Tuesday, April 10, 2007
I know this is currently tristero's beat, but way back when this blog was just a little blogbaby, I discussed Jeff Sharlet's fascinating expose in Harper's called "Jesus Plus Nothing: Undercover among America’s secret theocrats." It remains to this day one of the more chilling articles I've ever read about the intersection of politics and religion in this country. The facts in the article are true but they are so bizarre that I think people discounted it because it's almost impossible to believe.
Or was. Now that we know about the little theocratic "sleeper cells" that have been implanted throughout the government during Bush's reign, it doesn't seem all that bizarre at all.
Just a quick recap:
Ivanwald, which sits at the end of Twenty-fourth Street North in Arlington, Virginia, is known only to its residents and to the members and friends of the organization that sponsors it, a group of believers who refer to themselves as “the Family.” The Family is, in its own words, an “invisible” association, though its membership has always consisted mostly of public men. Senators Don Nickles (R., Okla.), Charles Grassley (R., Iowa), Pete Domenici (R., N.Mex.), John Ensign (R., Nev.), James Inhofe (R., Okla.), Bill Nelson (D., Fla.), and Conrad Burns (R., Mont.) are referred to as “members,” as are Representatives Jim DeMint (R., S.C.), Frank Wolf (R., Va.), Joseph Pitts (R., Pa.), Zach Wamp (R., Tenn.), and Bart Stupak (D., Mich.). Regular prayer groups have met in the Pentagon and at the Department of Defense, and the Family has traditionally fostered strong ties with businessmen in the oil and aerospace industries. The Family maintains a closely guarded database of its associates, but it issues no cards, collects no official dues. Members are asked not to speak about the group or its activities.
The organization has operated under many guises, some active, some defunct: National Committee for Christian Leadership, International Christian Leadership, the National Leadership Council, Fellowship House, the Fellowship Foundation, the National Fellowship Council, the International Foundation. These groups are intended to draw attention away from the Family, and to prevent it from becoming, in the words of one of the Family's leaders, “a target for misunderstanding.”  The Family's only publicized gathering is the National Prayer Breakfast, which it established in 1953 and which, with congressional sponsorship, it continues to organize every February in Washington, D.C. Each year 3,000 dignitaries, representing scores of nations, pay $425 each to attend. Steadfastly ecumenical, too bland most years to merit much press, the breakfast is regarded by the Family as merely a tool in a larger purpose: to recruit the powerful attendees into smaller, more frequent prayer meetings, where they can “meet Jesus man to man.”
“We work with power where we can,” the Family's leader, Doug Coe, says, “build new power where we can't.”
At the 1990 National Prayer Breakfast, George H.W. Bush praised Doug Coe for what he described as “quiet diplomacy, I wouldn't say secret diplomacy,” as an “ambassador of faith.” Coe has visited nearly every world capital, often with congressmen at his side, “making friends” and inviting them back to the Family's unofficial headquarters, a mansion (just down the road from Ivanwald) that the Family bought in 1978 with $1.5 million donated by, among others, Tom Phillips, then the C.E.O. of arms manufacturer Raytheon, and Ken Olsen, the founder and president of Digital Equipment Corporation. A waterfall has been carved into the mansion's broad lawn, from which a bronze bald eagle watches over the Potomac River. The mansion is white and pillared and surrounded by magnolias, and by red trees that do not so much tower above it as whisper. The mansion is named for these trees; it is called The Cedars, and Family members speak of it as a person. “The Cedars has a heart for the poor,” they like to say. By “poor” they mean not the thousands of literal poor living barely a mile away but rather the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom: the senators, generals, and prime ministers who coast to the end of Twenty-fourth Street in Arlington in black limousines and town cars and hulking S.U.V.'s to meet one another, to meet Jesus, to pay homage to the god of The Cedars.
There they forge “relationships” beyond the din of vox populi (the Family's leaders consider democracy a manifestation of ungodly pride) and “throw away religion” in favor of the truths of the Family. Declaring God's covenant with the Jews broken, the group's core members call themselves “the new chosen.”
I urge you to read it all if you haven't and to read it again if you have.
Sharlet has a new article in Rolling Stone, which he disusses at Talk To Action. And as you would expect, he has some intriguing insights into some of the "Good Bushies" that have been salted throughout the government:
There's much concern that the Bush administration has been allowing the infiltration of federal government by Christian fundamentalist "sleeper cells," political appointees whose first loyalty is not to the Constitution, but a reductionist understanding of the Bible. It's true, of course, and here's another one... In my latest Rolling Stone story, "Teenage Holy War" (only the first quarter of it's online, here; the rest is in the issue on the stands now) I wrote of one such character, Rebecca Contreras, whom I saw "lecture" at the east Texas Honor Academy of Ron Luce, a fundamentalist youth leader:
The week I'm at the Academy, the guest speaker is Rebecca Contreras, a pretty 35-year-old professional evangelist in blue jeans who was a former Special Assistant to the President in Bush II's first term, responsible for 1,200 presidential appointments. She tells us about one of her first days in Washington. "The vice president is sitting there, and the president is sitting in his chair," she said. "There I was, little Latina Rebecca from the inner city." Contreras had not gone to college. She felt overwhelmed by all the advanced degrees in the room -- Cheney, with his almost-Ph.D (he's a drop-out), Bush, with his Harvard MBA. "The Devil began to say, `Look at you, you don't belong here. You're not credentialed.' Then I heard the voice of the Lord say, `Put you're eyes on me!'" Contreras raises her finger in imitation of God. " `I CREDENTIALED YOU! I HAVE PLACED YOU HERE!' " The moral of the story, she says, is that obedience to God matters more than education. Contreras speaks of "generational curses" for those who do not obey -- the idea that one must pay for the sins of one's fathers, after all, a notion rejected even by most fundamentalists -- and then she closes her eyes and begins swaying as she prays in a strong alto sing-song for the Battlecry interns, many of whom will go no further in their education than this hall, many of whom have risen to their feet during her story and some who have fallen to their knees. "I pray Father-God that these young people, that they would impact. That--Father-God--some would even--Father-God--become missionaries and pastors, some of them would become, oh Father-God, senators! And congressmen! I thank You, Father-God!" The boy next to me, a towering slab of earnestness with sheepdog bangs, shakes with tears as the class comes to a close.
There are many, many great evangelicals working in government, almost all of them clear about the constitution and every bit as dedicated to their jobs as their counterparts of other faiths and no faith. And, for the record, there's nothing illegal about getting yourself a government job because you believe government should be led by God, so long as you perform your job competently. But from a democratic perspective -- small d democratic, that is -- there's a real problem with men and women dedicated not to democracy but to a sort of voluntary theocracy, especially when they work toward that end without regard for competence or rule of law (Goodling, Contreras above). And those of us opposed to the fundamentalist attempt to pack the bureaucracy have to recognize that this problem has been with us for decades.
I'm sure there are many wonderful evangelical believers in government too. But I don't consider people like Rebecca Contraras amongst them. Regardless of how you feel about religion in politics, when you get right down to it, she is just a facilitator of a corrupt and incompetent patronage machine. Whether Goodling or Brownie, the conservative "movement" is filled with the worst and the dumbest and this country will fail with people of this caliber running it. There are just too many hungry competitors out there in the global economy who don't put their trust in prayer to make things happen. They study, work hard and try to do it better. As Benjamin Franklin said, "the Lord helps those who help themselves." (And he didn't mean help themsleves to the treasury, either.)
"The Family" may have once been the toppermost of the poppermost for the religious politico set, but they left the everyday scut work to the Good Bushies. The results were entirely predictable.
digby 4/10/2007 02:46:00 PM