What is The Family?

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In a comment on the previous post, Jeff Sharlet, who wrote the book on The Family, asks that we continue to explore the significance of this organization “of tremendous reach and influence, very little institutional structure, and less transparency.” While I admire Jeff’s sleuthing and story-telling more than his broader interpretive moves, there’s no doubt that The Family presents a real interpretive challenge. It is a very odd animal–sui generis, one might say.

As a religious organization, it is Christian only in the sense that it
is centered on the person of Jesus. It eschews creeds and churches, and
welcomes into its prayer groups non-Christians (Muslims, Jews) who are
prepared to embrace Jesus (in some sense). It is therefore not
Evangelical in the normal sense of that term, much less Fundamentalist.
Historically, it emerges from the businessmen’s Christian
associations of the 1920s, where Jesus-centered prayer gatherings were
understood as simply a dimension of the generic Protestantism
of local WASP elites. Today, when praying in Jesus’ name in a mixed
religious group is perceived by many as exclusionary, The Family
represents a throwback–parochial and problematic.

Its political stance, meanwhile, is establishmentarian.That is to say,
it aims to bring together those of different points of view, without
itself adopting (or at least admitting to) positions on one side of the
other. It has always prided itself on its Democrats as well as its
Republicans, even though there have always been a lot more of the
latter than the former. And, indeed, its religious posture all but
makes it inevitable that this will be the case. Those who have little
or no use for establishmentarian ways of doing business, will never see
it as anything but malignantly anti-democratic. On the other hand, a
polity as partisan as ours has become could strike some as in need of
more effective establishmentarian networking.

Be that as it may, it’s clear that the international networks created
by The Family permit those associated with the organization to pursue
their own agendas in ways that range from the benign to the malignant.
On the one hand, there’s Bob Hunter, a self-described liberal who has
been active for years in efforts to foster peacemaking in Africa–and
who has in recent weeks become The Family’s friendly face to its
critics. On the other, there are those like Sen. James Imhofe (R-OK),
who, it appears, are happy to push a straight-up culture-wars agenda in
The Family’s name. Meanwhile, the organization does not speak in its
own name, its long-time leader Doug Coe silent as the Unknown God
amidst the furor.

For the current state of play, listen or watch Straight Talk Africa’s January 27 program 
on The Family in Africa on Voice of America. There, Hunter says that he
is personally opposed to Uganda’s anti-homosexuality bill, even as the
bill’s sponsor, David Bahati (who calls in) is as connected to The Family as a
Ugandan pol can be. Then take a look at today’s letter
from Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, calling on
President Obama and members of Congress not to attend the National
Breakfast Thursday.

The larger question is whether The Family needs to
out of the shadows, explain its role in Uganda and elsewhere around
the globe, and join the world in which NGOs make their
purposes and activities clear. The answer is yes.

  • Jeff Sharlet

    The problem with establismentarianism is that it takes even the best intentions of a guy like Bob Hunter and directs them toward the maintenance of power. So here’s Bob, a guy who’s never wanted anything but the best for Uganda, a country that captured his heart, and he’s a friend, ally, and, inadvertently, an enabler to the longest-running dictatorship in East Africa. Not just any friend — a friend who, by his own admission, helped Museveni first win U.S. foreign aid, helped set up the country’s National Prayer Breakfast — a forum which Museveni rightly grasped would be a powerful tool for diplomacy on behalf of his regime and piety propaganda for his own people — and who laments Museveni’s failure to become the Mandela Bob hoped he would — and yet doesn’t say a word to Museveni himself when that old friend drifts in the direction of genocide. I’m not accusing Bob of anything. This is what he told me. And, as he put it, it’s the problem of access to power vs. accountability. The Family has evolved into a machine meant to achieve the former. It has absolutely no structure — none — with which to ensure the latter.
    So it becomes a tool for bullies like Jim Inhofe and killers like Siad Barre, and a sort of trap for samaritans like Bob. The former revel in the politics of it all; Bob, meanwhile, has only now, after decades of involvement, come to understand his movement as political. That may be because he’s been too busy with good works. I don’t say that sarcastically. Rather, I lament his neglect of the consequences of the movement he’s given his best energy too. But then, that’s the fault of a movement which is built around the rejection of history and thus the knowledge of consequences. All that matters is the singular story of one’s own good intentions, scripture boiled down to “the person of Jesus,” “Jesus plus nothing,” as Doug Coe likes to say.
    It’s thus I use the word “fundamentalism,” a word that the group’s two leaders over the last 70 years, Abraham Vereide and Doug Coe, each embraced at times themselves. Not in the classic, “come-outer” sense. That’s why I argued for a new, broader understanding of the term in my introduction. Perhaps not successfully; but please do recognize that I don’t simply label religion I find politically troubling fundamentalist. Bob asked me if liberals could be fundamentalist according to my definition. Of course. And politically and theologically conservative evangelicals such as Warren Throckmorton are not. Either way, it’s not a dirty word.