Thursday, April 22, 2010

Family Matters

Jeff Sharlet's book The Family is an eye-opening look inside of the secretive fundamentalist Christian organization of the same name that has intertwined itself with American power over the past 70 years, but I found the book more useful as a look inside of American Christian fundamentalism in general.

The book begins with a brief introduction to religious revival in American history before telling the story of Abraham Vereide, the founder of The Family. This section seemed a bit perfunctory and didn't really add much to the story other than establishing that American history is full of religious fervor and innovation, something that I assume anyone who picks up this book already knows.

The origins of The Family lie in the labor unrest of the Great Depression. The first of many tautologies upon which the faith of The Family and American fundamentalist Christianity rests is introduced when Vereide outlines his plan for labor-management conflict resolution. The idea is that the men in positions of power were put there by God. As long as they act in accordance with God's will, strife will disappear - and if it doesn't, it's clearly the fault of those who are resisting the will of the almighty.

The Family really got going during the Cold War. Their fundamentalism proved to be remarkably ecumenical in its search for proxies to use in the struggle against the Soviet Union and godless communism. Former Nazis and even Indonesia's murderous dictator Suharto and Somalia's Siad Barre (both Muslims) were all courted by The Family. It's no secret that the US has formed and continues to form alliances with some less than savory heads of state. The fact that fundamentalist Christianity has been used to sell national security imperatives is not all that shocking. Most shocking is how completely The Family has been able to install their narrative into the minds of politicians and citizens of all ideological stripes, not just their natural allies on the religious and authoritarian right.

Populist fundamentalism, the religion of megachurches, TV evangelists, and the common man and woman, and how it relates to and interacts with the elite fundamentalism of The Family is covered in the final chapters of the book. The elite fundamentalism of The Family is so stripped of anything that I recognize as Christianity that it does not feel cynical to conclude that its primarily mission is to exploit American civic religious traditions in order to consolidate power both at home and abroad. While I don't agree with their beliefs, I understand their lust for power. While this book taught me a lot about populist fundamentalism, I still have no idea what drives people into its embrace.

In some ways, my life experience has made me perfectly incapable of understanding this faith. I'm a secular liberal who was raised in the Catholic church. Had I not been exposed to any Christian faith tradition, I would probably only find populist fundamentalism strange instead of strange and contradictory. Contradiction may be at the heart of all religions, but it's the lifeblood of populist fundamentalism. The faith described in this book is like a game a Jeopardy! where the question for every answer is 'Who is Jesus?'. The contortions of mind that need to be maintained in order to preserve this constraint are baffling and have given rise to whole systems of knowledge, such as intelligent design, that provide revisionist explanations couched in the language of modernity for anything that threatens to undermine this axiom.

Other than showing that fundamentalism is here to stay, Sharlet doesn't speculate on what the future holds. This is wise on his part, though it's always fun to look into the future and to look back at the prognosticators of the past to see how wrong (or right) they were. The Family is an important book and well worth reading, even if you think you already understand the links between politics and religion in America.

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