With the emergence of The Family as a subject of public interest, Religion Dispatches has posted a roundtable discussion on Jeff Sharlet’s book of the same name (now out in paper), featuring Sharlet, Anthea Butler, Diane Winston, and Randall Balmer. The discussion is somewhat musty: It was conducted last summer, and so lacks references not only to recent events but also to the Obama Dispensation. It is, nonetheless, instructive.
To his credit, Sharlet has called attention to a little known religio-political enterprise that has plied its trade in Washington for a number of decades. It has operated largely under cover, reached out to political movers and shakers of both parties and different religious persuasions, and its mission is animated by a strong conservative Christian ideology. It is elitist, uninterested in democratic politics except as such politics lifts up the people who run the country. The question is: How significant a role has it played in national affairs?
Sharlet claims that this group is, as his subtitle puts it, “The Secret Fundamentalism at the Heart of American Power.” Now, does that mean that it is the heart of American power, or just that, like many another aspiring lesion, it has glommed onto Washington’s power elite? Just like, say, AIPAC, which is the Secret Zionism at the Heart of American Power. (Well, maybe not so secret.) Sharlet is canny enough to leave some ambiguity, but what’s clear from the roundtable is that he’s offered the left an alternate interpretation of recent political religious history–one that shows the religious right not as the product of genuine popular reaction to the direction of American culture but as an inside job stretching back to the Cold War. The Family becomes a kind of Opus Dei, with Washington playing the role of Rome.
The participant in the roundtable not buying this view is Balmer, who had just savaged Sharlet’s book in the Washington Post. What he particularly didn’t like was Sharlet’s effort to portray The Family as the culmination of an American evangelicalism stretching back to Jonathan Edwards–a lineage that, it seems, The Family has constructed for itself. But claiming a lineage doesn’t make it so.
My own view is that The Family is at most a bit player in the spiritual politics of the past generation. To be sure, it’s an interesting player, not least because of its determined establishmentarianism–its genetic inclination towards bipartisanship even as religion became ever more partisan. One of the curious things about recent coverage of The Family has been the disappearance of the Hillary Clinton angle. I suspect that’s because the Family ties of Clinton, the great Sataness of the 1990s religious right, upsets the interpretive applecart. After all, if the The Family had been pulling all those strings back in the 1990s, surely it would have been able to get Falwell & Co. to chill out, right?