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.
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
There’s a very high cost to our politics for celebrating the Trump style, but what is most personally painful to me as a person of the Christian faith is the cost to the Christian witness. Nonchalantly jettisoning the ethic of Jesus in favor of a political leader who embraces the ethic of Thrasymachus and Nietzsche—might makes right, the strong should rule over the weak, justice has no intrinsic worth, moral values are socially constructed and subjective—is troubling enough.
But there is also the undeniable hypocrisy of people who once made moral character, and especially sexual fidelity, central to their political calculus and who are now embracing a man of boundless corruptions. Don’t forget: Trump was essentially named an unindicted co-conspirator (“Individual 1”) in a scheme to make hush-money payments to a porn star who alleged she’d had an affair with him while he was married to his third wife, who had just given birth to their son.
….Evangelical Christians should acknowledge the profound damage that’s being done to their movement by its braided political relationship—its love affair, to bring us back to the words of Ralph Reed—with a president who is an ethical and moral wreck. Until that is undone—until followers of Jesus are once again willing to speak truth to power rather than act like court pastors—the crisis in American Christianity will only deepen, its public testimony only dim, its effort to be a healing agent in a broken world only weaken.
At this point, I can’t help but wonder whether that really matters to many of Donald Trump’s besotted evangelical supporters.
Skeptic: Do you really believe that the universe was created in six days?
Sophisticated Christian: Don’t be a silly literalist. “Six days” is a metaphor for a very long, long period of time.
Skeptic: Do you really believe that the entire earth was covered by water from a great flood?
Sophisticated Christian: Don’t be a silly literalist. When God said “the entire earth” was covered by flood waters that was metaphorical for a flood of the entire known world in which Noah lived. It was a regional flood. It was a flood of Noah’s entire world.
Skeptic: Do you believe that all the many languages on earth derive from the Tower of Babel?
Sophisticated Christian: Don’t be a silly literalist. The story of the Tower of Babel is an allegory to demonstrate the power of God in the face of humankind’s sinful arrogance.
Skeptic: Do you believe that Jonah really lived in the belly of a fish for three days?
Sophisticated Christian: Don’t be a silly literalist. This is another allegory. It was told as an allegorical prophecy of Jesus’ burial in the tomb.
Skeptic: Do you believe that Jesus of Nazareth was born of virgin; that his father was a (holy) ghost; that he walked on water; turned water into wine; exorcised demons, sending them into a herd of pigs; healed blindness; raised people from the dead; flew to the pinnacle of the Temple with a devil; reattached a man’s severed ear to his head; and after he was publicly executed, came back to life, appeared to his former fishing buddies to share a broiled fish lunch; and finally, that he levitated off the top of a mountain into outer space where he currently sits on a golden throne as Lord and Master of the universe?
Sophisticated Christian: Of course. That is what the Bible literally says, you God-hating fool!
We are seeing countless episodes of clergy members who are having sexual relations with their (church members) in a spiritual setting; I mean, right in the church, right in the confessional. And we think that there are a lot of these clergy members who have quite honestly taken advantage of people and taken advantage of their authority or power.
It’s a very powerful thing if you are an individual who has represented yourself as sort of the conduit to heaven, you know for salvation…well then you have a lot of influence over another person’s life. You know, we see cases all the time of a clergy member saying, you know, ‘Do what I say or else you’re not going to go to heaven.’ And that’s a type of power, a type of authority that we just don’t think that anybody should have to be able to exploit for a sexual purpose.
If attorneys have a sexual relationship with a client that they represent, they lose their law license for that, you know? Same thing with a doctor. So why should it be any different for members of the clergy?
We don’t think that it is a First Amendment issue, and we’d be willing to go to court on that if we had to. But I think that there are just certain positions of authority that should not be exploited for sexual purposes, and this is one of them.
I’m not afraid and I won’t apologize for wanting to ensure that any institution around the state understands that if they have been engaged or aiding and abetting in the coverup child sexual abuse, absolutely if there are charges that can be brought, we are happy to entertain those charges and to file them. But we’re hopeful that through the process of this investigation, when we find out more about what has happened in the past, we’ll be able to prevent that from happening in the future.
In nuptial terms, our countries [Israel and the United States] celebrated their “golden anniversary” more than 20 years ago. We are now at platinum – a miracle of preciousness, radiance, and endurance. And the man who most deserves credit for this is President Donald Trump.
Under his watch, America has finally made good on its decades-old pledge to formally recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and move the US Embassy there. In another service to historical justice, Trump declared the Golan Heights to be Israeli territory, and in service to the security of Israel and the whole world, he withdrew the United States from a nuclear deal with Iran that was a contemporary echo of the Munich Agreement.
Trump and his senior staff have also dispensed with the useless mold of the so-called peace process, which had been bunged up by dishonesty and hypocrisy. Their administration has made clear that the Middle East must come to terms with an Israel that is proudly permanent in the land of Zion – an Israel whose Jewish roots run deepest and whose ancestral, sovereign claims are without equal.
Trump is a man of his word. On the campaign trail, he promised to protect Israel, to move the US Embassy to Jerusalem, to quit the Iran nuclear deal. And he has kept each and every one of those promises – unlike previous presidents who traded principle for political expediency.
Trump is a businessman and a statesman with an instinct for justice. He sees an Israel that does whatever is necessary for its security and defense, against the odds and sweeping international consensus. These are the kind of nations and people that he likes to deal with.
Trump is also a patriot who wants to make America great again. He is constantly aware of that cost that the United States risks paying should it lose credibility. An America the projects strength and credibility rallies most world powers to it; these, in turn, respect and value its steadfast loyalty to its allies, chief among them Israel.
By rights, Trump should enjoy sweeping support among US Jews, just as he does among Israelis. That this has not been the case (so far; the 2020 election still beckons) is an oddity that will long be pondered by historians. Scholars of the Bible will no doubt note the heroes, sages, and prophets of antiquity who were similarly spurned by the very people they came to raise up.
Would it be too much to pray for a day when the Bible gets a “Book of Trump,” much like it has a “Book of Esther” celebrating the deliverance of the Jews from ancient Persia?
Although the result in The American Legion v. American Humanist Association case was entirely predictable, reading it still left me stunned. The case involves a dispute over whether a local government in the state of Maryland can tax its citizenry in order to maintain an overtly Christian World War I memorial.
With an objective Court, a decision recognizing that the state had no such coercive taxation power under the First Amendment would have been readily assured. After all, I am old enough to remember when the United States Supreme Court believed that government financially compelling free and independent individuals to endorse beliefs they find objectionable was always demeaning. When an individual’s objection to such forced extractions was not trivialized as the taking of mere offense, but a sacred objection against tyrannical government power. But, alas, that was the long-forgotten time of ….*checks notes*…. holy shit, just a year ago?
It is undeniably telling about the state of free conscience liberty that when faced with extending the same principles against forced extraction to non-religious or non-Christian citizens, the Court’s views on the issue abruptly changed. Nothing can excuse such blatantly different outcomes to the same objection, and no explanation other than outright religious bigotry against non-believers can explain the outcome in the Bladensburg cross case.
From the beginning of the Court’s plurality opinion, it becomes rather transparent that Justice Samuel Alito is seeking to diminish the objection of the non-believer against being forced to pay for a religious monument. According to Alito, the objection boils down to being merely offended at the sight of the monument. Moreover, in contrast, Justice Alito takes a great deal of time to elevate Christian moral objections regarding the views of the same monument. For example, Alito states that “[a] government that roams the land, tearing down monuments with religious symbolism and scrubbing away any reference to the divine will strike many as aggressively hostile to religion.”
Using Alito’s own logic here however begs the question: Why is a country that roams the land forcing people to pay for the erection and maintenance of religious monuments not seen as being aggressively hostile to non-religious people? More importantly, as noted by the dissent, tearing down these monuments is not the only solution. All the state of Maryland had to do to conform with First Amendment principles was stop forcing people to pay for the Christian monument and instead let the upkeep be maintained by willing donators. I will never understand why an insistence on willing participants was not enough to settle this case and that the only satisfactory outcome for the cross’s radical theocratic proponents was having the authority to force unwilling others to pay.
In other words, according to the Court, the Latin Cross has transcended religion and become a secular symbol. This is literally the equivalent of saying that Jesus Christ is not a Christian figure, an idea so absurd that it becomes somewhat offensive that the Court would expect people paying attention to take this conclusion seriously.
Unfortunately, such a transparently biased outcome that favors Christianity at the expense of every other belief is becoming an all too familiar outcome, in a particularly dangerous time. As I have repeatedly stressed, we are in a unique moment in our history when a sizable portion of the population with whom religion plays no role lives alongside an equally sizable portion for whom religion plays a vital role. Disturbingly, the growth of a non-religious population that demands the same free conscience protections has come to be seen as a menacing threat to many religious people. It is now to the point that a religious zealot and bigot who just so happens to be the country’s former Attorney General can openly describe irreligious citizens as a dire threat to our country that must be stopped.