Thanks to the prodding of Tony and Rick, I took the plunge into a truly amazing book. And a plunge it is: The Family is 400 pages of a detailed exploration of an almost invisible consortium of political power in DC. Jeff Sharlet writes with exquisite detail about the various political and religious tides from the past that coalesced this group, and the current concerns that energize it. I’m not one for conspiracy theories, but I have enough personal and local knowledge (from friends and friends of friends) to know that this group– and this book– are for real. The Family (aka The Fellowship, aka The Fellowship Foundation) hosts the National Prayer Breakfast, where the President traditionally gives an address. But more than these occasional public events, it serves as a connection point between US and world leaders– political leaders, business leaders, dictators, and other power brokers. The problem, as Sharlet sees it, is the lack of discretion shown to just which leaders it connects, and the way in which even the term ‘family’ has automatized “cozy little kingdoms ruled by one Father” but has done little to foster any sense of care for the other.
Sharlet’s writing is so good that a quick read is almost impossible. Skim this book, and you’ll miss gems like this one on page 180: “…manifest destiny, the original westward thrust that erased a continent of Native souls, burns history like coal and knows no sin but that of its enemies.” He obviously finds a lot to critique about The Family, but does so indirectly, offering instead a narrative which allows the reader to draw their own conclusions. In so doing, he captures this subtle subculture perfectly: offering a thin veneer of overly-individuated Christianity that asks nothing of its adherents other than to keep up appearances. In this brand of Jesus-followership, Jesus is depicted as the King of Kings: the most powerful of the world’s most powerful leaders. And rather than lay down their power, followers are encouraged to simply be humble about their wealth and power– to confess that they themselves are nothing, and that their wealth and power come from God. So, if you are powerful, tweak your power toward that which is Godly. And, the reasoning goes, what is more Godly than Godly power? Such circularity would be humorous if it wasn’t so self-justifying, unnerving, and dangerous.
In Sharlet’s telling, this shadowy group has long been a defender of American hegemony, and a proponent of revolution where that power did not yet extend. It has offered a “feel-good fundamentalism” that has rubber-stamped the interests of the rich and powerful. So, the many perceived opponents of this folk religion have been anything diminishes this power: labor parties, communism, social justice movements, and the like.
He concludes the book by leaving a pregnant question unspoken, yet hanging in the air: so what is the better way? Certainly there are a lot of faith communities embracing a Jesus who is poor and who denies earthly power and who is preoccupied with justice, but are we producing better results? Are we any less concerned about protecting our assets than the power brokers targeted in this book? I’m afraid that the opposite of power politics is not social justice, but a practical apathy (which is often married to a self-righteousness that rivals that of the fundamentalists). Truly, whatever the Way of Jesus, it is enigmatic, small, and self-sacrificial. But what does it look like in Washington, DC and the rest of the world? And in what ways can the words and works of Jesus be good news to both the powerful and the powerless?