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BOOK REVIEW

Reshaping government in the name of God

By Claude R. Marx
October 14, 2010

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Many liberals experienced more than a bit of schadenfreude during the sex scandals of conservative politicians such as Senator John Ensign of Nevada and South Carolina Governor Mark Sanford.

Journalist Jeff Sharlet contends that those weren’t isolated incidents; instead, they were symptomatic of the hypocrisy of conservative evangelicals. In “C Street,’’ he describes what he sees as a right wing effort to infiltrate governments at home and abroad, with little regard for the personal behavior of conservative leaders.

It is a fascinating story with details that will intrigue and outrage readers. However, Sharlet’s overly dramatic and, at times, sensationalistic approach detracts from the book’s effectiveness and makes him the literary equivalent of the boy who cried wolf.

Members of the fundamentalist Christian organization The Family, some of whom live in the group’s house on C Street near the Capitol in Washington, don’t see themselves as ordinary politicians.

Sharlet writes of “the alchemy by which men elected by citizens persuade themselves that they were, in fact, selected by God.’’ He notes that the politician “does not take credit for his success, he does not suppose that it is virtue that led people to elect him. He is just another sinner. But God wants to use him, as he used David.’’

To those who don’t understand the nuances of the evangelical worldview, the philosophy that Sharlet describes can seem unusual and even arrogant. However, it is a legitimate (and increasingly popular) perspective, and Sharlet’s condescending view toward it shows a lack of cultural understanding.

The scandals involving Ensign (which included a monetary coverup that has triggered a Justice Department investigation) and Sanford (of “hiking the Appalachian Trail’’ fame) are the tip of the iceberg for the author. To be sure, he condemns some members of the organization for helping these and other politicians deal with the aftermath of their poor judgment. However, Sharlet spends the majority of the book discussing the organization’s methods for spreading its fundamentalist theology and conservative views on economic and social issues.

The book contains a long, and at times frightening, section on the efforts of some Ugandan lawmakers to expand the country’s already conservative laws against homosexuality, which is already illegal there. David Bahati, a member of the Ugandan legislature with strong ties to The Family, is pushing legislation that would allow the death penalty for certain homosexual acts.

Sharlet contends that there is overwhelming support for the bill and that it hasn’t passed because American groups have threatened to cut off much-needed aid if it does.

While the American lawmakers who have close ties to Uganda through The Family don’t necessarily condone all the details of the law, they are pleased to have as allies Bahati and others who are committed to spreading Christianity. Sharlet argues that many of the Ugandan leaders are probably tempted to employ genocidal practices — once standard operating procedure there — as part of their effort to stamp out homosexuality.

“If genocide comes, it will come to the tribes, recast as a crusade for family values against one group or another said to have fallen, like the Americans, on decadent ways,’’ he writes.

He doesn’t prove that that outcome is likely. There is strong evidence of the repressiveness of the regime but no proof that genocide will be a weapon in the fight to maintain traditional conservative values there.

Sharlet’s discussion of the efforts of The Family and other evangelical groups to place a strong imprint on the culture of the American military is more convincing. He documents numerous examples of how many other religious groups, including some mainstream Christian denominations, have been marginalized by evangelicals and fundamentalists.

He is disturbed by the trend, which he describes as, a “quiet coup within the armed forces: not of generals encroaching on civilian rule but of religious authority displacing the military’s once staunchly secular code.’’

Sharlet notes that some in the military see the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq as modern-day equivalents of the crusades to Christianize the region. Unfortunately, he weakens his argument by taking the views of a select few and implying that they represent the consensus position.

His tendency to use that technique prevents “C Street’’ from being a great book. However, it provides valuable insights into an influential political and religious group.

Claude R. Marx can be reached at crmarx@aol.com.

CORRECTION: Because of a reporting error, an earlier version of this review, and the headline accompanying it, inaccurately characterized the author's view of a group known as The Family, a powerful, secretive organization in Washington, D.C., made up of fundamentalist politicians and military leaders. In his book, Jeff Sharlet argues that the activities of members of The Family are aimed at reshaping governmental policies and agencies and the military but do not constitute a conspiracy.

C STREET: The Fundamentalist Threat to American Democracy

By Jeff Sharlet

Little Brown, 344 pp., $26.99