Alternet's Anna Clark interviews Jeff Sharlet about his new book, C Street: The Fundamentalist Threat to American Democracy. (You probably remember his previous book, The Family: The Secret Fundamentalism at the Heart of American Power .) He has some really interesting things to say about this powerful, secretive movement and how it threatens democracy:
AC: Does the Family have any other counterparts in U.S. politics – groups of people that, religiously based or not, are contracting the scope of democracy?
JS: Yes, absolutely. I'm not saying that these guys are the secret puppet-masters that control the world. All I'm doing with this story is adding one more power base to our pantheon.
But the real key thing about the Family is the secrecy. Now, I disagree with Pat Robinson and James Dobson completely, 100 percent. I know they do secret things, but they are out there in the public square. They engage in democracy. Sure, it's for an undemocratic vision, but that's legitimate. But [the Family's] unusual and uncommon influence is that for so long they denied their own existence. That's starting to change, though, because of all this publicity.
AC: It's amazing that the strategy really works. The founder articulated that it would be more powerful and efficient if the Family denied its own existence, and he was right! Ronald Reagan once said at the National Prayer Breakfast, the Family's only public event, he said to the journalists in the room about the Family: ‘I could tell you more about it, but I can't. It's working precisely because it's private.' And then he said this: “I've had my moments with the press, but I have to commend them for their discretion.”You're a journalist, you know that any time a politician compliments you on your discretion, it's a problem!
But a lot of these journalists see that as a sign that they're in, they're in the inner circle. They say they're "cultivating sources." No, you're not, you hack! You're auditioning for a talking heads spot, that's what you're doing. … A lot of these journalists practice knee-jerk centrism. This idea that the center must hold – not that it will hold, but that it must hold. It's when journalists see themselves as guardians of that balance that you get in a very dangerous place.
AC: While the Family came most forcefully into the public consciousness in the wake of last year's scandals of three of its members, you write in C Street of the importance of resisting the urge to gloat about moral hypocrisy. Can you talk about why such finger-pointing is a flawed response?
JS: Because that liberal glee at right-wingers acting on desire comes from the same prudish, small, little, hard-hearted place. It's the same counting of sins that right-wingers themselves do. Maybe it's a bait-and-switch – people think they will buy this book and hear about all the naughty things Republicans do. And they will—but those things are about money and violence overseas.
Look at the story of [South Carolina Gov.] Mark Sanford in particular. He's something of a tragic figure, right? He's in this terrible, terrible marriage. Here was this guy evidently late in life going through this important stage where he realized that we love who we love and we desire who we desire, and that these things aren't based on status or calculation.
So for Sanford, the awfulness wasn't that he went to Argentina; the awfulness was that he came back. And C Street brought him back. C Street said "you must work on your marriage as an obedience to God."
When these Republicans have their sex scandals, we should all say "great." Here is an opportunity for these conservative politicians to realize that love and lust and desire are complex, that they are not about obedience. Which is not to say that you should go cheat on your wife or your husband – just that we want these guys to reach their emotional maturity. When liberals gloat over it, they just play the same game, and round and round we go. It's the same kind of erasure of desire.
AC: Given what the real stakes are, why do you think the public is inclined to slip into the superficial criticisms of C Street?
JS: Well, let me clarify, I don't think talking about sex is superficial. Here is where I differ from a lot of people. There are people who are gloating about [the scandals], and then there are people saying, why are we talking about sex when we should be talking about serious things? I think sex is a pretty serious thing. We need to understand that when people talk about sex, they're talking about many things.
When my first book came out, I got a fair amount of press, but reporters didn't really get it, and people weren't really interested in it. The secrecy was really complex. But then the sex scandals and affairs come up, that's a kind of secrecy the public understands. Suddenly the sex and secrets become a metaphor. The public can easily see that politicians may be keeping things from us. They may not have our best interests at heart. People understand it because most of us have done, or have had done to us, something like it. That's what makes it a great news story. You're a journalist, you know that people don't want a new story; they want stories they know. And I'm not making fun of people – people want a story they already know because they're thinking about things, working it out in their own mind.
So I don't think it's superficial to talk about sex. You begin the conversation with sex … and I suppose if you're very lucky, you end it with sex. But in between, we must move on to serious things. We must see that the same justification that C Street uses to cover up the sex scandals of Ensign and Sanford and [Rep. Chip] Pickering is the exact same move for what their doing with their involvement in Uganda, and Nigeria, before that, Papa Doc in Haiti. It's the same erasure of desire.
AC: You write that the threat of the Family isn't theocracy, but 'the conflation of democracy with authoritarianism.' Logically, how does the Family reconcile these two seemingly oppositional ideas?
JS: They do it through the soft sell. They do it through the appeal to unity. Unity and harmony sound good. The subtitle I originally wanted for my book was "The Fundamentalist Abduction of Democracy." That idea, that conflation of democracy and authoritarianism, is very learned. Authoritarianism is kind of a bad word. But then you take one step over to paternalism. Well, that's still a bad word, but now you're talking about fathers. You get into the evangelical expressions of Father-God, and now you're talking about love, and love as an expression of authority.
People love hearing powerful white men telling them they're just a nobody, they didn't do anything, instead of telling them, ‘I'm a leader, I like being in charge. I have ideas about what we can do. I have what Martin Luther King called the drum major instinct.That's where leaders come from. Leaders engage the prophetic voice. How does the Family conflate democracy with authoritarianism? They basically take Christianity and strip it of its prophetic voice. Cornel West writes a lot about this is in his theological work. The prophetic voice is a kind of democratic speech; it's about speaking truth to power. It's asserting that things as they are, are not as they should be. The prophetic voice means conflict, it means argument. It means we have different ideas. People don't like conflict, and that's where authoritarianism comes in – it's called harmony. The Family in its early days thought that after World War II, we would become a one-party state and they thought that was a great idea. Democracy is sharp edges, but that's how they reconcile it – that's their word, "reconciliation." It's cutting off the sharp edges and saying, "come over here where there's common ground and we all agree."