[url=http://www.truthdig.com/arts_culture/item/20080905_robert_christgau_on_americas_secret_fundamentalists/]Robert Christgau on America’s Secret Fundamentalists
By Robert Christgau
Any believer in American democracy is obliged to come to terms with a wing of the citizenry few secular humanists have the wherewithal to think about—Christians. Not mainline modernists, so useful for validating progressive pieties when we godless need moral ballast, but the 75 million Americans whose Christianity takes such modifiers as the respectable evangelical, the unapologetic fundamentalist, the doctrinal Bible-believing, the thoughtful convinced and the emotional born-again. Especially the white ones, of course—even black churches that oppose abortion and homosexuality are aligned with the social gospel, while Latino Pentecostals and Korean Presbyterians generally gather in their own congregations. Anyway, secular humanists are inclined to cut African-Americans and immigrants some slack. White Middle Americans they have a problem with.
These generalizations are crude, obviously. For one thing, there are plenty of secular humanists in Middle America, where proximity mitigates incomprehension a little. But in New York, my eternal home, folks are less sophisticated. As someone whose atheism proceeds directly from his demographically unlikely childhood in a fundamentalist church in Queens, and whose brother has spent his life ministering to conservative churches in various distant suburbs, I got on this problem back when my colleagues at The Village Voice dismissed Jimmy Carter out of hand because he was a Southern Baptist. I argued back then that the specifics of Carter’s religious history suggested levels of honesty and compassion unusual in a politician, which turned out to be true—in 2000, Carter quit the by then explicitly right-wing Southern Baptist Convention after a fruitless struggle to moderate it. Other politically prominent Southern Baptists include Pat Robertson, who founded the Christian Broadcasting Network in 1960, and Jerry Falwell, who founded the Moral Majority in 1979. They do not include famed born-againer George W. Bush—or the most devout Christian currently running for president, Barack Obama. Generalizations are often crude.
Jeff Sharlet’s “The Family: The Secret Fundamentalism at the Heart of American Power” examines a group of politically engaged Christians far more secretive than Robertson or Falwell. Sharlet establishes that since the end of World War II, the Family, aka the Fellowship, has exerted its influence in an impressive and frightening array of mostly dire events. Its first coup was the wholesale exoneration of minor Nazis and major Nazi collaborators after the war. The addition of under God to the Pledge of Allegiance and In God We Trust to U.S. currency were its initiatives. Its first major government operative was Sen. Frank Carlson (R-Kan.), who persuaded Dwight Eisenhower to run as a Republican, purged progressive bureaucrats from his chair at the obscure Civil Service Employees Committee and lobbied for such heads of state as Haiti’s “Papa Doc” Duvalier. Other dictators abetted by the Family include Ngo Dinh Diem of Vietnam, Haile Selassie of Ethiopia, Park Chung Hee of South Korea, Artur da Costa e Silva of Brazil, Gen. Suharto of Indonesia, Mohamed Siad Barre of Somalia and Carlos Eugenios Vides Casanova of El Salvador, which got its first infusion of special aid at the behest of Jimmy Carter, who has called Family leader Doug Coe a “very important person” in his life. Hillary Clinton has also been a Family “friend,” and not just via its major public manifestation, the relatively anodyne annual National Prayer Breakfast. The Family was instrumental in the creation of Chuck Colson’s Prison Fellowship, and of the Community Bible Study project through which George W. Bush found Jesus in 1985.
Deeply researched yet fast paced, moving easily from first person to third person and incident to overview, “The Family” is an exceptional piece of bookcraft. Its revelations are fascinating, especially with political history having propelled Christians deep into polite discourse since 1976. Yet since it came out in May, it has attracted just two major reviews, both censorious; I found out about it only when I was asked to share a panel with Sharlet in June. You could say this reflects the dismal state of book coverage in a journalistic environment where new arts cutbacks come down from on high every month. But when I try to imagine how an unbroken phalanx of individual literary editors decided not to squeeze this book into their pathetic page allotments, I keep remembering how exotic my Voice co-workers found my hunch that Carter was a smart, sensible, decent guy. Secular humanists know more about Christians now, but not that much more. And “The Family” doesn’t fit their template.