Having tangled the other day with 9/11 Truthers at Firedoglake in a thread that was supposed to be a book salon for Matt Taibbi, I got to thinking (because of comments David Neiwert made in the thread) about the allure of conspiracy theories. What bothers me about them is that they obscure the real ways the world is fucked up, but they do satisfy a need to understand what is true on a broader scale, which is that the rich and powerful seek to maintain power even if they have to do weird things to do it. Conspiracy theorists accuse the reality-based community of not wanting to buy into their silly theories because we can’t handle the truth, but I think that they’re projecting. They can’t handle the truth, which is that power mongering is more about being opportunistic and flexible, and less about controlling reality itself. The real truth is harder to grasp, and has all the incoherence of real life.
I mention this, because the difference between a conspiracy theory and a genuine examination into a community that exists to create and maintain systems of power is well-demonstrated in Jeff Sharlet’s book The Family: The Secret Fundamentalism at the Heart of American Power. I was a little wary at first, since the marketing makes it seem like a conspiracy theory kind of thing, but the book itself details why groups like this bear examination if not conspiratorial fears. It’s the difference between getting that the meetings at the Bohemian Grove are undoubtedly times when movers and shakers get their business done outside of the prying eyes of the public and thinking that they’re worshipping Satan in there. For a lot of conspiracy theorists, actually getting inside the secret rooms that we’re kept out of would be boring, because it’s actually a lot what you’d expect except even sillier and more boring. But to reality-based citizens, that’s when it gets more interesting. That the “Satan-worshipping” rituals at the Bohemian Grove are actually fraternity-style ceremonies, jokes, and pranks is even more chilling to me, suggesting at distinct lack of maturity and decency on the part of our leadership that would like to project otherwise.
Jeff Sharlet understands this, and describes the ideas and functions of The Family brilliantly, showing off their vulgar and stupid theological ideas in all their glory. But don’t feel too superior—he also shows how just that kind of banal stupidity is what makes The Family such an effective power brokering organization. It’s a loosely defined, but tight-knit organization that has, until recently basically hidden in plain sight. (After they realized Sharlet was investigating him, they closed down their records and actually sent spies after him, which failed to do much for them, because he wasn’t hiding anything.) It’s a church, except they deny that fact for reasons that you want to be smart, but are actually pretty asinine, on the level of a teenager railing against how the church keeps you from really knowing god, man. They do think of themselves as genuine Christians, and so have some of the trappings of Christianity, such as a belief that they love everyone and the subsequent semi-tolerance of dissent in discussions they have at the Cedars, where they meet. What they seem wary of is Scripture, putting emphasis on direct communications with Jesus, and it’s obvious in Sharlet’s hands why: The organization exists primarily to rationalize the American empire as Christian love wrapping its way around the world.
Of course, it’s not like Jesus could up and tell you women are equal, which is what I thought was interesting about The Family—they are deeply invested in women being subservient. Mostly, it’s because they believe that god’s will is a strictly hierarchical world, where everyone is submitting to god’s will, and thus those down the ladder submitting to those up the ladder are really just submitting to god’s will. If that makes sense. The Family began as a reaction to organized labor, and it’s clear from the history that Sharlet builds that religion was something of a last resort for people who couldn’t make logical arguments against workers having some control over and rights to their labor. The last refuge of scoundrels: God said so. But they make exceptions to these strict rules if they see an opportunity to recruit another politician into sympathy with their worldview. So while women generally have to be outside of the action with The Family—staying out of political talk, doing the chores, waiting on men—they make exceptions when someone with a lot of power like Hillary Clinton comes a-knocking. Oh yes, Clinton has gotten a full dose of the idea that Jesus really wants us to have an American empire. Reading about her relationship with The Family after the end of the primaries made me so glad she didn’t win, and confirmed my suspicions that she’s just untrustworthy on the issue of staying the fuck away from invading other countries. The Family doesn’t keep their sucking up in-house, either, but spend a lot of time making allegiances to the petty 3rd world dictators that mass murder in the name of capitalism and therefore find favor in this peculiar interpretation of Christian love.
Sharlet spends much of the book on the history of The Family (now he knows more about it than pretty much anyone in it, because they aren’t what you’d call the deepest thinkers in the world, just power mongerers looking for a conscience salve and a networking opportunity), which is fascinating and goes a long way to explaining why, when Sharlet actually spent time with The Family as they sized him up as a potential recruit, they were dropping the name “Hitler” in admiring tones frequently. This is examined in more detail in the interview Lindsay Beyerstein did with Sharlet. What I found most disturbing, though, was his last 1/3 of the book, about how the popular fundamentalism is converging with the elite fundamentalism. Starting off, the two were, if not exactly at odds, not really good friends. Really, elite fundamentalism was basically off the radar for populist fundamentalists. The latter were more concerned with local issues—keeping your local school from integrating, keeping gays out of your town, abortion, etc.—and not really invested in any way in the American empire or the idea that capitalism is Jesus’s one true economic system. Mike Huckabee was a scary fundie to the powers that be precisely because he hasn’t been washed over by the principles of The Family, and still fucks up by tipping his hat to the idea that Christianity should be concerned about the actual poor and suffering. (“The poor”, to The Family, seems to be anyone who doesn’t quite get it, not actual poor people without money.)
But things are changing. Fundies, reluctantly or not, got on board with the idea that Jesus wants an American empire, and that the major maneuver right now is quashing Islam. (Interestingly, The Family is sympathetic to Muslims, who they consider brethern as long as said Muslims are down with their ideas about the holiness of power and the wrongness of democracy. Their close relationship with Suharto, a Muslim, was justified on the grounds that Muslims are kinda Christians. Obviously, they worship power more than anything else.) The prosperity doctrine is big in the megachurches of America, which nicely dovetails with The Family’s idea that god’s will is expressed through earthly shows of power. And of course, both The Family and the populist fundies agree whole-heartedly on homosexuality, abortion, women’s rights, the whole bit.
Sharlet tells a persuasive story about how these two groups are beginning to align, despite theological differences. A big player is Chuck Colson, who is bit in The Family, but is also a hero to the populist fundamentalist movement, who sees him as a good example of the redeeming power of Christ. Another is Ted Haggard, who I don’t think has shit all to do with The Family, but who instinctually sympathizes with their worship of power and has brought fundamentalist, with his New Life Church, much closer to the “fuck the poor, worship the rich” version of Christianity that The Family specializes in. He also, and this is irrelevant to this review but interesting, got his congregation to wander around Colorado Springs praying at the houses of women they suspected of witchcraft for reasons that would not surprise any of us. Welcome to the 21st century America.
So, read it. It’s important on a number of levels, but also a good exercise in how to write about power consolidation without slipping into conspiracy theory think.