Saturday, January 15, 2011

100 Books 4 - C Street: The Fundamentalist Threat to American Democracy

C Street: The Fundamentalist Threat to American Democracy - Jeff Sharlet - Little, Brown & Company

Somewhere out there in Twitterland, close to 2000 followers of mine are probably going to cheer as one to learn that I've finished reading this book. I've been spouting off about it at odd intervals for a week or more.

I was worse as I made my way last year through Sharlet's prior book on the shadowy "Christian"* fundamentalist group known variously as "the Family" or "The Fellowship", The Family: The Secret Fundamentalism at the Heart of American Power, a book I read with all the lights on, the way we always talk about reading genuinely scary horror novels. I said then and I'll stand by it now: Jeff Sharlet writes damned scary books.

Right away I've betrayed myself as a secularist and a rebel. I'm a fan of fully informed juries, workers' rights, the need for government to protect the people against force and fraud and the right of every nutjob with a voice and a magic marker (or, in this day and age, a keyboard, a few fingers and an internet connection) to spout off his views, however crazy or distasteful or true or saddening. I think Jenny McCarthy is nuts, but I won't advocate forcing her to shut up about vaccines. I think Fred Phelps is a sue-happy fraud and provocateur who makes a very good living off of baiting people who cannot stand to listen to the crap he spews that I don't even believe he believes. And I think freedom of religion is in the Bill of Rights for a very, very good reason. Lots of them, actually. Ditto all the other stuff that's in there.

So really, there is no reason for me to keep on reading Sharlet on the Family except for the same reasons that people keep reading Stephen King books or watching Friday the 13th remakes: it's a weird, fun little thrill to stare for a while at what scares you. It's entertainment in an activating, emotionally jarring way.

That said, I still find this second book of his on the subject to pale in comparison to the first. Where The Family exposed a secret history and named names, C Street... well, C Street mostly just calls out the same villains some more. That's not to say it's The Family 2: Electric Boogaloo: Sharlet's foray into the nation of Uganda and the story behind its infamous "death penalty for homosexuals" bill is shocking all by itself in all its painstaking detail, though it does drag on a bit (OMG, Jeff, we get it! Ugandan legislator Bahati and dictator Musevini aren't fundamentalists themselves so much as sucking up to the Family to get what they want). He spends a fair amount of time exposing how evangelism/fundamentalism has all but taken over a huge chunk of the United States' armed forces (especially the U.S. Air Force, but that's not news to anyone who knows any flyboys or pays attention to where they come from: the USAF Academy and James Dobson's Focus on the Family are both based, along with megachurches galore, in Colorado Springs, CO, surely a strong candidate for the capital city of Jesusland if ever there were one). And of course the scandals around Mark Sanford and Jim Ensign and Chip Pickering get a good airing out once again, with a chillingly amusing "what might have been" look at Sanford's future had his brothers in the Family chosen to continue keeping his naughty secrets.

But the real value of this book lies in Sharlet's interlineal commentary, his turns of phrase in summing up the scenes and backgrounds he's describing, for which he's taken off the gloves considerably more of a degree than we saw in The Family, here pointing out that the group takes a very different lesson from the story of David and Bathsheba than the rabbis or even the original Calvinists teach**, there holding forth on "the paradox of humility as authority that's inherent in the term 'servant leader'" as "the essence of the fundamentalist threat to democracy: not brute force but seduction... the promise of support and intimacy in return for power"... and wow of wows, can you tell I love the highlight function of my Kindle, which lets me highlight/mark thumping great blocks of text that strike me as especially important or meaningful or true without damaging my book?

And that's what Sharlet is good for. He provides fantastic talking points. It's important to always remember that when my Senior U.S. Senator (Mike Enzi) talks about his prayer group in Washington, D.C., he's talking about people who admire Hitler and Stalin and Ho Chi Minh as examples of men who changed the world through the strength of the covenants they had forged with their “brothers" and who supported dictators like Suharto and Ferdinand Marcos because they value access to power over holding leaders accountable for the fantastically un-Christian atrocities they commit with it. It's important to me to arm myself against the kinds of arguments that lead to the world of Margaret Atwood's Handmaid's Tale, which, until I read The Family, I had always named as the scariest book I'd ever read ("In the days of anarchy it was 'freedom to.' Now you're being given 'freedom from.' Don't underrate it" says Aunt Lydia -- in the movie, flatly and chillingly delivered by the perfectly cast Victoria Tennant so as to give any democracy-loving uppity female of tender years a lifetime of nightmares).

But not everyone, in this day and age, has the time for reading that I have, and if you're one of those whose opportunities are limited, who really needs to read just one serious book on this subject, that book should be The Family. If you've time for another, read Kevin Phillips' American Theocracy (which, in devoting a great deal of its length to decrying the financialization of America's economy sounds a lot like a prediction of the current completely dumbass economic crisis we're experiencing now). And if you've time for a third, have a look at C Street.

And keep a flashlight handy.

*I put scare quotes around "Christian" here because I find the "screw the weak and minister to the strong so they can maybe someday get around to taking care of the weak like good daddies" ethos of the Family to be about the least Christian mindset imaginable.

**"The chosen politician does not take credit for his success, he does not suppose that it was his virtue that led the people to elect him. He is just another sinner. But God wants to use him, as He used David. 'God appoints specific leaders to fulfil a mission; He doesn't hold a popular vote,' writes John C. Maxwell, a management guru on C Street's Prayer Breakfast circuit, in a Bible study titled Leadership: Deliberate Selection vs. Democratic Election. The other side of such humility is the abdication of responsibility. Once chosen for leadership isn't accountable for his own actions."

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