The Secret Political Reach Of 'The Family'
You may recognize these names from recent headlines: Sen. John Ensign, Rep. Bart Stupak and Rep. Joe Pitts. Stupak and Pitts have become familiar names through the media's health care overhaul coverage; their abortion funding amendment introduced an 11th-hour twist as the House of Representatives approached a vote on a landmark health care bill.
Ensign was the focus of media attention over his affair with a campaign staffer. Just last night, a Nevada man disclosed that he found out about his wife's affair with the state's junior senator — his best friend — via a text message.
The common factor among these political players is their involvement with the Family, a secretive fellowship of powerful Christian politicians that centers on a Washington, D.C., townhouse. Investigative journalist Jeff Sharlet has written extensively about the influential group in his book The Family: The Secret Fundamentalism at the Heart of American Power.
The Family: The Secret Fundamentalism at the Heart of American Power
By Jeff Sharlet
Hardcover, 464 pages
List price: $25.95
Sharlet returns to Fresh Air to talk to host Terry Gross about Ensign, Stupak and Pitts, and about new developments concerning the Family.
Since 2003, Sharlet has been an associate research scholar at New York University's Center for Religion and Media, where he has taught graduate seminars in journalism and the history of American religion. He has also spoken on religion, politics and media at colleges and universities across the country. At NYU, Sharlet created TheRevealer.org, a review of religion and the media.
TERRY GROSS, host:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.
The fundamentalist group The Family has operated secretively with the help of influential congressmen and senators who are members of the group to promote their anti-gay, anti-abortion, pro-free-market ideas in America and other parts of the world, but two sex scandals involving people connected with The Family -Nevada Senator John Ensign and South Carolina Governor Mark Sanford - have brought public attention to the group.
There's other Family news. Bart Stupak and Joe Pitts are connected to The Family. They introduced the amendment to the House health care reform bill that would prevent funds appropriated from the act to cover abortion and go to any insurance company that covers abortion. Pitts is a member of The Family; Stupak lives at their residence on C Street.
The Family is also connected to proposed anti-gay legislation in Uganda that could sentence, quote, repeat offenders to the death penalty. That family connection is revealed in new reporting by my guest, Jeff Sharlet. Sharlet is the author of the bestseller "The Family" and is a contributing editor for Harper's. He's been investigating The Family for years.
Jeff Sharlet, welcome back to FRESH AIR. Let's start with a recap of what The Family is and what it stands for. You've described it as elite fundamentalism, as opposed to the kind of televangelist, populist fundamentalism. What do you mean by elite?
Mr. JEFF SHARLET (Author, "The Family: The Secret Fundamentalism at the Heart of American Power"; Associate Research Scholar, Center for Religion and Media, New York University): Well, the founder of the group, Abraham Vereide, said that God came to him one night in April 1935 and said Christianity has been focusing on the wrong people, the poor, the suffering, the down and out. I want you to be a missionary to and for the powerful, those who he calls the up and out. They can dispense blessings to everybody else through a sort of kind of trickle-down religion.
GROSS: So The Family is into the cultivation of powerful people. They call them key men. What is key men?
Mr. SHARLET: A key man is someone that they identify as chosen for his position of power or affluence by God. And they like to emphasize that the leaders that they work with are not so much elected to their positions or work their way up the corporate ladder, as they are selected by God, used as tools.
The kind of the comparison that they like to use is King David, who they note is a sort of guy who, as a leader, actually does all sorts of terrible things -seduces another man's wife, has the man killed and so on - and yet he's still in power. It's because God has chosen to use this imperfect tool. And so they see the politicians that they work with as tools of God.
GROSS: And what are the leading issues that The Family advocates?
Mr. SHARLET: Well, they began with the issue of economics. I mean, they began as a union-busting organization. That was their first and strongest mission, and for a long time they saw their two goals as economic and in foreign affairs. Something - economically what they, the core members, came to call biblical capitalism, the idea that capitalism is ordained by the Bible in a very sort of deregulated, laissez-faire, privatized market; and foreign affairs, a kind of expansionist view of what might be called a soft empire for America.
GROSS: What about culturally and socially? What are some of the leading issues on The Family's agenda?
Mr. SHARLET: Well, this is really interesting. I mean, this is one of the things that distinguishes them, historically, from what I call the populist front of fundamentalism, who were always concerned with domestic social issues. The Family historically wasn't. They took - generally took the same conservative line on those issues, but that wasn't their focus. In recent decades, they've sort of expanded to address some of those issues.
And in particular, Joe Pitts has been in the news because of the Stupak-Pitts Amendment, was one of the guys who really helped to bring abortion to the forefront to the group, starting in the late '70s, and that's become a concern of a lot of members. And, as you expand outwards over the last couple decades, and you look at the concerns of politicians like Senator Sam Brownback, Senator Jim Inhofe, Senator Tom Coburn, all these guys who are very involved members -you see homosexuality, you see all the culture-war issues taking a place alongside biblical capitalism and this foreign affairs expansionism, and, in fact, merging in The Family's view into one sort of united world view.
GROSS: Before we get to the Stupak-Pitts Amendment and its connection to The Family, can you just do a roll call of some of the prominent senators and congressmen who are affiliated with The Family?
Mr. SHARLET: Yeah. Well, when I first lived with the group, one of the first guys I met was Senator John Ensign, who was then living in a house The Family maintains on Capitol Hill. Senator Sam Brownback spoke with me extensively about his involvement. Senator Jim Inhofe of Oklahoma boasts of traveling around the world, doing The Family's political business. Senator Tom Coburn has done the same thing. Senator Chuck Grassley has been very involved in African affairs on behalf of The Family. Senator Mike Enzi of Wyoming is a part of it.
You have, over in the House, you have guys like Representative Zach Wamp of Tennessee, a very conservative Republican. You have Representative Frank Wolf of Virginia. You have Democrats, as well, and I think that's what - part of what distinguishes them from a lot of other Christian-right groups.
They survived for 70 years by not locking themselves in with any one faction. So you see Democrats like Representative Mike McIntyre, a very conservative Democrat from North Carolina; Representative Heath Shuler, also from North Carolina; Representative Bart Stupak; Senator Mark Pryor, who is pro-war, anti-labor, anti-gay and a creationist, but he is a Democrat. And he's a guy who explained to me a couple years ago that through The Family, he had learned that the meaning of bipartisanship was that, quote, Jesus didn't come to take sides; he came to take over.
GROSS: So let's look at the Stupak-Pitts Amendment and its connection to The Family. This is the amendment to the House health care reform plan, and it prohibits the use of federal funds to pay for any abortion or to cover any part of the costs of any health plan that includes coverage of abortion.
So describe to us how Bart Stupak and Joe Pitts are connected to The Family.
Mr. SHARLET: Well, Bart Stupak is an interesting Democrat from Northern Michigan, and he - conservative in some ways, not as conservative in other ways, but on these family issues, he is. He's been living at what The Family calls their C Street House on Capitol Hill at least since 2002, when he told the Los Angeles Times - the Los Angeles Times was investigating The Family - he told them that he would not talk to the press about the house. That it was sort of secret.
When I was living with The Family, which is sort of how I came to this whole story is by sort of reporting from within the group, Stupak was spoken of quite often as an ally of Joe Pitts; these are two guys who work well together, and as a guy who was a mentor to a lot of younger members of The Family.
Stupak continues to live at the C Street House, although more recently, coming under scrutiny for that, he is trying to claim that he just rents a room in this house and doesn't know anything about the activities, despite the fact that the house is registered as a church.
GROSS: Although that status was just changed, wasn't it?
Mr. SHARLET: It was, it was. I think maybe as a result of some of the scrutiny this summer, a citizen of Washington, D.C., called the local tax office and said: Why is this $1.8 million townhouse being used to provide below-market housing for congressmen, basically to give them gifts and to, in an unofficial way, lobby them. Why is that tax-exempt and protected under a church? The tax office looked at it and agreed that 66 percent of the building was not properly tax-exempt. And so that portion, which includes Bart Stupak's room, was removed from that tax exemption.
GROSS: So what about Congressman Joe Pitts? What is his connection to The Family?
Mr. SHARLET: Joe Pitts has a much deeper and longer connection, going back to the 1970s, the early 1980s, when he was a state legislator in Pennsylvania, and he was a leader of the national state legislators anti-abortion organization. He has been a guy in the trenches of the abortion wars for 30 years. He is one of the strategists. He's one of the guys who helped sort of recruit Mother Teresa to the cause of American abortion politics, and he did that through The Family, actually, reaching out through the leader of The Family, a man named Doug Coe.
Pitts is what The Family calls a core member. They have a very unusual theology in the sense that they think that Christ had one message for an inner circle and then a kind of different message for a sort of slightly more outer circle. And then the rest of us, Christ told us little stories because, frankly, we couldn't handle the truth. And the core members are those they think are getting the real deal. Pitts is part of that core of The Family that has been steering it and setting its agenda, if you want to put it like that, for many years.
GROSS: What did Joe Pitts do to put abortion on The Family's agenda?
Mr. SHARLET: I think he came in with a passion for it and was a terrific organizer. Joe Pitts, you know, not a well-known congressmen. He's a sort of avuncular character from Amish country in Pennsylvania, and I think - he's a former gym teacher. People sort of don't really see in him the canny legislator that he is. He was an organizer for abortion causes, was willing to bring with him into The Family connections to a lot of state legislators. And that's a little bit how The Family works. They want to have those relationships in case those guys step up to the next level of Congress, and then they have those relationships there, as well. Pitts simply lobbied hard for it within the group. And as The Family puts it, they have a very organic model for decision-making. Sam Brownback, explaining the process to me - he says one man grows desirous of taking an action, and the others pull in behind. He was actually explaining that in relationship to a piece of legislation he had worked on with Joe Pitts in foreign affairs, but that applies as much to, I think, the Stupak-Pitts amendment on abortion.
Another Stupak-Pitts collaboration goes back a few years, when they tried to take President Bush's PEPFAR anti-AIDS - $15 billion anti-AIDS plan for around the world, and Stupak and Pitts thought that Bush's plan was not conservative enough. So they tried to turn it into a kind of an abstinence crusade overseas, and especially in Africa. And I think they actually went too far even for the Bush administration.
GROSS: Now, Bart Stupak is Catholic. Joe Pitts is Evangelical Christian, and you say that together, they represent the Evangelical/conservative-Catholic alliance known as co-belligerency. That's a new term to me. What does it mean?
Mr. SHARLET: Well, it's an idea that goes back into the '70s with one of the gurus of modern Christian-right thinking, a guy named Francis Schaeffer, but it really picked up steam with the work of a man named Charles Colson. Chuck Colson some listeners may remember as the Watergate felon, Nixon's sort of henchman who went to prison - was born again, as he writes in his book, through The Family, through their intervention and bringing him to Christ. They actually helped get him out of prison by writing letters to the parole board and everything else. And he had this idea. He's an Evangelical. He had this idea that Catholics and Evangelicals, who historically in American life have been at each other's throats, could work together on culture war issues, that they could be co-belligerents in the culture war. And I think The Family has been one of the vehicles at which that's happened at the elite level, despite the fact - and I think this is important when we look at someone like Bart Stupak - The Family began as a virulently anti-Catholic organization.
And even to this day, Doug Coe, the leader of the group, says, you know, now he's got a much more open mind. You can be a Catholic and love Jesus just the way you can be a Jew and love Jesus or be a Muslim and love Jesus. In other words, being a Catholic in his mind doesn't qualify you as a Christian. And actually when I visited the C Street House, when Bart Stupak was living there, there was a woman who was sort of functioning as an administrator, and she was a Catholic. And she told me that she still goes to Mass, but she keeps it secret because she knows Doug would disapprove.
GROSS: Now, you mentioned that The Family thinks it's important to have their people and their concerns represented in both the Republican and the Democratic Party. Is there an active strategy to actually have Family-affiliated politicians in the Democratic Party?
Mr. SHARLET: Yeah, I think it's always been very important to The Family, going back to the beginning of the group's roots in the 1930s, when they actually formed with the idea that democracy wasn't going to work. Remember, this was in the 1930s, and they're looking around the world, and they see communism as this incredibly powerful world force, and fascism is, of course, too. Well, they certainly don't want to be communism. Fascism they are a little more sympathetic to, and there were a lot of sort of early-American fascists in the group, but it's still a problem because it's a cult of personality. They put Hitler and Mussolini where Jesus is.
So they come up with this idea of a third way, that they later start calling totalitarianism for Christ. And they predict that the United States will pretty quickly embrace this and will get rid of political parties because democracy doesn't work. People arguing and debating doesn't work. They don't want a Republican Party, a Democratic Party. They want one big party - theirs.
And of course that doesn't happen. So by the 1940s, they begin really actively recruiting and seeking out Democrats. They've been sort of mostly Republican, but they seek out Democrats. For most of their history, those Democrats were Dixiecrats. Strom Thurmond used to file confidential reports, leaking, essentially, protected Senate information to The Family's leader. Herman Talmadge, all these guys - Pat Robertson's father, Absalom Willis Robertson, a Dixiecrat senator from Virginia.
In recent years, the Democrats that they've identified, guys like Bart Stupak, Heath Shuler, Mike McIntyre, Mark Pryor, even Senator Bill Nelson down in Florida, another conservative Democrat, they are a faction within the Democratic Party that has become an obstacle to many of the core values of the party. That's what The Family means when they speak of bipartisanship as this idea that Jesus doesn't come to take sides, he comes to take over. The Democrats do tend to be folks who get into Congress, and I think a lot of them - I think this needs to be emphasized - Democrats and Republicans get involved with this with the best of intentions.
Someone comes to them and says hey, let's talk about prayer. Let's reach across the aisle. Let's get together. This is the group that sponsors the National Prayer Breakfast, which a lot of congressmen mistakenly think is an ecumenical event going back to the early days of the republic. In fact, it's a private, sectarian event organized by The Family as a sort of a lobbying fest. But they get involved with the best of intentions and, I think, are slowly brought into a relationship where they start moving rightward.
GROSS: Let's talk about new information in the scandal involving Senator John Ensign. Last night on "Nightline," Doug Hampton did an interview with Cynthia McFadden. Now, Hampton had been one of Ensign's top aides. He was co-chief of staff after Ensign became a senator. He also worked with Ensign before Ensign became a senator. Hampton's wife, Cindy Hampton, had worked as Ensign's campaign treasurer. Ensign revealed not long ago that he admitted having an affair with Cindy Hampton. And news about this affair has been trickling out over time, and more news emerged last night. What did you think were the key things last night from that interview between Doug Hampton and Cynthia McFadden?
Mr. SHARLET: Well, there are a lot of just plain old sad details: Doug Hampton telling us that John Ensign, even when confronted this, told Hampton he's going to continue to pursue Hampton's wife and that, you know, essentially nothing can stop him. Hampton's description of his attempts to work through this C Street and The Family, which he really respected, to hold Ensign accountable. Hampton's, really, attempt to do the right thing, and especially according to the ideas that The Family promotes: this idea of personal accountability and the reality that The Family interpreted that accountability as - they interpret it in financial terms, Senator Tom Coburn saying one thing and then another about the transfer of funds from Ensign to Hampton's family. Hampton really just, I think, I have sort of a newfound respect for him after last night because it does seem like he's sort of seeking transparency on this whole thing.
GROSS: So let's first talk about The Family's role in how this scandal has played out. First, again until a couple of weeks ago, John Ensign lived at the Family-owned C Street residence, and also he went to C Street - to see C Street people for advice. Coburn, who - Senator Coburn, who lives at C Street, was the chief advisor, it seems, judging from what Doug Hampton said last night. So what was the advice that Hampton says Ensign got from C Street?
Mr. SHARLET: To make Hampton whole through financial restitution, a transfer of a very large sum of money. The number most often cited seems to be 1.2 million. There's no reason, I think, to doubt Doug Hampton on this. He's been very forthcoming what is obviously a very painful episode in his life. But Senator Tom Coburn, who until now had a real reputation for candor and integrity, regardless of what you thought of his political views, has been saying one thing and then another. In fact, this past Sunday, on George Stephanopoulos's morning show, he seemed to contradict himself in the space of a few minutes, saying that no, he had not been a negotiator, but yes, he had attempted to sort of negotiate a deal between Ensign and the family of Doug Hampton and Cindy Hampton.
GROSS: So what else do you think we should know about what this story says about C Street and The Family?
Mr. SHARLET: Well, I think the bombshell comes from Doug Hampton himself, who in describing this whole process, went to The Family thinking that he could trust the - what they say about accountability, what they say they exist for, for holding congressmen accountable. What his relationship with John Ensign through The Family was supposed to be about. And he attempted to work through them. They told him to, as he put it, be cool, in other words to keep the whole thing quiet. And he took their word for it. And last night he finally sort of came out and said look, this isn't - C Street, The Family, it's not what they say it is. And if I can just quote him, he puts it very succinctly: He says they - the C Street group, The Family - they think the consequences don't apply. Those need to be dealt with differently, because of the responsibility, because of the pressure. Meaning that congressmen have sort of special rules for them, because of the work that needs to be done. This is about preserving John, preserving the Republican Party. This is about preserving C Street. These men care about themselves and their own political careers, period.
And that's a devastating critique from a man who has given his loyalty to this group, who has turned to them in the most painful moment in his life, expected them to stand up for what they say they believe in, and instead was forced to confront the fact that when The Family talks about power being the bottom line of the New Testament, they really mean it. Power trumps love.
GROSS: Let's talk about The Family's connection to Uganda, where there's a, really a draconian anti-gay bill that has been introduced into parliament. Uganda already punishes the practice of homosexuality with life in prison. What would the new legislation do?
Mr. SHARLET: Well, the new legislation adds to this something called aggravated homosexuality. And this can include, for instance, if a gay man has sex with another man who is disabled, that's aggravated homosexuality, and that man can be - I suppose both, actually, could be put to death for this. The use of any drugs or any intoxicants in seeking gay sex - in other words, you go to a bar and you buy a guy a drink, you're subject to the death penalty if you go home and sleep together after that. What it also does is it extends this outward, so that if you know a gay person and you don't report it, that could mean - you don't report your son or daughter, you can go to prison.
And it goes further, to say that any kind of promotion of these ideas of homosexuality, including by foreigners, can result in prison terms. Talking about same sex-marriage positively can lead you to imprisonment for life. And it's really kind of a perfect case study in the export of a lot of American, largely evangelical ideas about homosexuality exported to Uganda, which then takes them to their logical end.
GROSS: This legislation has just been proposed. It hasn't been signed into law. So it's not in effect yet and it might never be in effect. But it's on the table. It's before parliament. So is there a direct connection between The Family and this proposed anti-homosexual legislation in Uganda?
Mr. SHARLET: Well, the legislator that introduced the bill, a guy named David Bahati, is a member of The Family. He appears to be a core member of The Family. He works, he organizes their Ugandan National Prayer Breakfast and oversees a African sort of student leadership program designed to create future leaders for Africa, into which The Family has poured millions of dollars working through a very convoluted chain of linkages passing the money over to Uganda.
GROSS: So you're reporting the story for the first time today, and you found this story - this direct connection between The Family and the proposed legislation by following the money?
Mr. SHARLET: Yes, it's - I always say that The Family is secretive, but not secret. You can go and look at 990s, tax forms and follow the money through these organizations that The Family describe as invisible. But you go and you look. You follow that money. You look at their archives. You do interviews where you can. It's not so invisible anymore. So that's how working with some research colleagues we discovered that David Bahati, the man behind this legislation, is really deeply, deeply involved in The Family's work in Uganda, that the ethics minister of Uganda, Museveni's kind of right-hand man, a guy named Nsaba Buturo, is also helping to organize The Family's National Prayer Breakfast. And here's a guy who has been the main force for this Anti-Homosexuality Act in Uganda's executive office and has been very vocal about what he's doing, in a rather extreme and hateful way. But these guys are not so much under the influence of The Family. They are, in Uganda, The Family.
GROSS: So how did you find out that Bahati is directly connected to The Family? You've described him as a core member of The Family. And this is the person who introduced the anti-gay legislation in Uganda that calls for the death penalty for some gay people.
Mr. SHARLET: Looking at the, The Family's 990s, where they're moving their money to - into this African leadership academy called Cornerstone, which runs two programs: Youth Corps, which has described its goals in the past as an international, quote, invisible family binding together world leaders, and also an alumni organization designed to place Cornerstone grads - graduates of this sort of very elite educational program and politics and NGO's through something called the African Youth Leadership Forum, which is run by -according to Ugandan media - which is run by David Bahati, this same legislator who introduced the Anti-Homosexuality Act.
GROSS: Now what about the president of Uganda, President Museveni? Does he have any connections to The Family?
Mr. SHARLET: Well, first, I want to say it's important that you said it, yeah, it hasn't gone into law. It hasn't gone into effect yet. So there is time to push back on this. But it's very likely to go into law. It has support of some of the most powerful men in Uganda, including the dictator of Uganda, a guy named Museveni, whom The Family identified back in 1986 as a key man for Africa.
They wanted to steer him away from neutrality or leftist sympathies and bring him into conservative American alliances, and they were able to do so. They've since promoted Uganda as this bright spot - as I say, as this bright spot for African democracy, despite the fact that under their tutelage, Museveni has slowly shifted away from any even veneer of democracy: imprisoning journalists, tampering with elections, supporting - strongly supporting this Anti-Homosexuality Act of 2009.
He's come out just this - just last week and said that this bill is necessary because Europeans are recruiting homosexuals in Uganda, that Europeans are coming in and trying to make Ugandans gay. And he's been rewarded for this because this is sort of where these sort of social issues and foreign affairs issues and free market fundamentalist issues all come together.
GROSS: How did The Family create its relationship with Museveni?
Mr. SHARLET: In 1986, a former Ford official name Bob Hunter went over on trips at the behest of the U.S. government, but also on behalf of The Family, to which - for which both of which he filed reports that are now in The Family's archives. And his goal was to reach out to Museveni and make sure that he came into the American sphere of influence, that Uganda, in effect, becomes our proxy in the region and that relationship only deepened.
In fact, in late 1990s, Hunter - again, working for The Family - went over and teamed up with Museveni to create the Uganda National Prayer Breakfast as a parallel to the United States National Prayer Breakfast and to which The Family every year sends representatives, usually congressmen.
GROSS: What's the relationship of Museveni and The Family now?
Mr. SHARLET: It's a very close relationship. He is the key man. Now...
GROSS: So what does that mean? What influence does The Family have on him?
Mr. SHARLET: It means that they have a deep relationship of what they'll call spiritual counsel, but you're going to talk about moral issues. You're going to talk about political issues. Your relationships are going to be organized through these associates. So Museveni can go to Senator Brownback and seek military aid. Inhofe, as he describes, Inhofe says that he cares about Africa more than any other senator.
And that may be true. He's certainly traveled there extensively. He says he likes to accuse the State Department of ignoring Africa so he becomes our point man with guys like Museveni and Uganda, this nation he says he's adopted. As we give foreign aid to Uganda, these are the people who are in a position to steer that money. And as Museveni comes over, and as he does and spends time at The Family's headquarters in Arlington, Virginia, a place called The Cedars, and sits down for counsel with Doug Coe, that's where those relationships occur.
It's never going to be the hard sell, where they're going to, you know, twist Museveni's arm behind his back and say do this. As The Family themselves describes it, you create a prayer cell, or what they call - and this again, this is their language from their documents - an invisible believing group of God-led politicians who get together and talk with one another about what God wants them to do in their leadership capacity. And that's the nature of their relationship with Museveni.
GROSS: In researching The Family's foreign policy, so to speak, and what it's trying to do abroad, you've been researching who's funding what. And you've raised various questions about The Family's funding for foreign trips in which it is kind of combining American foreign policy and its own social policy. Can you talk a little bit about your concerns about that?
Mr. SHARLET: I worked with an organization called the Military Religious Freedom Foundation to examine the travel records of these politicians who are connected to the C Street House, and we discovered that Senator Ensign, for instance, who had claimed that his residence at C Street House was just a purely a personal affair, that there's no political aspect of it, was actually traveling overseas on what he describes on his forms as policy trips on the dime of The Family - as is his housemate, Senator Tom Coburn, also traveling overseas.
Senator Coburn a little more candid about what he's doing, he described going to Lebanon - this country torn by religious war for years - and attempting to set up Christian prayer cells in the Lebanese government. Senator James Inhofe of Oklahoma was the most blunt about this. Speaking in an interview with a religious right organization, he said he has taken about 20 missionary trips around the world: Africa, Middle East, Eastern Europe. He doesn't actually travel on The Family's dime. He travels on your dime. He uses money from the Senate Armed Forces Committee - travels over to these countries, and especially Uganda, which he says he's adopted. Uganda has a very special role for him. And he says what he's there to do is to, quote, promote the political philosophy of Jesus as taught to him by Doug Coe. It's about as candid as can be.
In other interviews with Christian right publications, he said, I use my role as a U.S. senator to open the doors to power. In other words, he presents himself as representing the United States. He also, frankly, is flying into these countries on military transport, and he is this powerful U.S. senator.
GROSS: What's your concern here? If members of Congress or senators are traveling, funded by The Family, to go abroad and promote issues of concern to The Family, is there anything wrong with that?
Mr. SHARLET: Yeah. There's something wrong with it. A lot of that kind of travel is illegal under the 2007 Open Government Act, which was passed in response to the Abramoff scandal, especially when you look at some of these trips that would be sponsored by one nonprofit entity under The Family's umbrella, but taken at the behest of another organization like Christian Embassy, another sort of Christian right ministry in Washington for elites.
It makes it very hard for foreign officials to know where these politicians are coming from, for American taxpayers to hold these guys accountable. And what it amounts to in its worst-case scenario is a kind of freelance diplomacy. So that's what's wrong with it.
It's - I mean when you take your personal religious convictions or political convictions, even, and claim to represent the United States, but, in fact, are representing an organization like The Family as Senator Coburn was in Lebanon, as Senator Ensign has in Jordan and Israel, as Senator Inhofe has in Uganda, you are steering foreign policy away from democratic accountability.
GROSS: So is - when a congressman took a trip sponsored, paid for by The Family, is it any different than a congressman taking a trip sponsored by a corporation or any other private group?
Mr. SHARLET: Yeah, it really is, because a corporation or most private groups, whether they be left or right, they don't deny that they exist. The Family claims that there's no organization at all. The leader of the group, Doug Coe, says in a sermon that's now been posted online, fortunately, so you can hear it, says the more invisible you can make your organization, the more influence it will have.
In fact, that's what led the group to reject the idea of formally registering as a lobby. The founder of the group said we can have more influence working behind the scenes if we don't register as a lobby, which is true, which is exactly why we have those laws that were strengthened by the 2007 Open Government Act. But beyond the secrecy of the organization, which is essentially strategic on their part - they're tactical on their part in thinking about how they can further the agenda, there's the question of the agenda itself.
And some of the, really the core rhetoric of The Family is this idea that most of us misread the New Testament, that Christ's message - the bottom line of Christ's message wasn't really about love or mercy or justice or forgiveness. It was about power. So Doug Coe, the leader of the group, tries to illustrate this, for instance, by saying, sort of posing a puzzle: name three men in the 20th century who best understood that message of The New Testament. And most people are going to say someone like Martin Luther King, or Bonhoeffer; or maybe they're more conservative, they're going to say Billy Graham. And Coe likes to give in answer: Hitler, Stalin and Mao, which just makes your jaw drop. And he will say - he's quick to say these are evil men, but they understood power. And that message recurs again, and again, and again in The Family.
When I was at the C Street house, I sat in on a session between Doug Coe and Congressman Tiahrt of Kansas. And Coe was encouraging Tiahrt to understand the message of Jesus by thinking about the model of power exemplified by Hitler, Stalin, Mao, Pol Pot. There are so many examples of this, and I give several because I don't want people to think that I'm cherrypicking one bad choice of words. This is a core idea of The Family. There is actually video that �NBC News� found of Coe talking about the fellowship that he wants to model the things on is like that of the great friendship enjoyed by Hitler, Goebbels, and Himmler.
Now, he is not a neo-Nazi. What he is doing there is he's fetishizing strength. He is not looking to democracy, but this model of absolute strength, and that leads The Family into relationships with men like Museveni in Uganda. Before him, their key man for Africa was a guy named Siad Barre of Somalia, for whom Chuck Grassley became a kind of defacto lobbyist as the United States pumped up his military, which he then used to absolutely destroy his country to such an effect that Somalia has never recovered and today is a haven for al-Qaida, for terrorism, for piracy. It's a lawless nation. The Family says that's part of God's plan.
GROSS: Jeff, more than anybody, you have been researching The Family - which is hard to do because it's such a secretive group - but you got access to its archives, which has all kinds of secrets in it that you have been writing about in your book, and you're still reporting on The Family. Because of all the sex scandals that recently came to light involving several people connected to The Family, Americans have gotten introduced to the group in way that they hadn't before. I'm wondering what you think the impact of your reporting has been so far.
Mr. SHARLET: Well, people are certainly talking about The Family in a way that they hadn't, and what's been really great is that local press around the country has been asking their representatives tough questions. So you have terrific reporters down in Oklahoma, and North Carolina, and Michigan, and Kansas, and Mississippi, and Tennessee going to their congressmen and saying, look, what's your affiliation with this group? We're not challenging your freedom of religion. You tell us that religion's very important to how you legislate and here's a religious group you're involved with, that does these things. Why is secrecy necessary? How does it shape your views? Does it help you? Does it - is it something we want to know about?
Those are the question that need to be asked. And those questions, I think, have even started occurring, or occurring even more strongly, within the Christian right itself. And I thought one of the most promising developments of this to come out of the scandal was a Christian right magazine called World Magazine - hard Christian right. This is probably the leading Christian right magazine in America. And they looked at what was being said about The Family - said we've got to check into this. And they did one of the best investigative reports. They confirmed the overseas travel. They confirmed the strange theology of seeking out dictators. They went further than I had in looking at some of the financial connections that don't seem to quite add up, the policy of secrecy and so on. And this is coming from a Christian right source. And I think what that does is it moves this whole conversation out of the old left-right debate and moves it where it should be, into the public square where we're talking about transparency, we're talking about accountability, we're talking about politicians taking responsibility for the ideas that shape them and that they put into effect. And those are matters that I think pretty much everybody, left and right, agrees on. And I think the result of all this, the pressure that happens from these local reporters, and from the Christian right corners, and maybe from my book is to force the family to start answering questions about itself.
GROSS: Jeff Sharlet, thank you so much for talking with us.
Mr. SHARLET: Thank you, Terry.
GROSS: Jeff Sharlet is the author of �The Family.�
This is FRESH AIR. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.