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In late June 2009 Republican South Carolina Governor Mark Sanford held a press conference explaining his week-long absence from the Palmetto State. He claimed to be hiking the Appalachian Trail. But his staff could not reach Governor Sanford. He would not answer his cell phone when his wife and four young sons called. Instead of clearing his mind during a rendezvous with nature, Gov. Sanford was spending time with an Argentine mistress. While "hiking the Appalachian Trail" became a staple of late-night comedy, the audiobook C Street: The Fundamentalist Threat to American Democracy, explores the personal failings of self-proclaimed Christian politicians. More importantly, the book by Jeff Sharlet explores a Christian group called The Family and its influence over telecommunications policy, Ugandan domestic policy and even the American military.
According to Sharlet, The Family relies on a perverse reading of Holy Scripture-"the Bible's pretty words presented without the rough ones that give them depth… By ignoring the apparent contradictions of scripture, fundamentalism ignores its questions reducing its complexity to implicit equations." The involved reader will need to open a Bible to Galatians 5:22, Leviticus 18:22, Psalms 129 and others to test Sharlet's hypotheses.
The Biblical basis for The Family occurs in Acts 9:15: "But the Lord said to him, 'Go, for he is a chosen instrument of mine to carry my name before the Gentiles and kings and the children of Israel.'" The best way to help the weak is to help the strong. Even in American democracy, elected leaders are chosen more by God than the voters at the ballot box. The foreign policy implications of Acts 9:15 caused The Family to support brutal regimes in Haiti, Indonesia and Somalia.
Giving a clue of how The Family views Christianity, Sharlet recounts his meetings with Doug Coe, the "first brother" since 1969. Coe often claimed that Jesus was not a sissy and mentored the C Street denizens to use the models of "Hitler, Lenin, Ho Chi Minh and bin Laden" as models with which to understand the "total Jesus." Shockingly, the tactics of atheists, Communists, terrorists and genocidal maniacs are to be emulated, not reviled.
The case of former Rep. Chip Pickering (R-MS) highlights the intersection of the conservative economic policies and the questionable moral values of C Street. As a staffer for Sen. Trent Lott (R-MS), Pickering was a force behind the Telecommunications Act of 1996, which increased the number of radio stations a company could own from fourteen to forty. Hence, radio behemoth Clear Channel was formed. Concentrating media power in the hands of the few fulfilled the desire to emulate the literary hero of C Street, conservative author Ayn Rand. Paradoxically, Rand was an atheist. Like selectively reading Bible verses, The Family picks only the desired beliefs of their heroes.
An ugly divorce from Rep. Pickering's first wife Leisha to reunite with his college sweetheart, Elizabeth Creekmore Byrd, prevented Rep. Pickering from being appointed to the seat of his former boss, a retiring Sen. Lott. While Leisha did traditional charity work by founding HANDS (Helping Americans in Need of Disaster Support) after hurricanes decimated the South, Elizabeth Creekmore Byrd cashed a big check working for telecom giant Bell South. The Pickering-Byrd affair occurred with the knowledge of the C Street brothers, a merger of love and lobbying.
The Family's influence on the poor African nation of Uganda seems meddling, unnecessary and tragic. Sharlet befriends a member of the Ugandan Parliament, David Bahati, who introduced the Anti-Homosexuality Act, which prescribes the death penalty for aggravated homosexuality. The story of a young gay man named Blessed puts a human face on the perils of extreme anti-gay laws.
No other American institution would seem more secular to the outsider than the United States military, In 2005, Air Force Academy Commandant John Weida made national news for improperly promoting his evangelical beliefs. With no further stories, most thought Weida was a lone offender. Sharlet explores how The Family's views are pervasive across the military. From hanging an inciting "Jesus Killed Muhammad" sign in an Iraqi war zone to counseling female Air Force Academy cadets to forgo coveted pilot seats to pursue "God's purpose" of bearing children and being someone's wife, conservative Christians have an inordinate influence in the military.
Narrator Jeremy Gaskin expertly provides a tone that accentuates the snarky sanctimony Sharlet has for The Family. At times, I wondered whether the power of a phrase derived from Sharlet making words dance or Gaskin's delivery. However, C Street does not work as an audiobook. Although my grasp of international relations has earned me the pub quiz moniker "CIA World Factbook", I often asked myself, "Which brutal dictator (or Ugandan political elite) is Sharlet referencing?" The chapters on the titillating affairs were easy to follow, but when discussing major players in The Family, I needed a scorecard. I became so frustrated with trying to rewind the compact disc I gave up and read a hard copy while listening.
Although Sharlet references The Family, his prequel to C Street often enough to make the reader feel he missed something, the book perfectly stands alone. After Sharlet engages in transparent schadenfreude over the marital missteps of Gov. Mark Sanford (R-SC), the book powerfully explains how the affairs of Sen. John Ensign (R-NV) and Rep. Chip Pickering (R-MS) flouted personal and political ethics while deleteriously effecting public policy. The power of "The Family" over military and foreign affairs is simultaneously enlightening and shocking. Perhaps, the best compliment the reviewer can give C Street is I plan on reading The Family prequel, but certainly not listening to the audiobook.
© 2011 Justin Tillinghast
Justin Tillinghast holds degrees in economics and political science from Bucknell University. After spending fifteen years in Washington, DC working as a Congressional Aide and stand-up comedian, he works for the Census Bureau in Horseheads, New York.