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.


Chaplains Urge Lawmakers to Reconsider Dropping DADT; Adm. Mullen Deploys Chaplains to Crimea River

Posted in discussion seed, news by reasonfreely on July 13, 2010

The Military Readiness Act is going to end Don’t Ask Don’t Tell and allow gays in the military.  Theoretically that should increase recruitment for the military in times of war by a small but much-needed margin.  And it would make service a lot less stressful for the homosexual men and women in the military already.

The joint chiefs seem to approve.  Adm. Mullen has been pushing for it for a while.  Other than a few homophobes afraid someone’s going to be oggling their Pvt. Parts in the group shower, some tea party extremists who don’t understand what “libertarian” means, and a few COs worrying about a stressful adjustment period, who’s really bothered by this?

If you guessed “chaplains,” you win!

They say that being ordered to stop preaching homophobia is going to restrict their religious freedom.  That would be a very valid complaint, if the idea of chaplaincy wasn’t questionably un/constitutional to begin with!  They seem to forget that the government is paying them. Government employees  shouldn’t be preaching anything to begin with, but somehow prison and military chaplains get a pass.

I’m not going to call for the abolishment of the chaplaincy, though I wouldn’t be opposed to a shift to a more humanist chaplaincy.  And I’m on the record opposing military proselytization or at least supporting a group that opposes it.  I think it keeps our soldiers’ morale up and provides valuable counseling — and those are worth some fraction of my income tax check.  I imagine we could do the same good with secular counselors and morale officers, but it would take a cultural shift, and generations of time.  A particularly strident author I’ve talked about before has called for it, though.

In my work in suicide prevention, I’ve met some chaplains and trained with some of them.  They’ve all been good folks, and they showed empathy to Christians, Muslims, Jews and atheists all the same.  That’s the Love Thy Neighbor ethos I like so much about some flavors of Christianity.  But, apparently, not all chaplains are like the ones I’ve met, if they’re willing to fight for their already-questionable “right” to preach intolerance on the taxpayers’ dime.

Thankfully Admiral Mullen, chair of the Joint Chiefs, seems to find this objection about as irrelevant as I do.

Oh, and on a related note; what’s your opinion on the new $4 million survey of servicemembers?  As a sociologist and a fan of reasoning freely, I like making decisions with all the information I can get, but do you think this survey will gather valid, valuable, or reliable information?  See any interesting questions on there?  I think I do…

Christian Legal Society v. Martinez

Posted in news by reasonfreely on July 6, 2010

If you’ve read a lot of freethinker or atheist blogs, you probably expect me to celebrate a victory over Christians or something in reviewing CLS v. Martinez.  But I’m not.  I’m going to celebrate a small detail in the ruling that moves the nation (via the court) toward more rational thinking on gay rights.

The Wikipedia link describes it without too much legalese.

Click to see the full court opinion on this case.

CLS argued that they can make rules about conduct (“engage in unrepentant homosexual behavior” in this case) even though Hastings University’s rules prohibit making rules biased against specific groups (e.g. homosexuals).  The cour “declined to distinguish between status and conduct” — meaning you’re gay if you’re gay.  For as long as I can remember, the religious right have been pushing this false idea that homosexuality is a choice, just like smoking or something.  But the supreme court wasn’t having any of that BS.  A court of educated justices rejected that faulty logic, rather resoundingly.

What impresses me the most is the idea that groups can spread lies (e.g. homosexuality is a lifestyle/behavioral choice) all they want; but the supreme court, reasoning freely, won’t give that kind of deception any credibility.

Texas Freedom Network Liveblogging

Posted in news by reasonfreely on May 21, 2010

Follow the Texas Board of Education debate and votes as they happen on TFN Insider

So far they’ve taken a preliminary vote to approve the K-8 standards.  I hope they all get voted out of office.

Just watched a video they had posted where an amendment is proposed to basically paint the UN as an attempt to undermine American sovereignty…and it passes, with only slight objection, on a large majority…

4:00pm Update:  TFN posted this video which you should all watch.  Keep tally of right wing code words and pure historical rewrites (e.g. claiming that the First Charter of Virginia is evidence that the US was founded to be a Christian Nation.  Well of course it mentions God!  The Charter was a royal decree from a monarch who claimed his authority by divine right!)


Posted in news by reasonfreely on March 26, 2010

Terrorism — when people use violence to hurt and scare others over political, ethnic, or religious differences — is the enemy of free thought.  Recall that free thought is free of influence from authority, tradition and manipulation.  Terrorism is manipulation of the most crude and basic sort.

In the lead-up to the health care reform vote, the Republican party set fire to their extreme-right base.  They lied to them, telling them that the health care bill was going to kill babies (even after the Stupak amendment, which explicitly prohibits the bill subsidizing abortion procedures).  They said it was an unconstitutional to make health insurance mandatory (despite the other mandatory insurance premiums we all pay…  for medicare).  They said that Americans hated the bill (yes, more Americans disliked the bill than liked it before it passed, but it was basically an even split) and that Obama was pushing it through despite democratic objection (despite the fact that the majority of elected representatives were for it) and were using dirty legislative tricks to get it passed (as opposed to the Republicans, aka the Filibusticans, who decided that their success is Obama’s failure, and have basically gone on strike — real mature guys).

So in short, they created a monster.  PELOSI BAD!

Now their monster has wandered into the town and started threatening Democrats’ families and children, smashing windows, and cutting gas lines.  Now they’re faced with a tough decision, where the ethical thing is to take back their lies, ask for peace and understanding, and eat some crow.  I’m not saying that opposing the health care bill is wrong per se.  But how they went about it, inflaming the extreme wing of their base to violence (“We came unarmed (this time)” comes to mind), was wrong.

So now they’ve created terrorists.  Terrorists.  Terrorists.  Terrorists. People who threaten violence and destroy property to scare others into submission to their ideology are terrorists.

Why won’t the media call them terrorists?  That’s my question.  I think they’re cowards.

Update: Republican response to the violence.   Not adequate.

Climate Change Skeptics

Posted in essay, news by reasonfreely on March 9, 2010

Let me start off by saying that it is our ethical duty to question authority and, generally, I like skepticism.  I’m a skepticism pusher.  But I don’t like it when people use the label of skepticism (or science!) to promote their agenda.

Climatologists are not always going to get everything right, and both carbon activists and energy companies want us to make policy decisions based on their predictions.  This is what happens when you combine the three main ingredients of ideology and praxis in the 21st century:

Complex reality

Media sensationalism

High stakes


News: Secular Coalition of America meets Obama Staff

Posted in news by reasonfreely on March 1, 2010

Quick news notes on Freethinkers in the White House last week:

The Secular Coalition of America — a mix of humanists (including a secular Jewish organization) and atheists (including the Military Association of Atheists and Freethinkers) — met with senior White House staff to discuss three topics:  Child medical neglect, military proselytizing, and faith-based initiatives.

Story at USA Today


UK Homeopathy Protest

Posted in news by reasonfreely on February 2, 2010

A while ago, I wrote a rambling post on my private livejournal (before I started this blog) about natural medicines and how they are handled poorly and need more regulation.  Ephedra (“Mormon Tea”) was my main gripe:  Look at this, a natural medicine that really works, and because it wasn’t regulated, it got out of control and people died.  So now it’s banned. It serves as evidence that the natural medicine industry is a disorganized, unscientific pile of scam artists and loonies.

Over the weekend, we had some hilarious news from those plucky skeptics in the UK, a country that on dit seems to be having a resurgence of free thought.  The topic?  Homeopathic medicine.  Now this is different from “natural medicine” in that homeopathic medicine is, mgs per ml, a whole lot crazier.  But easy targets make good television (and blogging!).

Story at The Daily MailStory on SalonDawkins