Review of C Street: The Fundamentalist Threat to American Democracy

Jeff Sharlet’s C Street, the follow-up to his best-seller The Family: The Secret Fundamentalism at the Heart of American Power is a must-read, even though it is not as good as it should be nor what its title implies. The book is not tightly written, and not really about C Street, the $2 million three-story brick building in Washington D.C. Nor is it primarily about The Family that runs C Street—legally as a church, but practically more as a boarding house and bordello. The book starts and ends with C Street and The Family, but its heart is only interested in this subject on the margins. Still, the follow-up to The Family is frightening, motivating, and informative—the best researched political book I’ve read since Naomi Klein’s 2007, The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism. But C Street is better thought of by it’s subtitle: The Fundamentalist Threat to American Democracy.

C Street begins with an overview of The Family, which explains more about the Christian Conservative movement than any book in recent history. The guiding philosophy of this secret and powerful group is an interpretation of the Bible that is not only bizarre, but also counter to what the vast majority of Christians (liberal and conservative) believe. To members of The Family, Christianity has nothing to do with the poor, the needy, the marginalized—not directly, anyway. Instead, it is all about helping “the chosen” (read: “the powerful”) create a Christian world.

In one of the clearest examples of this mentality, Sharlet explains why Family members reject welfare programs. If the government takes care of the poor, how can the chosen show their worthiness by feeding crumbs to the poor? Sharlet destroys such thoughts with great ease:

The idea that the powerful are powerful because they have been “given” their rank and position—that they did not grasp for it, that they did not politick—is as deceptive as “noblesse oblige,” a moral sleight of hand that exists to preserve social class. So, too, its corollary, that the poor should be grateful for whatever blessings trickle down to them.

If this line of reasoning sounds repulsive to you, then you are a long way toward understanding The Family. But if you wish to fully understand The Family, you are better to read Sharlet’s earlier book, The Family. (There is surprisingly little over-lap between C Street and The Family, so there is no reason not to read both.)

After the brief introduction to the group and the building, Sharlet spends a chapter on the sex scandals that brought The Family out of the shadows. It is basically his take on this recent history. The chapter unfortunately assumes that the reader is already well aware of the cases of Senator John Ensign, Governor Mark Sanford, and Representative Chip Pickering; I was not; conservative sexual hypocrisy is not exactly news. So I was often confused, and it was only thanks to many Internet searches that I got things sorted out. After this, however, I found Sharlet’s treatment wonderfully humane—especially in the case of Mark Sanford.

The core of C Street is contained in the next two chapters that have relatively little to do with The Family and nothing to do with C Street itself. The first is the heartbreaking story of the anti-gay movement in Uganda, where David Bahati—a Family apostle in the Ugandan Parliament—is trying to make homosexuality a capital offense. It has been widely reported that Bahati’s bill is dead. This is largely due to Peter Boyer’s whitewash of The Family in his 13 September 2010 article, Frat House for Jesus in the New Yorker Magazine. This is not the case as discussed on Jeff Sharlet’s blog, Call Me Ishmael (with a follow-up the next day) and elsewhere.

Sharlet reports on a conversation he had with “a pretty girl named Sharon, at a weekly abstinence rally” at Uganda’s premiere college:

  “Have you ever met a homosexual?” I asked.
  “I have never!”
  “If you meet one, would you kill him?”
  “It’s hard for me to kill.” That smile. Those teeth. “It is hard for me to do it alone.”
  “But together?” She giggled and nodded.

Those claiming that this anti-homosexual legislation comes from “the people” are clearly wrong. How is it that this young girl believes it is right to kill a “homosexual”—a creature she has never even seen? Her understanding of this mythical creature is highly reminiscent of Borat’s understanding of Jews with their horns that he can “hardly see.” But this is not parody; this is reality in Uganda and Sharlet reports on it brilliantly.

The second important chapter concentrates on evangelicalism in the U.S. Military. It focuses on Mikey Weinstein of the Military Religious Freedom Foundation (MRFF) and its work to protect the rights of military personnel of all faiths. Most of those who the MRFF helps are Christians—96% of them, in fact. They are simply not the right kind of Christians. Sharlet explains the origins of the problem:

In the mid-1980s the Pentagon began accrediting hundreds of new evangelical and Pentecostal “endorsing agencies,” allowing graduates of fundamentalist Bible colleges trained to see those from other faiths as enemies of Christ to fill up nearly the entire allotment for Protestant chaplains. As a result, more than two-thirds of the military’s 2,900 active-duty chaplains today are affiliated with evangelical or Pentecostal denominations.

These two chapters make up almost half of C Street, and they bring vividly to light major problems we face today, moving forward: one domestic and one international. Both are related directly to The Family, but Sharlet never makes the case that this relationship is primary. He takes it as given that the philosophy of The Family is at the root of these problems, and that it is only at the margins (outside the United States and in the military) that this philosophy can be seen in its uncensored form.

C Street ends by coming back to where it started: the red-brick “church” on C Street in Washington, D.C., and a symbol for the all but invisible attack on the principles that we were taught to believe the U.S. stood for. And it gives us hope in the form of two unlikely Christian protesters at the 2004 RNC convention in New York City. One of them wears a paint-by-numbers Jesus, saying, “That’s not what I meant.” It serves as a perfect symbol of what is wrong with The Family and C Street. It also provides a relatively hopeful ending to a book that is relentlessly disturbing.

As much as I am sure that Jeff Sharlet is not interested in the C Street sex scandals, he is most assuredly using them to get an audience for a subject he is interested in—a subject we should all be interested in: the future of our secular democracy. The lurid appeal of these scandals certainly caused the book to be rushed to print before it was ready. There is no question that Sharlet did an impeccable job researching this book. But its prose is bloated and sometimes confusing; its style makes sudden changes from objective journalism to autobiography to awkward polemic; and its structure is a mess that never manages to coalesce into a cohesive whole. These are all editorial problems, of course; C Street reads like a first-draft—but a first-draft of a very good writer. The book still manages to be an engrossing and entertaining read. What is most important, however, is that the content is vital—even explosive: news we should use.

0 thoughts on “Review of C Street: The Fundamentalist Threat to American Democracy

  1. You are welcome, but to paraphrase Dr. Frank-N-Furter, "I didn’t write it *for you!*" It was written for a local rag that is beneath me, and then didn’t even have the professionalism to tell me they had received it or to turn it down. So I sent them a nice note withdrawing the review and made a personal note that they will never get another submission from me. What amateurs!

    I hope the review is useful to people.

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