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The Secret Political Reach Of 'The Family'
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.
Bart Stupak and Joe Pitts are members of 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.
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.
We recorded our interview yesterday, with an update this morning, after the
news about John Ensign on "Nightline" last night. We're going to hear that
interview in a minute. We're just having a little bit of an audio problem. So
we'll have that for you, momentarily.
This is Jeff Sharlet's second time on FRESH AIR. We invited him because there's
so much news breaking about people related to The Family and about legislation
that they're related to.
So sorry about this little technical problem that we're having, but we'll get
that interview to you momentarily.
I should mention, by the way, that on tomorrow's FRESH AIR, as you're driving
around for your pre-Thanksgiving, we'll be talking to Richard Carpenter of the
Carpenters because there's a 40th-anniversary Carpenters CD, and we recorded
that interview a few days ago. It's really fun. It tells all the stories behind
the hit songs.
So anyways, we're still having that technical problem. We'll get you that
interview about The Family momentarily. And what else can I tell you? Yes,
Thursday, on Thanksgiving Day, we're going to hear an interview with Loudon
Wainwright and listen to a lot of his music from The Charlie Poole Project.
Charlie Poole is an old-time musician who died in 1931, and Loudon Wainwright
has recorded a lot of his songs and new songs inspired by those Charlie Poole
songs. So that's what we'll be hearing on Thursday on FRESH AIR.
Yeah, and Friday, we have two good interviews for you for the holiday weekend.
We have the Pete Docter interview, the director of "Up," the animated movie,
and we also have another interview, which I'll tell you about later because our
interview with Jeff Sharlet is ready now.
So again, this is an interview with Jeff Sharlet, the author of a book about
the secretive fundamentalist group The Family, which is connected to many
influential congressmen and senators.
Let's see if we have that ready to go. It looks like maybe not quite yet. I
feel like one of those newscasters who's waiting for, like, the president to
come in, and the president's a little late. So, like, you keep filling for
time, which is obviously what I'm doing right now in a less-than-stupendous
way. But luckily for me, the interview is ready. So I can stop the patter. So
here's our interview with Jeff Sharlet, about the secretive fundamentalist
group The Family.
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
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
as 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
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 â 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 â the Los Angeles Times was investigating The Family â he
told them that he would not talk to the press about the house. That it was sort
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
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
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
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
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 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 fellow, 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 â 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 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
â I think this needs to be emphasized â 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: If you're just joining us, I'm speaking with Jeff Sharlet, who is the
author of the bestseller "The Family: The Secret Fundamentalism at the Heart of
American Power." Jeff, let's take a short break here, and then we'll talk some
more. This is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: My guest is Jeff Sharlet. He is the author of the bestseller "The
Family: The Secret Fundamentalism at the Heart of American Power," and it's
about a very secretive, fundamentalist Christian group that many powerful
congressmen and senators are affiliated with.
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 attempted 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 interpret that accountability as â 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 new-found respect for him after last night
because it does seem like he's sort of seeking transparency on this whole
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 â to see C Street
people for advice. Coburn, who â 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
GROSS: Jeff Sharlet will be back in the second half of the show. His book is
called "The Family." We'll talk about The Family's role in world politics. This
is FRESH AIR. And you're listening to NPR, National Public Radio.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Iâm Terry Gross. Letâs get back to our interview with
Jeff Sharlet, the author of the bestseller âThe Family,â about the secretive
fundamentalist group that promotes its anti-abortion, anti-gay, pro-free market
ideas with the help of several Congressman and Senators who are connected to
the group, including John Ensign, Bart Stupak, Joe Pitts, James Inhofe, Tom
Coburn, Charles Grassley and Zach Wamp. The Family is active in America and
around the world.
Letâs talk about The Familyâs connection to Uganda, where there's, 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, thatâs 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, youâre 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 donât report it, that could mean - you
donât 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
itâs really kind of a perfect case study and 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 hasnât been signed into law.
So it's not in effect and it might never be in effect. But it's on the table.
Itâs 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 introduces 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 Uganda 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
GROSS: So youâre 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, itâs - 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. Itâs not so invisible anymore. So thatâs how working with some
research colleagues we discovered that David Bahati, the man behind this
legislation, is really deeply, deeply involved in The Familyâs work in Uganda,
that the ethics minister of Uganda, Museveniâs kind of right hand man, a guy
named Nsaba Buturo, is also helping to organize The Familyâs National Prayer
Breakfast. And hereâs a guy who has been the main force for this Anti-
Homosexuality Act in Ugandaâs executive office and has been very vocal about
what he's doing, and 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?
Youâve 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 Familyâs 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 in the past as an
international quote, âinvisible family binding together world leaders,â 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 hasnât gone into law. It hasnât gone in to 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
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. Theyâve
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 into which The Family
every year sends representatives, usually congressmen.
GROSS: What's the relationship of Museveni and The Family now?
Mr. SHARLET: Itâs a very close relationship. He is the key man. Nowâ¦
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 theyâll call
spiritual counsel, but youâre going to talk about moral issues. Youâre 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 aide. 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: My guest is Jeff Sharlet, the author of the âThe Family: The Secret
Fundamentalism at the Heart of American Power.â
More after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: My guest is Jeff Sharlet, the author of the âThe Family,â about the
secretive fundamentalist group whose members include senators and congressmen.
In researching The Family's foreign policy, so to speak, and what it's trying
to do abroad, youâve been researching who's funding what. And youâve 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
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 doesnât actually
travel on The Family's dime. He travels on your dime. He uses money from the
Senate Arms 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, âpromote the political philosophy of
Jesus as taught to him by Doug Coe.â 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: Whatâs 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 itâs worse 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 donât 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 donât register as a lobby, which is true, which is
exactly why we have those laws that were strengthen 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
further 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 wasnât 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 the more conservative, they can say, Billy Graham. And Coe likes to give
an answer - Hitler, Stalin and Mao, which just makes your jaw drop. And he will
say â heâs 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 T. Hart of Kansas. And Coe was encouraging T. Hart 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 donât want people to think that Iâm cherry picking one bad
choice of words. This is a core idea of The Family. There is actually video
that âNBC Newsâ 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, heâs 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. Itâs a lawless nation. The Family said thatâs part of
GROSS: Just more than anybody, you have been researching The Family - which is
hard to do because itâs such a secretive group - but you got access to its
archives, which has all kinds of secrets in that that you have been writing
about in your book, and youâre 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
hadnât before. Iâm wondering where 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 hadnât, and whatâs 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 the congressman and saying,
look, whatâs your affiliation with this group? Weâre not challenging your
freedom of religion. You tell us that religionâs very important to how you
legislate and hereâs a religious group be involved with - does these things.
Why is secrecy necessary? How does it shape your views? Does it help you? Does
it â is that 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 - with - 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 weâve got a 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, and
looking at some of the financial connections that donât 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 that moves this whole conversation out of
the old left-right debate and moves it where it should be, into the public
square where weâre talking about transparency, weâre talking about
accountability, weâre talking about politicians taking responsibility for the
ideas that shaped 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 Christian right corners, and may be 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 âThe Family.â
This is FRESH AIR.
*** TRANSCRIPTION COMPANY BOUNDARY ***
Sam Fuller, Embodying The Best Of Pulp Fiction
TERRY GROSS, host:
The maverick screenwriter and director, Sam Fuller, who died in 1997,
influenced filmmakers as different as Jean-Luc Godard, Wim Wenders and Quentin
Tarantino. Martin Scorsese said of his work, if you donât like the films of Sam
Fuller, then you just donât like cinema. A new seven-disc selection of his
work, âThe Sam Fuller Collection,â has just been released by Sony Pictures.
Our critic-at-large John Powers says Fullerâs work embodies whatâs most
enjoyable and enduring about pulp fiction.
JOHN POWERS: There was a famous scene in Jean-Luc Godardâs film âPierrot le
fou.â When the hero meets a big shot American movie director and asks him to
define cinema. The director replies, film is like a battleground - love, hate,
action, violence, death - in one word, emotion. The man saying, and clearly
meaning, those words was Samuel Fuller, one of the most colorful characters in
movie history. Born in 1912, Fuller was a crime reporter at age 17, and became
a pulp novelist and screenwriter in his 20s. By 37, heâd become a Hollywood
director who told tales of soldiers and crooks, lunatics and cops, hookers and
Wild West outlaws.
In the process, he revealed himself to be a distinctively American figure, the
seeming barbarian who proves to be an artist. Although Fuller is now an icon,
renowned for his raspy voice and cigars the size billy clubs, much of his work
has been hard to find on home video. Thatâs one reason I was so happy to see
âThe Samuel Fuller Collection,â which brings seven movies to DVD. The earliest
five were written or co-written by Fuller, and like on his work theyâre
boosting with extreme situations. A parole officer falling for murderess, or a
tabloid editor who kills his ex-wife, only to have this star reporter try to
solve the crime.
Although none of these movies is great, theyâre all very entertaining. And the
two pictures directed by Fuller are more than that. The better of the two is
âUnderworld U.S.A.,â a grippingly unsentimental revenge story from 1961,
starring Cliff Robertson as a hood who monomaniacally devotes his whole life to
avenging the murder of his father. But Iâm personally fonder of âThe Crimson
Kimono,â a 1959 crime drama that begins in spectacular fashion with a stripper
running down a gaudy neon-lit street, only to be gunned down. Her murder is
investigated by two L.A. cops, one Caucasian, played by Glenn Corbett; and one
Japanese-American, thatâs James Shigeta in a wonderful performance.
Good buddies, they both fall for the same woman, Chris, played by Victoria
Shaw. And suddenly, âThe Crimson Kimonoâ becomes something unexpected, a sharp-
eyed look at subterranean racism and the complexities of Asian-American
identity. Here, Shigetaâs character talks to Chris about his horror at seeing
racist feelings on his partnerâs face for the very first time.
(Soundbite of movie, âThe Crimson Kimonoâ)
Mr. JAMES SHIGETA (Actor): (as Detective Joe Kojaku) You canât feel for me on
this, you are me. Take a good look, Chris. Do I look different to you than I
did yesterday? Did my face change?
Ms. VICTORIA SHAW (Actor): (as Christine Downs) Joe, donât say.
Mr. SHIGETA: (As Detective Joe Kojaku) I got to say it. I never felt this in
the Army and the police, maybe itâs 5000 years of blood behind me busting to
the front. For the first time, I feel different. I taste it right through every
bone inside me. For the first time, I catch myself trying to figure out who I
am. I was born here. Iâm American. I feel it, and live it and love it, but down
deep, what am I? Japanese-American, American-Japanese, (unintelligible) what
label do I live under, Chris? You tell me.
POWERS: Fuller cut his teeth on the tabloids - their speed, their passion,
their pop. And he brought those same qualities to his movies. This was not a
man humbled by subtlety. His dialogue was overripe, his storylines cartoonish,
his actors often coarse. Godard once called Fullerâs technique cinema fist, and
it really is in your face - whether itâs one of his eye-popping traveling
shots, or a close-up so potently huge itâs like a bird smacking in your
windshield. And he used his style to put across stories unlike anyone elseâs.
Weird goulashes of a right-wing fantasy morality tale, liberal propaganda,
vigilante violence and anti-war sentiment.
Like a pulp Dostoevsky, he created characters who were driven, conflicted,
extravagant, sometimes even sociopathic. Because his films really were
battlegrounds, they were first admired more in Europe, which is always had a
condescending fondness for American primitives. Here, his B-movie sensibility
was long reckoned unrespectable, although it allowed him to explore things that
Hollywood did not: the psychopathy of seeming heroes in âFixed Bayonets,â the
absurdity of even good words and âThe Big Red One,â the dangers of American
power in âChina Gate,â and the inescapable corruptions of authority in all of
Thatâs one reason my Fullerâs work still seems utterly alive, while so many
Oscar winners now seem dull, old-fashioned and laughably couth. In fact, the
real lesson of Fullerâs career is that in popular culture, visceral power
trumps good taste or artistic nicety. Thatâs why I can imagine him digging the
crime novels of James Elroy, or the new movie, âPrecious,â which is in many
ways exploitative. Itâs at once manipulative and preachy, degraded and
inspirational. It keeps you riveted and stays in your head. You see, when it
came to movies, Fuller really did believe that old line from William Blake, the
road of excess leads to the palace of wisdom.
GROSS: John Powers is film critic at Vogue. You can read his blog, Absolute
Powers at vogue.com. You can download Podcasts of our show on our Web site,
freshair.npr.org and you can follow us on Twitter@freshairnpr.
Iâm Terry Gross.
Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.