The last few decades sure have been bad ones for organized religion. Conservative Christians have decided that the sum total of the Bible is about reestablishing the sex and gender mores of the 19th century. Liberal protestantism is so unassuming that hardly anyone even remembers it exists. The Catholic Church has been responsible for the deaths of millions in Africa thanks to its mindless belief that God hates condoms. Much of Islam has been taken over by the toxic Saudi strain. Israel has turned into an apartheid state. Hindus in India are apparently now dedicated to creating a religiously pure state. And even Buddhists have been acting badly lately.
Meanwhile, science keeps churning out new wonders. Cell phones. The internet. Cures for cancer. Robotic prosthetics. Solar panels on rooftops. Talking computers. Antidepressants. Google Maps. Cheap genome sequencing. Virtual reality. Machine learning. Meatless meat. Missions to Mars. Electric cars. Fiber optics.
A secretive organization that has courted political leaders and built international influence while undermining the constitutional division of the church and the state in the process is at the center of a new five-episode documentary series called “The Family.”
Since 1953, the National Prayer Breakfast has remained a fixture in American politics that has boasted attendance by every president since Dwight D. Eisenhower on the first Thursday of every February. It has been hyped as an opportunity for the political elite of Washington, D.C., and visiting international dignitaries to put aside partisan differences and reflect on a higher purpose.
While the annual event is purportedly hosted by members of Congress, it is actually organized and run by an evangelical Christian organization called The Fellowship Foundation, or “The Family,” as it is referred to internally by its members.
The series, which debuts on Netflix on Friday, takes a look at the group that operates with its own higher purpose — quietly building its influence on global politics “in the name of Jesus.”
“The Fellowship isn’t about faith and it spreads very little. It’s about power,” said Jeff Sharlet, whose books, “The Family: The Secret Fundamentalism at the Heart of American Power,” and “C Street: The Fundamentalist Threat to American Democracy,” inspired the Netflix series.
“Internally, it is spoken of primarily as a ‘recruiting device’ with which to draw ‘key men’ into smaller prayer cells to ‘meet Jesus man to man,’” according to Sharlet. “Practically, the Prayer Breakfast has functioned from the very beginning as an unregistered lobbying festival.”
Citing 2006 documents, Sharlet estimates the number of dedicated organizers who handle recruitment at just 350. Those organizers, however, have built a network of prayer cells that the late Christian Right leader Chuck Colson pegged at 20,000-strong, calling it, “a veritable underground of Christ’s men all through government.”
Sometimes that has meant aligning with politicians who stray from Jesus’ example. In 2009, former South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford gave a press conference outside of C Street emphasizing his religious pedigree upon resurfacing after disappearing from his state for days to visit a mistress in Argentina.
So, while President Donald Trump may not have the most pious of track records, Sharlet says the Family has embraced the unique opportunity provided by the most fundamentalist Cabinet in recent American history to advocate evangelical policy.
“The Fellowship believes God uses who He wants, and that power itself is an indicator of who He has chosen — it’s a theology of more power for the powerful,” Sharlet explained.
“The fact that Trump, with his “art of the deal,” is especially well-prepared to embrace this transactional theology — Trump puts the Christian Right’s people in power in return of their support — seals the deal.”
And so the personal question that I struggle with a good deal. OK, this is really highly personal, it’s just me. But I often feel sad about being seen as an “enemy” of the Christian faith. People tell me I am all the time – both people who despise me and people who are rooting me on. Yet the views I put out there for public scrutiny are almost NEVER things that I’ve come up with myself, that I’ve dreamt up, that I’m trying to push on others with no evidence or argument – just crazy liberal ideas I’ve come up with to lead people away from the faith.
So why am I an enemy?
Of course I know why, and my views were given additional support last week, at the international meeting of New Testament scholars I attended in Marburg. I was talking with a German scholar about advanced training in biblical studies in Germany these days, and he told me that in German theological schools (in his experience), students simply are not as a rule very interested in the historical study of the New Testament per. The kinds of historical issues we deal with on the blog are simply not pressing matters for them. These are not why they are in theological training, either to teach or to minister in churches.
Instead, he indicated, the ONE question / issue that most of these students have is: “How can I be Christian in this increasingly secular world?”
Of course they are interested in historical knowledge – but it’s not what’s driving them. Instead it is an existential question about faith. That makes so much sense. It is what was driving me at that stage too. But when this fellow scholar told me that, I realized even more clearly why I get so much opposition, even in some learned circles.
Most of the people who are in the business of studying the Bible are committed to faith. That’s what generates their interest. And these days it is very hard. Christians are under attack. From science, from philosophy, from the neo-atheists, from a society/culture that increasingly doesn’t care. And the problem with someone like me is that I’m not helping the cause. On the contrary, I’m not just someone from the outside taking potshots at this faith. I’m someone who came from within it, and left it, with good reasons, and who argues views that are taken by people in the wider culture to be “evidence” that the faith has no good rational basis. Even though I disagree with that assessment (since I know full well that people can be devout believers but still agree with everything I say) (not that anyone agrees with everything I say) (sometimes I don’t agree with everything I say…) – even though I disagree with that assessment, I get it.
Christians – even Christian scholars – want to cling on to their faith, to cherish it, and promote it, and what they see as negative assaults on the basis of their faith is threatening, especially – this is the key point – if it comes from someone who is outside the community of faith but who used to be inside it and understands the views of those who are still inside it extremely well, but who now rejects these views. And says things that can lead others to reject them as well.
— Dr. Bart Ehrman, Who is the Enemy?, August 9, 2019
Crediting the Nixon campaign with the flight of Southern conservatives from the Democratic Party dismisses the role Southerners themselves played in that transformation. In fact, Republicans had very little organizational infrastructure on the ground in the South before 1980, and never quite figured out how to build a persuasive appeal to voters there. Every cynical strategy cooked up in a Washington boardroom withered under local conditions. The flight of the Dixiecrats was ultimately conceived, planned, and executed by Southerners themselves, largely independent of, and sometimes at odds with, existing Republican leadership. It was a move that had less to do with politicos than with pastors.
Southern churches, warped by generations of theological evolution necessary to accommodate slavery and segregation, were all too willing to offer their political assistance to a white nationalist program. Southern religious institutions would lead a wave of political activism that helped keep white nationalism alive inside an increasingly unfriendly national climate. Forget about Goldwater, Nixon or Reagan. No one played as much of a role in turning the South red as the leaders of the Southern Baptist Church. …
It was religious leaders in the South who solved the puzzle on Republicans’ behalf, converting white angst over lost cultural supremacy into a fresh language of piety and “religious liberty.” Southern conservatives discovered that they could preserve white nationalism through a proxy fight for Christian Nationalism. They came to recognize that a weak, largely empty Republican grassroots structure in the South was ripe for takeover and colonization.
We want to stand upon our own feet and look fair and square at the world – its good facts, its bad facts, its beauties, and its ugliness; see the world as it is, and be not afraid of it. Conquer the world by intelligence, and not merely by being slavishly subdued by the terror that comes from it.
If you investigate the material basis of religious belief, you immediately confront a phenomenon that operates on many different levels. In particular circumstances and particular settings a faith may function as a guide to morality, or an aesthetic, or a social network, or a collection of cultural practices, or a political identity, or a historical tradition, or some combination of any or all of those things.
You don’t have to be a believer to see that religion genuinely offers something to its adherents (often when nothing else is available) and that what it provides is neither inconsequential nor silly.
What these persons fail to understand is that it would have been redundant to include such a phrase [separation of church and state] in the Constitution. The document as a whole embodies the view that government is not to meddle in religious matters. The federal government is given very specific, limited powers only over various secular matters. It has no powers relating to religion. The government is secular both in its origin (the consent of the governed) and its function. The government and religious institutions are completely separate and have nothing to do with each other. To insist that the Constitution doesn’t mandate separation of church and state because it doesn’t contain that phrase is more preposterous than a person who is not named as a beneficiary in a will insisting he has a claim on the estate because the will does not specifically exclude him by name.
— Dr. Ronald Lindsay, The Necessity of Secularism: Why God Can’t Tell Us What to Do, December 2014
Evangelical Christians continue to represent a sizeable percentage of the current president’s base support. To those who have watched evangelicals spend “the last 40 years telling everyone how to live, who to love,” and “what to think about morality,” the continued alliance with this president makes evangelicals the “biggest phonies” in all of politics. Indeed, the behind-the-scenes details of how a “thrice-married, insult-hurling” president obtained the endorsement of the evangelical hierarchy are as lewd and hypocritical as one might expect.
As much as the hypocrisy of evangelicalism can be mocked and exposed however, there exists a kernel of truth lurking behind the claim that evangelicals are supporting this president out of fear. It is simply impossible to deny that institutionalized persecution of religious ideas by public universities has occurred. Thankfully, this persecution has been continuously challenged and overturned in the courts.
The fact that persecution of religious ideas can and has occurred in our society however, does not even remotely suggest that intolerance is a uniquely “secularist” problem. In fact, intolerance of dissent and censorship of opposing views has been a general feature in religious institutions for thousands of years. Moreover, the same intolerance and censorship evangelicals claim they hate so much when it occurs in “secular” institutions is expressly embraced at the largest Christian colleges in the United States today, such as Liberty University. Does this past and current existence of intolerance in religious institutions mean that religion is inherently intolerant? No, because human bias exists generally in all human institutions, a fact the framers of the Constitution knew all too well and the exact reason why they chose to embrace secularism.
For example, David French, who I would argue is a moderate evangelical, has argued recently that we should be wary of European immigration because those countries have a “secular-bias” that will “alter American culture in appreciable ways.” In answering this nonsense from French, it is important to acknowledge that such a statement amounts to nothing less than vile bigotry.
To illustrate, imagine for one second how French would react if a liberal pundit on MSNBC said we should avoid immigrants from Christian-majority countries because America is steadily becoming more secular. Is there any doubt French would find such a statement to be a reflection of bigotry against Christians based on ridiculous notions that they are somehow incapable of assimilating into American culture? Yet he felt no issue disparaging and demeaning immigration from a whole continent based entirely on whether they held certain religious beliefs or not. Why? Because for all too many evangelicals, non-belief is simply not viewed with the same respect as religious belief, despite the fact that our Constitutional free conscience liberty makes no distinction. Put simply, it is nothing less than disgraceful the level of bigotry that evangelicals impose on the none-religious. Until and unless the religious stop lying about the nature of secularism, falsely depicting it as the ultimate evil, I fear such bigotry will continue to increase.
(Sorry about the headline. I couldn’t help myself.)
For me, GOOP is patriarchy wrapped up with a pink, bespoke, ethically sourced, healing stone blessed, turmeric infused, hemp ribbon in an attempt to market it as California chic wellnisim (wellness + feminism). They present lies and misinformation about how our bodies work and sell expensive and either useless or potentially harmful products (for example, their supplements and jade eggs) as a path to achieving wellnism. There are some facts along for the ride so they can always claim to “respect” science.
GOOP also exploits the fact that women — likely because of the pressures of a patriarchal society — feel they need excuses to do something nice for themselves. If you like a $400 hyaluronic acid face serum in a pretty bottle from GOOP that has no proof it’s superior to an almost identical $9 product from Trader Joe’s that’s cool. Some people like fancy face creams and serums. I like to spend my money on expensive shoes, but I don’t kid myself that my $350 Fluevogs get me to work any faster than my $10 shoes from Target. My expensive shoes are also not sold with any suggestion of a health benefit.
My brand, if I have one, is authenticity and facts. It’s informed choice, not misinformation and fear. And eating apricots whenever the fuck I want.
Dr. Gunter is one of my favorite medical/science writers. She’s funny, isn’t afraid to swear, and her posts, most importantly, help readers differentiate between lies, superstition, nonsense, pseudoscience, homeopathy, vaccine denialism, quackery, and scientific facts. And, she’s an atheist. If you are so inclined. add the good doctor to your reading list.