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
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.