Has a secretive, informal network of fundamentalist Christians had undue influence over American policy? Over the summer vacation a newly unveiled Religion Dispatches convened its first round table, resulting in a lively discussion of Jeff Sharlet's new book, The Family: The Secret Fundamentalism at the Heart of American Power (Harper, 2008).
Based on article for Harper's magazine entitled "Jesus Plus Nothing," Sharlet crafted his detailed and carefully researched exploration of an informal network of powerful Christians known as "The Family," or "The Fellowship." In Sharlet's words, it's: "a story of two great spheres of belief, religion and politics, and the ways in which they are bound together by the mythologies of America."
Joining RD, along with Jeff were: Randall Balmer, author, Episcopal priest, and professor of American religious history at Barnard College; Anthea Butler, Assistant Professor of Religion at the University of Rochester; and Diane Winston, the Knight Chair in Media and Religion at USC, who has worked as a reporter for several of the nation's leading newspapers.
Sharlet's book fills a significant gap in both scholarship and media. While plenty of time has been spent on mega-churches and the various factions of the religious right, very little work has been done on elite manifestations of religion-related power.
One of the burning questions, addressed at the very beginning of the round table, is: Do liberals "Get It"? That is, do the liberal values of dialogue and compromise actually have any effect when dealing with this powerful network? From the Roundtable:
Too many liberals put their faith in a mythical center, a set of values shared by all. Their commitment to this center is so great, in fact, that they're willing to travel any distance to get there. That's what Christian Right leader Chuck Colson understood when he wrote that he loved "dialogue" with liberals because he simply had to hold his ground and wait for them to come to him.
The discussion ranged over issues like this and was punctuated, unexpectedly, by a parenthetical gesture from one of our panelists. During the course of the round table, a critical review of the book appeared in the Washington Post by Randall Balmer.
Balmer had saved some of his most critical points for the readers of the Post, thus our discussion had a 'sidebar' of sorts. Given the last word, however, Sharlet used his closing argument to respond to Randy's offstage remarks and RD was graced with an exciting and surprise ending. Here's a sample:
Ah, sour grapes! Yes, I got 'em. Not so much because Randy radically misrepresented my arguments in the Post, where I can't respond, while offering far more nuanced arguments of his own only in this smaller and more scholarly roundtable, but because such a dichotomy represents exactly the scholarly/popular divide that allows The Family to slip between the cracks. Amongst scholars, he makes arguments that invite engagement. In the public square, he issues proclamations that do no more than police the borders of respectable knowledge, aka "conventional wisdom."
Enjoy the discussion and by all means join in with comments.