Reason Freely

The Family: The Secret Fundamentalism at the Heart of American Power

Posted in review by reasonfreely on October 26, 2010

A co-worker of mine read Sharlett’s The Family and suggested I read it myself.  He and I are very different:  He’s extremely faithful, but suspicious of religious institutions.  I’m suspicious of claims of the supernatural, but optimistic about the charity works of religious institutions.  We probably come together on this sort of issue.  We also agree on politics.

The Family chronicles the history of American fundamentalism, both popular and elite.  He focuses on the branching of elite fundamentalism, though, and its implications for American politics.  The thesis of the book is that there is an elite fundamentalism that is largely independent of political party that reveres power through the belief in the concept of Key Men — God puts key men into positions of power.  This philosophy tautologically justifies a powerful man’s actions and helps him feel like he not only deserves his power, God wills it.  The Key Man idea requires sister concepts such as submission to authority — those beneath the Key Man must submit to God’s Will through him, and he must submit to Jesus.  If a man deposes another man for power, it was because God willed it; if he fails, it is because it was not God’s Will.  Power, power power.  Let me quote a passage:


“Absence?” I said, realizing that what he meant by the absence of doubt was the absence of self-awareness…

…God was just what Bengt desired him to be, even as Bengt was, in the face of God, “nothing.”  Not for aesthetics alone, I realized, did Bengt and the Family reject the label Christian…  His commands phrased as questions, His will as palpable as ones own desires.  And what the Family desired, from Abraham Vereide to Doug Coe to Bengt, was power, worldly power…


Power is revered by prayer cells at the highest levels, arranged by The Family, the group that runs the National Prayer Breakfast among so many other things.  They use prayer cells as ways to organize access to power, to enforce consensus on political aims, and to spread the Idea.  What political ideas does the Family push?  Concepts that help their Key Men in positions of power, of course:  Free-trade and electoral obfuscation (e.g. the Citizens United case); but also politics of authority:  Pro-life, anti-gay-marriage, etc.

Sharlett returns to this theme over and over.  Contemporary American fundamentalism does not care for the nuances of scripture, so arguments from scripture are pointless.  That leaves only arguments from authority and appeals to emotion — the tools that are used to drive elite and popular fundamentalism, respectively.

One problem I found with The Family is that Sharlett doesn’t offer a good alternative.  He spends one or two pages discussing “deliverance” (by seeking, questioning, reflecting) as an idea that can defeat the big idea of “salvation” (through submission and banishing reflection); but he doesn’t create a clear path to a nationwide elite or popular ideology of deliverance — secular or sacred.

It made me want to go back to writing a book on how Jesus was a communist.


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