When I met Jeff Sharlet a couple of years ago at a conference in Austin, his revelations about “The Family” sounded like conspiracy theory. But the stodgy Harpers magazine is rarely associated with the American lunatic fringe.
Sharlet argues that a shadowy organization called “The Family” excercizes a profound influence on prominent politicians, Republican and Democrat. Hillary Clinton, he says, has been profoundly influenced by the family’s peculiar religious outlook. (You can find helpful background information here and here.)
The Family was founded in 1935 by Abraham Vereide, a Norweigen immigrant living in Seattle who was alarmed by the rise of militant labor activists. Vereide believed that the liberal “social gospel” of his day gave too much attention to the “down and out”. Vereide wanted to influence the folks he called the “up and out”.
Unlike most conservative religionists, Vereide ignored the teeming masses; his goal was to attract, in varying degrees, the loyalty of the powerful to the simple religion of Jesus. Vereide followed a savvy and sophisticated savior who pursued world domination through “the elect”: a small cadre of the wealthy and the powerful.
According to Jeff Sharlett, Hillary Clinton was prepared for this elite religious outlook in the 1960s by the theological reflections of repentant liberals like Paul Tillich and Reinhold Niebuhr. Sharlett isn’t saying that Clinton is a member of a secret sect; but he does suggest that her policies and outlook have been influenced by the distinctive moral vision of The Family.
I mention Sharlet’s work because it may shed light on a recent firefight about race and religion that bears directly on the criminal justice system. What does the current controversy tell us about the prospects for criminal justice reform in the near future?
Jeremiah Wright claims that America earned God’s wrath by turning its back on the poor, the disenfranchised and the desperate. Wright wants to know why some Americans are being sucked into a vortex of addiction, dysfunction and mass incarceration while the rest of the America prospers.
Barack Obama has been critical of some of his mentor’s conspiracy theories (a) because they are unsubstantiated and (b) because they reflect a malevolent and cynical view of the powerful. Nonetheless, Obama appears to share his pastor’s concern for the down and out. How else could he abide decades of his mentor’s preaching?
No American president since Jimmy Carter has evinced any real empathy for poor people. In America, only fools and suckers are concerned about the social roots of crime, poverty and human dysfunction. Like The Family, we believe that what’s good for Wall Street will trickle down to main street. By helping those who help themselves we hope to find ourselves in the best of all possible worlds. If a few million poor folks fall through the cracks, that’s just the price of admission.
Our passion for mass incarceration is rooted in this outlook.
I like Bill and Hillary Clinton. In 1992, I took my young children to a Bill Clinton rally at Freedom Hall in Louisville. The night he was elected president, I dreamed that I had been personally invited to the White House to meet the First Family. Hillary served me blueberry muffins in a basket. It was a lovely dream.
I recently heard Bill Clinton speak at the New Baptist Covenant gathering in Atlanta and couldn’t help but be impressed with his folksy eloquence.
But when it comes to criminal justice policy, Bill Clinton was no better than either George H.W. or George W. Bush. For thirty years, mass incarceration has been a bi-partisan enthusiasm. Is this just because tough-on-crime rhetoric wins elections? I don’t think so. As a nation, we prefer Abraham Vereide’s up-and-outs to Jeremiah Wright’s down-and-outs–and it shows in our policies.
Why have the televised clips of Jeremiah Wright’s sermons so alarmed white America?
In part, we object to the “static” view of America that Mr. Obama has correctly rejected. Post 9-11, some of us have a hard time with the suggestion that our actions have encouraged the rise of Islamic terrorism. Finally, for white Christians unfamiliar with the dynamics of black preaching, the sheer volume and intensity of Rev. Wright’s preaching is downright scary. This explains why black Americans, though unimpressed by some of Wright’s ideas, have a hard time understanding what the fuss is about. For anyone who has spent serious time in progressive black churches (or in the writings of the Old Testament prophets), the “America’s chickens are coming home to roost” remark has a familiar ring.
The contents of Wright’s comments, per se, cannot explain the sensation they have created in the media. When Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson interpreted 9-11 as God’s wrath against the ACLU, Planned Parenthood and other “secularizing” influences, the media played it up for laughs. But no one demanded that politicians linked to these southern preachers renounce their views and cut off all association with the Christian Right.
When evangelical icon, Francis Shaeffer suggested, back in the 1970s and 80s, that God would “damn” America unless the American people staged an armed revolt against the aborionists, nobody seemed concerned. Gerald Ford and Ronald Reagan welcomed the old man with the funny accent to visit the White House.
Only when the “God is judging America” theme is associated with our treatment of the down-and-out do we become upset. Everybody assumes that John McCain, whatever he may say in public, harbors a secret disdain for the Religious Right. But Obama chose to associate with Wright; this isn’t a marriage of convenience.
Why, we ask, would Barack Obama choose to attend a church where the poor are celebrated and the powerful mocked? Why would the Senator from Illinois tolerate the sermons of a man who gives a damn about drug addicts and felons? Is this the sort of person we want in the White House?
Jeff Sharlet’s book on The Family will be out in May. Will his views create a media sensation, or are The Family’s values too mainstream to warrant comment?
Alan Bean, Friends of Justice