No Comment, Six Questions — September 29, 2010, 2:41 pm

Inside C Street: Six Questions for Jeff Sharlet

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?

jeff-sharlet

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?

This book, C Street, isn’t about a piece of real estate in Washington. It’s not about the Family, or Officers’ Christian Fellowship, or even the murderous potential of American culture wars waged by proxy overseas. It’s about the Idea… the monolithic vision of fundamentalism always threatening to subsume the many lowercased ideas that constitute democracy. In Uganda, we see the Idea verging on murder, in the military, we see it gathering force, at C Street we encounter its enduring corruption.

—From C Street: The Fundamentalist Threat to American Democracy
Reprinted by permission of the publisher, Little, Brown & Co. Copyright © 2010 Jeff Sharlet

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?

c-street

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?

The Word that mattered to [Lt.Gen. William K.] Harrison was Matthew 24, “war and rumors of war.” Until the Second Coming, war is our natural state, preached the old soldier, to be accepted and even embraced in anticipation of Jesus Christ’s imminent, and most likely, violent, return. In the 1980’s, [Officers’ Christian Fellowship] modernized Harrison’s gospel of permanent war—the Family’s so-called Worldwide Spiritual Offensive, made material—as a doctrine of “Christian Realism” with which to justify nuclear escalation.

—From C Street: The Fundamentalist Threat to American Democracy
Reprinted by permission of the publisher, Little, Brown & Co. Copyright © 2010 Jeff Sharlet

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.

Share
Single Page

More from Scott Horton:

Conversation August 5, 2016, 12:08 pm

Lincoln’s Party

Sidney Blumenthal on the origins of the Republican Party, the fallout from Clinton’s emails, and his new biography of Abraham Lincoln

Conversation March 30, 2016, 3:44 pm

Burn Pits

Joseph Hickman discusses his new book, The Burn Pits, which tells the story of thousands of U.S. soldiers who, after returning from Iraq and Afghanistan, have developed rare cancers and respiratory diseases.

Context, No Comment August 28, 2015, 12:16 pm

Beltway Secrecy

In five easy lessons

Get access to 169 years of
Harper’s for only $23.99

United States Canada

CATEGORIES

THE CURRENT ISSUE

December 2019

Gimme Shelter

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Body Language

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Trash, Rock, Destroy

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Make Way for Tomorrow

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

The Red Dot

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

view Table Content

FEATURED ON HARPERS.ORG

Article
Gimme Shelter·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

I.

That year, the year of the Ghost Ship fire, I lived in a shack. I’d found the place just as September’s Indian summer was giving way to a wet October. There was no plumbing or running water to wash my hands or brush my teeth before sleep. Electricity came from an extension cord that snaked through a yard of coyote mint and monkey flower and up into a hole I’d drilled in my floorboards. The structure was smaller than a cell at San Quentin—a tiny house or a huge coffin, depending on how you looked at it—four by eight and ten feet tall, so cramped it fit little but a mattress, my suit jackets and ties, a space heater, some novels, and the mason jar I peed in.

The exterior of my hermitage was washed the color of runny egg yolk. Two redwood French doors with plexiglass windows hung cockeyed from creaky hinges at the entrance, and a combination lock provided meager security against intruders. White beadboard capped the roof, its brim shading a front porch set on cinder blocks.

After living on the East Coast for eight years, I’d recently left New York City to take a job at an investigative reporting magazine in San Francisco. If it seems odd that I was a fully employed editor who lived in a thirty-two-square-foot shack, that’s precisely the point: my situation was evidence of how distorted the Bay Area housing market had become, the brutality inflicted upon the poor now trickling up to everyone but the super-rich. The problem was nationwide, although, as Californians tend to do, they’d taken this trend to an extreme. Across the state, a quarter of all apartment dwellers spent half of their incomes on rent. Nearly half of the country’s unsheltered homeless population lived in California, even while the state had the highest concentration of billionaires in the nation. In the Bay Area, including West Oakland, where my shack was located, the crisis was most acute. Tent cities had sprung up along the sidewalks, swarming with capitalism’s refugees. Telegraph, Mission, Market, Grant: every bridge and overpass had become someone’s roof.

Post
Perhaps the World Ends Here·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Climate disaster at Wounded Knee

Article
Body Language·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

I am eight years old, sitting in my childhood kitchen, ready to watch one of the home videos my father has made. The videotape still exists somewhere, so somewhere she still is, that girl on the screen: hair that tangles, freckles across her nose that in time will spread across one side of her forehead. A body that can throw a baseball the way her father has shown her. A body in which bones and hormones lie in wait, ready to bloom into the wide hips her mother has given her. A body that has scars: the scars over her lungs and heart from the scalpel that saved her when she was a baby, the invisible scars left by a man who touched her when she was young. A body is a record or a body is freedom or a body is a battleground. Already, at eight, she knows it to be all three.

But somebody has slipped. The school is putting on the musical South Pacific, and there are not enough roles for the girls, and she is as tall as or taller than the boys, and so they have done what is unthinkable in this striving 1980s town, in this place where the men do the driving and the women make their mouths into perfect Os to apply lipstick in the rearview. For the musical, they have made her a boy.

No, she thinks. They have allowed her to be a boy.

Article
Burning Down the House·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Discussed in this essay:

Plagued by Fire: The Dreams and Furies of Frank Lloyd Wright, by Paul Hendrickson. Knopf. 624 pages. $35.

Frank Lloyd Wright isn’t just the greatest of all American architects. He has so eclipsed the competition that he can sometimes seem the only one. Who are his potential rivals? Henry Hobson Richardson, that Gilded Age starchitect in monumental stone? Louis Sullivan, lyric poet of the office building and Wright’s own Chicago mentor, best known for his dictum that form follows function? “Yes,” Wright corrected him with typical one-upmanship, “but more important now, form and function are one.” For architects with the misfortune to follow him, Wright is seen as having created the standards by which they are judged. If we know the name Frank Gehry, it’s probably because he designed the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain, in 1997. And Gehry’s deconstructed ship of titanium and glass would be unimaginable if Wright hadn’t built his own astonishing Guggenheim Museum on Fifth Avenue some forty years earlier.

Article
The Red Dot·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

That night at the window, looking out at the street full of snow, big flakes falling through the streetlight, I listened to what Anna was saying. She was speaking of a man named Karl. We both knew him as a casual acquaintance—thin and lanky like Ichabod Crane, with long hair—operating a restaurant down in the village whimsically called the Gist Mill, with wood paneling, a large painting of an old gristmill on a river on one wall, tin ceilings, and a row of teller cages from its previous life as a bank. Karl used to run along the river, starting at his apartment in town and turning back about two miles down the path. He had been going through the divorce—this was a couple of years ago, of course, Anna said—and was trying to run through his pain.

Cost of renting a giant panda from the Chinese government, per day:

$1,500

A recent earthquake in Chile was found to have shifted the city of Concepción ten feet to the west, shortened Earth’s days by 1.26 microseconds, and shifted the planet’s axis by nearly three inches.

An eight-foot minke whale washed ashore on the Thames, the third beaching of a dead whale on the river in two months.

Subscribe to the Weekly Review newsletter. Don’t worry, we won’t sell your email address!

HARPER’S FINEST

Jesus Plus Nothing

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

By

At Ivanwald, men learn to be leaders by loving their leaders. “They’re so busy loving us,” a brother once explained to me, “but who’s loving them?” We were. The brothers each paid $400 per month for room and board, but we were also the caretakers of The Cedars, cleaning its gutters, mowing its lawns, whacking weeds and blowing leaves and sanding. And we were called to serve on Tuesday mornings, when The Cedars hosted a regular prayer breakfast typically presided over by Ed Meese, the former attorney general. Each week the breakfast brought together a rotating group of ambassadors, businessmen, and American politicians. Three of Ivanwald’s brothers also attended, wearing crisp shirts starched just for the occasion; one would sit at the table while the other two poured coffee. 

Subscribe Today