Way beyond the faith wars of the moment — the pandering to interest groups, the posturing to the press — there is a permanent war for influence waged by those seeking power via the spiritual lives of our political leaders.
It’s something that rarely surfaces and the media are loath to report. Some pols enter this arena with their eyes open, some probably not. One of the competitors is a shadowy, religious right group known as “The Family”. Targets for recruitment include both Republicans and Democrats. A few years ago journalist Jeff Sharlet went undercover to learn about the machinations of this secretive network — and his findings were published in Harpers magazine: Jesus plus nothing: Undercover among America’s secret theocrats.
In a follow-up article last fall in Mother Jones, Sharlet and Kathryn Joyce detailed the involvement of Senator Hillary Clinton in this group. She refused to talk with them about it.
Here are excerpts from the Harpers article:
the Family’s only publicized gathering is the National Prayer Breakfast, which it established in 1953 and which, with congressional sponsorship, it continues to organize every February in Washington, D.C. Each year 3,000 dignitaries, representing scores of nations, pay $425 each to attend. Steadfastly ecumenical, too bland most years to merit much press, the breakfast is regarded by the Family as merely a tool in a larger purpose: to recruit the powerful attendees into smaller, more frequent prayer meetings, where they can “meet Jesus man to man.”
The group plays a behind the scenes role, in facilitating relationships between world leaders:
During the 1960s the Family forged relationships between the U.S. government and some of the most anti-Communist (and dictatorial) elements within Africa’s postcolonial leadership. The Brazilian dictator General Costa e Silva, with Family support, was overseeing regular fellowship groups for Latin American leaders, while, in Indonesia, General Suharto (whose tally of several hundred thousand “Communists” killed marks him as one of the century’s most murderous dictators) was presiding over a group of fifty Indonesian legislators. During the Reagan Administration the Family helped build friendships between the U.S. government and men such as Salvadoran general Carlos Eugenios Vides Casanova, convicted by a Florida jury of the torture of thousands, and Honduran general Gustavo Alvarez Martinez, himself an evangelical minister, who was linked to both the CIA and death squads before his own demise. “We work with power where we can,” the Family’s leader, Doug Coe, says, “build new power where we can’t.”
At the 1990 National Prayer Breakfast, George H.W. Bush praised Doug Coe for what he described as “quiet diplomacy, I wouldn’t say secret diplomacy,” as an “ambassador of faith.”
Suffice to say, there is much, much more in this ground-breaking article that will more than raise eyebrows — and go a long way to helping to illuminate some dark corners of why things are the way they are Inside the Beltway.
The question of how a pol’s religion influences their politics and policy ideas is legitimate, as Mitt Romney recently acknolwedged, as did John F. Kennedy before him. Barack Obama has sought to explain how his faith informs his public life, and the Democratic candidates subjected themselves to grilling by religious leaders in a forum organized by Jim Wallis of Sojourners.
When candidates make religion a central part of their identity, it is reasonable for people to inquire about what that means — and certainly anyone putting themselves before us to be the most powerful political leader in the world. It is also incumbent on any responsible candidate to explain their involvement in secretive, organizations — of whatever nature they may be.
For the most part, the public discussion of the relationship between faith and politics has been pretty superficial. And maybe that is as it should be. For all the crap about the alleged secularity of the Democratic Party, there has been no candidate in my memory who has not pandered to religious constituencies, and drawn heavily on members of his own religious tradition to support his candidacy. Religion, for better or worse, will alway be part of our political currency.
One of the current crop of Democratic “faith gurus,” Mara Vanderslice has always maintained that a pol’s public articulations of how faith informs their life and politics should be “authentic.” Whatever our other differences, I agree with that.
One of the problems with pols making a big show out of religion, as the framers of the Constitution well-understood, is that whether or not that faith is authentic or inauthentic, or the whether it is a matter of degree, is difficult for anyone to say. That is one of the many reasons why religious tests for public office and religious oaths were specifically banned in Article 6. Who can judge the authenticity of a polititian’s faith? And how will a politician know when he or she has abused their faith for political gain, such that they maybe no longer even know what they believe? Should we care? I am not sure. But it is healthy, I think to raise the question since the public political faith wars are well underway.
But back to our story.
Less well known, is that covert faith wars are always being waged Inside the Beltway as a way of accessing and manipulating elected and appointed government officials, military leaders and more. One such influence network is The Family. Back in September, Jeff Sharlet and Kathryn Joyce reported in Mother Jones on Sen. Clinton’s longtime involvement in The Family. The authors wanted to ask her about it — but they were rebuffed.
While I have no problem with pols expressing their faith, and explaining how their faith relates to their public life, they do not get to hide when they are asked about the details. I am rather surprised that more has not been made of this.
In the interests of full disclosure, I will probably vote for Obama or Edwards, but am not active in anyone’s campaign. In the past I have also criticized Senator Obama for secular baiting (I am pleased to say that he has since vastly improved his approach to matters of separation of church and state).
My interest is, as many readers probably know, the way that the religious right functions in American politics. In that regard, I view Sharlet and Joyce’s article as an important piece of journalism that Democrats — and everyone — should consider while choosing who will be our candidate for president. At the very least, I think Senator Clinton owes us an explanation for her involvement in this group which — sorry Hillary fans — cannot be construed as merely a Bible study or prayer group. Nor does it have anything to do with the utterly mainstream United Methodist Church of which she is a longtime member. But there is more to candidate Clinton’s faith and its role in her political life than the UMC.
Here are a few excerpts:
Clinton’s God talk is more complicated–and more deeply rooted–than either fans or foes would have it, a revelation not just of her determination to out-Jesus the gop, but of the powerful religious strand in her own politics….
Through all of her years in Washington, Clinton has been an active participant in conservative Bible study and prayer circles that are part of a secretive Capitol Hill group known as the Fellowship. Her collaborations with right-wingers such as Senator Sam Brownback (R-Kan.) and former Senator Rick Santorum (R-Pa.) grow in part from that connection.
When Clinton first came to Washington in 1993, one of her first steps was to join a Bible study group. For the next eight years, she regularly met with a Christian “cell” whose members included Susan Baker, wife of Bush consigliere James Baker; Joanne Kemp, wife of conservative icon Jack Kemp; Eileen Bakke, wife of Dennis Bakke, a leader in the anti-union Christian management movement; and Grace Nelson, the wife of Senator Bill Nelson, a conservative Florida Democrat.
Clinton’s prayer group was part of the Fellowship (or “the Family”), a network of sex-segregated cells of political, business, and military leaders dedicated to “spiritual war” on behalf of Christ, many of them recruited at the Fellowship’s only public event, the annual National Prayer Breakfast. (Aside from the breakfast, the group has “made a fetish of being invisible,” former Republican Senator William Armstrong has said.) The Fellowship believes that the elite win power by the will of God, who uses them for his purposes. Its mission is to help the powerful understand their role in God’s plan.
owship isn’t out to turn liberals into conservatives; rather, it convinces politicians they can transcend left and right with an ecumenical faith that rises above politics. Only the faith is always evangelical, and the politics always move rightward.
This is in line with the Christian right’s long-term strategy. Francis Schaeffer, late guru of the movement, coined the term “cobelligerency” to describe the alliances evangelicals must forge with conservative Catholics. Colson, his most influential disciple, has refined the concept of cobelligerency to deal with less-than-pure politicians. In this application, conservatives sit pretty and wait for liberals looking for common ground to come to them. Clinton, Colson told us, “has a lot of history” to overcome, but he sees her making the right moves.
The article makes clear that although Clinton is deeply involved in this murky group, she is not a religious right ideologue. She remains firmly pro-choice, for example. But on a number of issues detailed in the article, she is also firmly, and disturbingly in the religious right camp in ways that no doubt bring joy to those seeking to errode the wall of separation between church and state.
But the senator’s project isn’t the conversion of her adversaries; it’s tempering their opposition so she can court a new generation of Clinton Republicans, values voters who have grown estranged from the Christian right. And while such crossover conservatives may never agree with her on the old litmus-test issues, there is an important, and broader, common ground–the kind of faith-based politics that, under the right circumstances, will permit majority morality to trump individual rights.
Read the whole article here.
[Slightly edited and adapted from earlier versions at Talk to Action and Daily Kos.]