The ‘F’ Word: Fascism, The Family, and the Secret Fundamentalism at the Heart of American Civil Reli: Jeff Sharlet

By Jeff Sharlet

This speech was delivered on Oct. 10, 2008, at the 31st annual convention of the Freedom From Religion Foundation, Hyatt Regency Chicago.


Thank you Dan, Annie Laurie, and the Freedom From Religion Foundation. In addition, I also want to thank last night’s speaker, Army Specialist Jeremy Hall, winner of the Atheist in a Foxhole award. I wasn’t able to be here last night, but I had the honor of meeting Jeremy out at Fort Riley in the course of researching fundamentalism in the military for an article that will be appearing soon in Harper’s [May 2009]. I was astonished not just by Jeremy’s courage, but also by his deep commitment to and understanding of the Constitution and the Bill of Rights. This was a young man who really knew what he was talking about. Unfortunately, as I researched this story at military facilities around the United States, I learned just how rare those qualities are. I want to share with you, before I move on to the main subject, an example of what Jeremy is up against and why he deserves all of our support.

Photo: Brent Nicastro

I recently went out to the U.S. Air Force Academy. A few years ago, it was in the news for its problems with rampant, aggressive evangelism. A guy named Mikey Weinstein and the Military Religious Freedom Foundation took on that fight and did a terrific job, and the Academy sort of went out of the news and there was an assumption that the problem had been solved.

This spring, I went out to the Academy to see if indeed they had taken care of this. Within two hours of being there I was invited to an underground prayer cell. What was much more disturbing was my conversation with the academy’s leader, General John Regni, who was brought in to fix the religion problem. Regni is not any kind of fundamentalist. He’s a sort of casual Catholic. He’s not interested in religion; he would like this problem to go away. He was the man they were going to bring in, the professional who was going to get the Air Force Academy back on track.

I’m going to read a short excerpt from my story that’s going to be coming out on John Regni. The reason I want to read it to you verbatim is because it’s so unbelievable that I want no one to accuse me of exaggerating Gen. Regni’s responses.

When I asked General Regni, a three-star general who runs the academy, for his interpretation of the First Amendment, how he balances the Establishment Clause and the Free Exercise cause, he flubs the question. A civilian might reasonably plead ignorance, but not a general who’s sworn his life to defend these words: “Congress shall make no law respecting the establishment of religion or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.”

But they’ve slipped Regni’s mind, apparently. He says, “What did you say those constitutional things were again?”

“The Establishment Clause and the Free Exercise Clause,” I answer. “Establishment?” Regni asks. There’s a long pause. Then, “I’m going to defer to some of my folks here.”

He turns to the top chaplain at the academy, an active duty colonel, and his top PR man, a retired colonel who earlier that day suggested to me that the academy’s Jewish cadets may be faking their religion to get extra time off. The colonels huddle with the general, but they cannot offer him a lifeline.

“Umm. . . ,” says Regni, “Could you be a little more specific?”

I read the First Amendment to him. Regni ponders, “Umm. . . Okay,” he says. He decides to pass on the question.

This is a three-star general in charge of shaping the military’s future leaders! Fortunately, we have guys like Jeremy Hall out there. But the problem in the military is that a specialist, even one as brave as Jeremy, cannot counterbalance a three-star general.

What’s happening right now in the military is revival. Revivalism is a very old American tradition, which predates the United States, and is very much interwoven within the American tradition. I say that as no advocate for revivalism, but simply as an observer of fact. Revivals have been an important part of our politics from the very beginning. Anyone who tells you that fundamentalism has been a problem only since Jerry Falwell came down from the hills in the late 1970s, and created a Moral Majority and so on, is wiping out a whole long American history of conflict. The people in this room know that better than most. The past is obviously very present in what’s going on right now.

One of the things that we have to ask ourselves about is: How does fundamentalism endure? How does American fundamentalism endure? How does populist fundamentalism endure–and by populist fundamentalism I mean the pulpit-pounders and the Bible-thumpers, and the big revivals and the mass rallies, that rise and fall, rise and fall, rise and fall, cyclical in American history.

Revivals are as sure a cycle in American life as the press declaring fundamentalism dead. That happened, in fact, in 1992 when Bill Clinton was elected; then, in 1994 with the Republican revolution there were all sorts of headlines, “They’re Back!” In 1996, fundamentalism was dead again, and so on.

But in 2003, when I went around to publishers to first talk about this book, The Family, the response from most was, “Well, we just don’t think the Christian Right is really a strong force in American life anymore.” In 2003, History has moved so quickly that we forget that Bush’s fundamentalism did not play a big role in the media coverage in 2000; it was the 2004 election in which fundamentalism really became a media story again.

Then along comes Sarah Palin and it’s alive again. I want to detour on Sarah Palin for one second because the title of this talk is “The F Word: Fascism and Fundamentalism,” and I came up with that title because I write in The Family about the very tortured relationship between fascism and fundamentalism in American history. It’s not nearly as direct as a lot of people think. My main argument was that fundamentalism is not fascist and we make a mistake when we call it that. Now, I’m not saying it’s not a problem. I’m just saying it’s a different problem. There is more than one kind of trouble under the sun. That’s what I think we need to understand about American fundamentalism.

I’m fascinated by Sarah Palin because I think she’s closer than anybody since George Wallace to actual fascism. There’s a sense that we have a real fascist politician on the scene now, which we haven’t for a long time. I guarantee you that when Obama wins, I can write the headlines in December: “Fundamentalism is dead and gone from the American scene.” But Sarah Palin, no matter what, is going to emerge from this a martyr, and we know the role that martyrs play in the history of Christianity and of religion and of fundamentalism.

The Family, also known as The Fellowship, it is the oldest, most enduring and I think, arguably, the most powerful group doing religion and politics in Washington. It dates back to 1935.

Whenever I make a statement that a conservative group is sort of conservative, I don’t want to be one of those liberals or lefties or whatever, who’s sort of crying wolf, so I turn to my friends on the right and ask them for their description. There’s a Rice University sociologist, D. Michael Lindsay, a fairly centrist conservative evangelical, good scholar. Last year, in a book from Oxford University Press, he found that a plurality of 360 evangelical leaders he surveyed–and I’m not talking about preachers, I’m talking about politicians, two former presidents, congressmen and ambassadors, that kind of thing–about which religious groups were most influential in their thinking, a plurality named The Family was one of the most influential religious groups in Washington.  Wrote Lindsey, “There is no other organization like The Fellowship, especially among religious groups in terms of its access or clout among the country’s leadership.”

Chuck Colson gives us another picture. Colson’s name may be familiar to some of you–he was one of Nixon’s dirty tricks guys who famously became born again. He writes in his memoirs that The Family sought him out. They saw him as a quality guy and wanted him in their organization. Chuck Colson was delighted when he saw the reach of The Family, even after his years in the Nixon White House. He suddenly saw that he had this new political tool.  He wrote in his letter to the parole board when he got out of prison that he had discovered that “that which I could not accomplish through politics,” he could accomplish using the front of religion. He was very plain about it. He refers to The Family as “a veritable underground of Christ’s men all through Washington.”

More recently, David Kuo gives us some insight from a conservative, sympathetic angle. Kuo was a special assistant to Pres. Bush in his first term, was one of the guys in charge of implementing faith-based initiatives, and was one of the guys who had helped write the legislation that would open the door to it back in the 90s, the Charitable Choice provisions. He describes The Family as “the most powerful group in Washington that nobody knows.” “The Family’s reach into governments around the world,” he says, “is almost impossible to overstate, or even grasp.”

It’s important to make very clear that The Family is not a conspiracy. It’s a group like any other in Washington. There’s ways to do power publicly and there’s ways to do power privately, which is what The Family’s doing. But it is hard to see from the outside. So I went inside. I became a member for a month. Let me share with you a scene from inside, from the beginning of The Family.

“This is how we prayed: a dozen clear-eyed, smooth-skinned brothers gather together in a huddle, arms crossing arms over shoulders like the weave of a cable, leaning in on one another and swaying like the long grass up the hill from the house we share. I moved into a house of young men in training. The house is a handsome grey, two-story colonial and smells of new carpet and PineSol and aftershave. It’s decorated with lithographs of fox hunts and pictures of Jesus and in the bunkroom, a drawing of a C4 machine gun made for us by our six-year-old neighbor, a junior member of our family, as are his parents and their neighbors, and their neighbors, too. The men who live here call this house ‘Ivanwald,’ at the end of a tree-lined cul de sac, quiet but for the buzz of lawnmowers and kids playing foxes and hounds in the park across the road. Ivanwald sits as one house among many. Clustered together like mushrooms, nearly two dozen homes devoted, like these men, to the service of a personal Jesus, a Christ who directs their every action. The men tend every tulip in the cul de sac, trim every magnolia, seal every driveway, smooth and black as boot leather, and they pray–assembled at the dining table or on their lawn, or in the hallway, or in the bunkroom or on the basketball court, each man’s head bowed in humility and swollen with pride. Secretly, he thinks of being counted among such a fine core for Christ among men to whom he will open his heart and whom he will remember when he returns to the world. Not born-again, but remade, no longer an individual, but part of the Lord’s revolution, his will transformed into a weapon for what the young men call Spiritual War.

“‘Jeff,’ said one of the brothers, ‘Will you lead us in prayer?’

“‘Surely, brother.’ I’ve lived with these men for close to a month, not as a Christian, a term they deride as too narrow for the world they are building in Jesus’ name, but simply as a believer. I have shared the brothers’ meals, and their work and their games, I have been numbered among them, I’ve wrestled with them and showered with them and listened to their stories. I know which man resents his father’s fortune and which man succumbs to the flesh of a woman, not once but twice, and which man dances so well he’s afraid of being taken for gay. I know what it means to be a brother, which is to say that I know what it means to be a soldier in the army of God. ‘Heavenly father,’ I begin–that’s not a phrase you hear at this convention very often–‘Heavenly father,’ then, ‘O Lord.’ But I worry that doesn’t sound intimate enough, so I settle on, ‘Dear Jesus, Dear Jesus, just please Jesus, let us fight for your name.’ ”

I want to talk about the larger story of this group, which is what most of the book is devoted to and most of what I want to inject into the public discussion about fundamentalism.

It’s a story about the two great spheres of belief: We have religion and politics and the ways in which they are bound together by the mythologies of America. America has been infused with religion since the day in 1630 when John Winthrop declared the New World, the City Upon a Hill spoken of by Jesus. Three hundred and fifty-nine years later, Ronald Reagan would look out a White House window during the last days of his presidency and see in Washington’s traffic jams that same vision, like a double exposure: A tall, proud city built on rocks stronger than oceans, windswept, God-blessed–that’s what he saw in Washington. A shining city upon a hill, he would call it in his farewell address, invoking the same vision for America as John F. Kennedy and more recently as Sarah Palin, who spoke of that same city although she seemed to think the quote had originated with Ronald Reagan himself. In a sense that’s appropriate. He got it right because this city, this shining city upon a hill, is not a real city, it’s a city that’s always being remade, reinvented, born again.

The story I am interested in is a story of an imaginary place, the city that is very real in the minds of the believer. I want to understand that city. The men who asked me to pray there, my “brothers,” were members of this group of believers, The Family. It is not representative of any majority of Christians, but rather an avant-garde of a social movement that I call “American fundamentalism,” related to but not quite the same as traditional fundamentalism.

“Avant-garde” is a term usually reserved for artists, innovators, living strange and dangerous lives, who translate their strange and dangerous thoughts into pictures, or poetry or fantastical buildings, which in turn shape the way the rest of us live, a few steps behind, the way we understand the world. The term has a political ancestry as well. Lenin used “avant garde” to describe the elite cadres he believed could spark a revolution. It was in this sense, with explicit reference to Lenin, that the men to whom my brothers apprenticed themselves, a 70-year-old, self-described, invisible network of fundamentalist activists in government, business and military use the term “avant garde.”

They call themselves The Family and consider themselves as the corps of men responsible for changing the world. I quote: “Hitler, Lenin, and many others understood the power of a small corps of people,” instructs a document given to an inner circle, an example of the scope, if not the ideological particulars of the ambition of members of this fundamentalist avant-garde.

“Hitler took, what, maybe five guys, maybe five buddies and he turned a whole country around,” a former Ivanwald brother told my brothers and me during a seminar on “Biblical Capitalism,” much in the news lately: “They had a fraternity, Hitler and Goebbels. Look at it like this. Take a bunch of sticks, light each one of them on fire. Separate, they go out. Put them together though, light the bundle, and now you’re ready to burn.”

The Family’s avant garde is not comprised of neoNazis or cryptoNazis or fascists by any traditional definition. They are fundamentalists, and in this still-secular age, fundamentalism is a religion of both affluence and revolution.

“Fundamentalism” itself is a relatively recent and much-contested word coined by a conservative Baptist in 1920, who wanted to clear away the confusion about what Christianity, by his lights, was supposed to stand for. What Christians stood for in the world was, in fact, confusing. One of the biggest surprises to be found in “The Fundamentals,” a series of dense pamphlets published between 1910 and 1915 that gave the movement its name, is the argument that evolution is reconcilable with a little reading of scripture. The first fundamentalists believed in evolution! Much has changed since then. Such is the evolution of American fundamentalism. Imagine traveling a path twisted like that of a Mobius strip. You know, the M.C. Escher visual paradox: From liberation to authoritarianism, one seamless ribbon.

American fundamentalism’s original sentiments were as radically democratic in theory as they have become repressive in practice. It’s a dream, originally not of a Christian theocracy but of a return to the first century of Christ worship, before there was a thing called Christianity, during the age of miracles, when church was no more than a word for the great fellowship, the profound friendship of believers, when Christ’s testament really was new and revelation was unburdened by history, and believers were martyrs or martyrs-to-be. Pure and beautiful. Is fundamentalism too limited a word for a belief system of such radical utopianism?

Lately, some scholars prefer “maximalism,” a term meant to convey this movement’s ambition to conform every aspect of society to God. In contemporary America, from the Cold War to the Iraq War, the period of the current incarnation’s ascendents, that means a culture born again in the image of a Jesus, strong but tender, a warrior who hates the carnage he must cause, a “Man-God” ordinary man will follow. These are the days of the sword, literally. Affluent members of the society gift each other with real blades crafted to medieval standards, a fad inspired by a best-selling book, Wild at Heart.

As jargon then, maximalism isn’t bad: an unintended tribute to Maximus, the fighting hero in “Gladiator,” which is a film celebrated in contemporary Christian manhood as almost supplemental scripture. But I think “fundamentalism” still strikes closest to the movement’s desire for a story that never changes, a story to redeem all that seems random.

I offer these explanations as the consequences of American fundamentalism, which is an expansionist ideology of control better suited to empire than democracy, and to point to the defining tension of a creed that is both fearful and proud, even as it proclaims itself humble. It is a martyr’s faith in the hands of the powerful, its cross planted in the blood-soaked soil of Manifest Destiny. It is a strange and dangerous offspring of two intensely fertile set of stories: America and Christianity.

Now, I came to this story of writing about The Family, as Dan mentioned, while I was working on my first book, Killing the Buddha. That’s actually a Buddhist line, “if you meet the Buddha on the road, kill him.” The meaning is that it’s not the real  Buddha you think you meet, but merely an expression of your longing. A colleague and I, Peter Manseau, took this as a call to travel around and look for real-life “Buddha killers.” We spent about a year on the road.

In North Carolina, we stumbled upon an exorcism. We were driving along the road and pulled over to inspect some roadside religion and looked at the local newspaper. The headline was, as I recall it, awkwardly worded: “Shemale Terrorist Terrorizes Local Church.” We thought that was interesting. So we went over to the church and, in fact, an individual with a full complement of human genitalia had indeed gone into this church with a gun and opened fire. The gun was filled with blanks and nobody was hurt. It was a very small Pentecostal church and they had an exorcism for this person. They felt sorry for this person. They asked my coauthor and me to participate in the exorcism and we said “Sure.” I mean, you don’t get that invitation very often! The whole thing really came into focus for me when we went to see the local sheriff to ask him about this. He was a real classic southern sheriff, big sunglasses, driving a silver Lincoln Continental. He drove us over to the prison to meet the individual and sat with us in his office. His name was Thomas Breedlove. Sheriff Breedlove was sitting there and takes out a pistol and points it at us and we’re terrified. And he says, “It’s a fake gun. It’s not a real gun. See now, if you’da pointed that at me, I woulda shot ya.” And he said, “That’s just a lesson to show you that things that are not real can still hurt you.”

I think that is one of the most important lessons we can take when we think about religion in American life. It doesn’t matter whether it’s real. You can argue all day and say, “Oh, but your god isn’t real.” You know the Bill Maher line, “Your god is fake, silly.” So what? That’s not my problem with the fundamentalist God, that he’s not real. My problem with him is what the people who believe in him do in his name.

It was at that point, right after I had that meeting with the sheriff, that I moved in with The Family. They’re centered in Washington, outside of Arlington, and let me describe for you, just to give you some of the facts, the who, what, when, where, and why of what The Family is. The Family is, in its own words, an invisible association. It’s always been organized around public men: Sen. Sam Brownback, chair of the weekly, off-the-record meeting of religious groups called The Values Action Team, is an active member, as is Rep. Joe Pitts, a would-be theocrat who chairs the House version of the Values Action Team. Other members include Jim DeMint of South Carolina, chairman of the Senate Steering Committee, which is a conservative caucus co-founded back in 1974 by another Family associate, the late Senator Carl Curtis of Nebraska. Pete Domenici of New Mexico, who is a Catholic and relatively moderate as far as Republicans go, as one of the Senate’s old lions that the family covets, but not his doctrinal purity. Also included are Sen. Chuck Grassley of Iowa, Sen. James Inhofe and Sen. Tom Coburn of Oklahoma–the twin terrorists of Oklahoma, John Thune of South Dakota, Mike Enzi (Republican, Wyoming), John Ensign, conservative casino heir elected to the Senate from Nevada (a brightly tan, hapless figure who uses his family connections to graft holiness to his gambling fortune name). It’s not just Republicans. Faith-based Democrats, such as Sen. Bill Nelson of Florida and Sen. Mark Pryor of Arkansas, sincere believers drawn rightward by their understanding of Christ’s teachings. Christ didn’t come to compromise, Sen. Pryor explained to me, he came to take over. Sen. Pryor also explained that through The Family he had learned that separation of church and state had become too extreme ever since a campaign began promoting secularism in the 1950s.

The Family’s historic roll call is even more striking. The late Sen. Strom Thurmond produced confidential reports on legislation for The Family’s leadership and he presided for a time over The Family’s weekly Senate meeting. Dixiecrat Senators Herman Talmadge of Georgia and Absalom Willis Robertson of Virginia–Pat’s father–served on a behind-the-scenes board of the organization.

 In 1974, a family prayer group of Republican Congressmen and former Secretary of Defense Melvin Laird helped convince President Gerald Ford that Nixon deserved not just Christian forgiveness, but also legal pardon. That story, by the way, was reported in The New York Times. Why isn’t it in the official record? Because it was reported in The Times’ religion page as a sweet little story on the power of prayer. No one paid attention to the fact that Ford was very explicit that he was going to decide on Nixon’s pardon by convening his old Family- organized prayer group that he had when in Congress.

Also in 1974, Supreme Court Justice William Rehnquist led the Family’s first weekly bible study for federal judges. Reagan, early in his first term, declared of The Family at a National Prayer Breakfast, “I wish I could say more about it, but it’s working precisely because it’s private.” You think this would have been a call for investigative journalists everywhere to descend upon this. Instead, the press just mostly said, “Oh it’s private, okay sure. Hands off.”

“We desire to see a leadership led by God,” reads a confidential mission statement, “leaders of all levels of society who direct projects as they are led by the spirit.” I should add that the reason I have these documents is that The Family, despite its desire to be private and secretive, dumped 600 boxes of documents in the Billy Graham Center archives at Wheaton College. I spent, all told, about a year there, going through literally hundreds of thousands of documents. So they put their private documents in a public archive, which means the book is properly footnoted. These are strange documents, but you can go see them for yourselves.

Another principle expanded upon in these documents is stealthiness. Members are instructed to make use of secular leaders in the work of advancing His kingdom and to avoid, whenever possible, the label Christian itself, lest they alert enemies to that advance. Regular prayer groups, or cells, as they are called, have met at the Pentagon and the Department of Defense. The Family traditionally fostered strong ties with businessmen in the oil and aerospace industries. The Family’s use of the term “cell” long predates the word’s current association with terrorism. Its roots are in the Cold War, when leaders of The Family deliberately emulated the organizing techniques of communism.

In 1948, a group of Senate staffers met to discuss ways that The Family’s cell and leadership groups could recruit elites unwilling to participate in the mass meeting approach of populist fundamentalism. By this, they mean people like Pat Robertson’s father, who thought his son was terribly tacky. He thought that going on TV or radio was tacky. They weren’t interested in those people. They weren’t interested in the populist fundamentalism. They were interested in a much more sophisticated crowd.

By 1950, The Family declared that with democracy inadequate to fight against godlessness, such cells as they could organize should function to produce political atomic energy. That is, deals and alliances that could not be achieved through the clumsy machinations of legislative debates would instead radiate quietly out of political cells. More recently, Sen. Sam Brownback told me that the privacy of Family cells make them safe spaces for men of power, an appropriation of another term borrowed from an enemy, in this case, feminism.

“In this closer relationship,” a document from members reads, “God will give you more insight into your own geographical area in your sphere of influence. Once cells become an invisible believing group, out of which agreements reached in faith and in prayer around the personal Jesus Christ, lead to action that will appear to the world to be unrelated to any central organization.”

A member of The Family’s inner-circle once wrote to the group’s chief South African operative that “the movement is simply inexplicable to people who are not intimately acquainted with it. The Family’s political initiatives have always been misunderstood by outsiders,” he wrote. “As a result of very bitter experiences therefore, we have learned never to commit to paper the discussions or negotiations which were taking place. There is no such thing as a confidential memorandum, and leakage always tends to occur. Thus I would urge you never to put on paper anything relating to any of the work you are doing unless you know the recipient well enough to put at the top of the page: ‘Please destroy after reading.’ ”

And my favorite document, of these millions of documents, is the letter back from the South African operative, who writes that he understands he screwed up, he’s very sorry, he really takes rebuke to heart and has made copies of this document for all his fellows so that they too will understand. And that’s why I have a copy! The movement’s leader is Doug Coe. Doug Coe has been the leader since 1969, and organizes the National Prayer Breakfast every year. He describes the effectiveness of this private approach: “The Family functions invisibly like the Mafia.” (This quote is available, by the way, in one of the few sermons you can hear online at the website of The Navigators, which is a Christian right group. If you search Doug Coe and The Navigators and you dig long enough you’ll find this online audio sermon.) “The Family functions invisibly like the Mafia; they keep their organization invisible. Everything visible is transitory; everything invisible is permanent and lasts forever. The more you can make your organization invisible, the more influence it will have.”

True enough.

In 1953, they created the National Prayer Breakfast as their only public event. The idea was to have a national ritual that would commit the nation to God. They had been trying to do it for years. FDR would have nothing to do with them. Truman was not interested either, and neither was Eisenhower. Much to his credit, he said no at first, that this is pure violation of the separation of church and state, we’re not gonna do it. But he had a political debt to Billy Graham who, in 1952, had organized an evangelical bloc vote for Eisenhower–the first serious Southern evangelical turnout for a Republican in many decades. Some of you are probably familiar with the idea of Christian Right voter guides, which are often attributed to Ralph Reed. If you look back in the archives you’ll discover that churches were distributing this all over the country and in the 1952 election. So Ike had a debt to Billy Graham and Billy called it in and said to him, “I want you to participate in this prayer breakfast.” Eisenhower said, “Okay, I’ll do it, but I don’t want any media.” And it began and has since become a political ritual.

This is the same way that in 1954, by the way,  “under God” was added to the Pledge of Allegiance. A couple of Family members played key roles in that issue, too. Sen. Homer Ferguson, who was a champion of adding “under God” to things, was a board member of The Family. Rep. Charles Bennett from Florida, who was working to add God to the currency, was also a board member of The Family. That push was financed by a man named Clement Stone, who was one of The Family’s main financial backers.

You look at the Prayer Breakfast today and you wouldn’t know any of the history, because it’s one of the blandest events you’ll ever go to. People who go and love it say it’s not intended to be this big Christian right celebration. It’s officially ecumenical, they usually invite someone who is sort of friendly with evangelicalism, but not evangelical. For instance, they had Prince Bandar, the longtime ambassador from Saudi Arabia. They had Joe Lieberman as a speaker. They had Bono as a speaker. The press goes and doesn’t pay attention. It’s a week-long event, but they just cover the first thing in a sort of quick little writeup: “The President said we should all have faith,” whatever. It’s all ecumenical, whatever. Here’s an internal planning document: “Anything can happen. The Qur’an can even be read. But JESUS IS THERE. That’s all caps: JESUS IS THERE, He is infiltrating the world.” This is what we have at the heart of American government.

Many people believe it’s sponsored by Congress and thus it must be okay. I’ve spoken to Congressmen who think it goes back to the beginning of the Republic. Of course it doesn’t. It’s not sponsored by Congress. It’s paid for by the Fellowship Foundation. A few years ago, an intrepid Taiwanese reporter noticed that his government was giving quite a bit of money to the Fellowship Foundation and raised the question. They weren’t shy about why they were doing this; it was the best bargain in diplomacy. For every X amount in dollars, we can get face time with the President of the United States. You can’t beat that. That’s how it’s really functioning, as sort of a lobbying fest.

We’re always asking ourselves: What do these fundamentalists want to do when they get into power? What will the world look like? I think the more relevant question‚and what we’ve learned from this group called The Family, which is and has been right at the heart of American power for decades, shaping legislation on everything, not just social issues–is they don’t care much about that. They care more about foreign policy and were instrumental in American relationships with foreign dictators like Suharto, General Park in Korea, General Barre in Somalia. They were instrumental in the destruction of organized labor. They’ve been there all along and the question we have to ask ourselves is not, “What do hese people want?” but, “What have they already done? How has fundamentalism shaped American life?”

What if the work before us is not to fight something that is coming, but to fight something that is already here? That’s really the most alarming part of fundamentalism. It’s not something that’s coming, it’s something that’s here. You guys are the ones on the front lines of that fight, and I thank you for it.

Jeff Sharlet is a journalist and contributing editor for Rolling Stone and Harper’s, who has written for a variety of newspapers, magazines, and also writes a blog. He is co-author with Peter Manseau of Killing the Buddha–A Heretic’s Bible. His new book is The Family: The Secret Fundamentalism at the Heart of American Power, an exposé on the secretive wealthy elite ministry that puts on the annual National Prayer Breakfast–but is infiltrating all levels of government with its authoritarian Christian faith.

Freedom From Religion Foundation