Fundamentalists in our Midst
By Maria Caron
Last week when a pastor in Florida decided to burn the Koran, Christians, politicians, and government officials, rightly condemned what was universally agreed to be a hateful act. The right to free speech aside, most Americans seemed to view such an act as bad for the country and a poor representation of American religion in the public square. Despite the attention this pastor received in the media he is little more than an extremist operating on the periphery of society with only a congregation of 50 parishioners.
However, there are forms of fundamentalism at work in our political structure. More dangerous, and more worthy of our attention than the would-be Koran-burner, are Christian political organizations that hide behind slogans like “family values” but whose true agenda’s might reveal darker ambitions. One of these groups is the Fellowship, also know as the Family. What is alarming about this group is their intentional lack of transparency. By operating just beneath the surface, the Fellowship exudes huge amounts of political and social pressure without drawing the negative attention that would be sure to condemn them.
Originally started in the midst of the great depression, Fellowship founder Abraham Veriede resisted the new deal and insisted in the value of free markets which he equated with his Christian beliefs. The group which ministers primarily to the rich and powerful operates a home that receives tax exemption as a church. The home’s primary purpose, however, is to house congressman, providing spiritual guidance while lobbying for what it understands as Christian values. Underlying The Fellowship’s occupation with politicians is a belief that the powerful are the special few chosen by God for action. By becoming spiritual teachers to these men in power the family believes it can bring about God’s will in what Jeff Sharlet describes as “trickle down fundamentalism.” Every year this group hosts the National Prayer Breakfast, a tradition kept since the Eisenhower Administration. It is attended by Christian organizations, members of congress, other powerful politicians and the President. While the Family’s presence and power in Washington are undeniable little else is known about the group because it operates under a veil of secrecy. Today a man named Doug Coe leads it but its other members, which undoubtedly include elected officials, are protected. None the less some of its known members and associates include Senator John Ensign, Governor Mark Sanford, Attorney General John Ashcroft, and Rick Warren who gave the prayer at President Obama’s inaugural address.
Jeff Sharlet, who wrote a book about the Family back in 2009, exposed in a recent Harper’s article the family’s connections to an anti-gay bill in Uganda that would make homosexuality a crime punishable by death. The Fellowship has its own branch in the Ugandan Parliament. It has been a presence there since President Museveni “a dictator hailed by the west for his democratic rhetoric and by Christian conservatives for the evangelical zeal of his regime” ( 37) came into power. The family has provided millions in leadership development and been involved in anti-AIDS programs that have nearly eliminated condom distribution. Through the Family’s urging Uganda and other countries have received U.S. foreign aide to promote programs run by fundamentalists. These programs seem on the surface to be helpful, like AIDS education, but are inherently ideological and are used for the sole purposes of manipulating Ugandans to embrace fundamentalist positions. But more powerful than their money are their ideas, particularly against homosexuality that have united the diverse tribes of Uganda around a common enemy. Sharlet states that the Family “like most American fundamentalists came out in muted opposition to Uganda’s gay death penalty, but they didn’t dispute the motive behind it: the eradication of homosexuality…for years American fundamentalists have looked on Uganda as a laboratory for theocracy…they send not just money and missionaries but ideas.” (37)As Sharlet pressed members of Ugandan parliament to release the names of American politicians they had claimed were supporting the bill, one responded “We must protect each others secrets, eh? That is what the Fellowship is, men we can trust, take our sins to.” (45)
Why should we pay attention to this group of fundamentalists? Although I find the family’s views and actions, especially in connection with Uganda’s Gay death penalty law, repugnant and anti-Christian, an alternative look in to the minds behind The Family appears in a recent article in The New Yorker suggests that Sharlet may have overstated the Fellowships involvement in some of its dealings abroad. None the less the article acknowledges that he group “has made itself vulnerable to unfriendly assessments, because its insistent secrecy and Coe’s indiscriminate outreach to leaders of all kinds raise legitimate questions of accountability.” (Boyer, New Yorker) The Family’s secretive membership and lobbying in Washington are fundamentally undemocratic. We really don’t have a clear idea about who are these people and what are their motives and goals. Although their representatives have claimed that their motive is to live a Jesus centered life, the strands of their influence that can be felt in and beyond Washington suggest more. How does a Jesus-centered group focused on small prayer meetings end up in Uganda at all? And what exactly does personal piety have to do with holding a big National Prayer Breakfast? If the family’s intentions are pure as they argue, why not at least dissociate themselves from those in such places as Uganda that takes their message to extreme and violent measures. If the group wishes to continue its activism in the public square it ought to come out and tell us exactly what is trying to do. This should be required for a group that exerts powerful influence in Washington under the guise of operating a church. In this country the fellowship may tone down its ideological rhetoric and keep quiet about its extremist positions, but that has not kept them from going oversees where their influence, intended or not, has incited mass violence and persecution of gay people.
The pastor in Florida, who made the news by threatening to burn the Koran, is certainly an example of extremist Christianity in the public sphere. However his influence pales in comparison to the sway the Family and other fundamentalist groups have in U.S government. We should ask ourselves if this is the best model for Christian engagement in political life.