’s being told that people linked with the school are trying to discredit him by saying that he’s working for “a Jew named Jeff Sharlet.” As it happens, I am a Jew, but the irony is that it’s guys like Coburn who are telling Lebanese Muslims to become Christians and learn to love Israel. And Coburn is doing that as, to many of these politicians, the face of American foreign policy.
6. As Harper’s readers know, you have linked the Family to harsh anti-gay legislation in Uganda. Speaking to The New Yorker, the Family denies the links. How do you make out their fingerprints on the kill-the-gays bill?
By asking them. Bob Hunter, designated by the Family as a spokesman to respond to the Uganda fiasco, has referred to David Bahati, the author of the Anti-Homosexuality Bill, as a member of the Family. Hunter and Bahati both told me that Hunter had paid a visit to Bahati in Kampala to assure Bahati that he remains in good standing, despite Hunter’s personal opposition to the bill. I give Hunter credit for being vocal about that; but there’s a profound lack of accountability at every other level. The Family built the prayer group structure from which the bill emerged. For readers not familiar with it, by the way, “harsh” is an understatement: life imprisonment for gay sex, death for “serial offenders,” seven years for “promotion,” and three years for failing to turn in a known homosexual.
When I asked Bahati, in Kampala, whether there was a connection between the Family and the bill (he calls the group the Fellowship but also acknowledges it as the Family), he said, “There is no ‘connection.’ They are the same thing. The bill is the Fellowship. It was our idea.” An idea, he added, that he’d believed in alignment with the biblical principles they shared, based on his multiple visits to the National Prayer Breakfast and to the Cedars, their Arlington headquarters, and on the many visits to his Family prayer group in the Parliament by Family men such as Sen. Jim Inhofe and former Attorney General John Ashcroft, who emphasize there what Inhofe calls the “political philosophy of Jesus,” something he says he learned from the Family. Bahati brought the bill to a private meeting of international Family leaders before he introduced it; he says he got a green light. The Family says they expressed caution. It’s possible both things are true, after a fashion—the Family rarely risks its access by holding its members accountable. I thought Bob Hunter had tried to do so, but we spoke as I went to press with the book, and, perhaps trying to distance himself from Bahati, he told me that Bahati’s group of MPs wasn’t even their most influential—that’d be the “power group,” as he put it, that meets every Friday.
Tim Kreutter, an American associated with the Family who lives in Uganda, has repeatedly said he neither supports nor condemns the bill. That’s not exactly speaking truth to power, but then, Kreutter doesn’t see that as his job. He’s the author of that document, “Eight Core Aspects,” that speaks of Acts 9:15. He’s also Bahati’s mentor. He’s not a hateful man, himself, and he certainly doesn’t share Bahati’s dream — in a “perfect world,” Bahati told me one day over lunch at his house, every gay person would be killed. But Kreutter builds up the power structures that make such dreams possible. When I asked him why the “kings” the Family cultivates are so often corrupt or worse, he said, “Because that’s what’s there.” He seemed puzzled by the implication of the question, that power isn’t its own justification. Which strikes me as a shame, because as a non-Christian who writes a great deal about Christianity, that’s what I’m ultimately attracted by—not perversions of the faith like C Street’s or Bahati’s, but the prophetic tradition it carries on from Judaism, the idea that faith is itself a challenge to power.
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“I will never know what goes on in your mind, or what that shield of a smile behind which we try to advance should tell us.”