A Different Perspective On 'The Family' And Uganda Bob Hunter, a member of the secretive religious group The Family, responds to a November Fresh Air interview about the group's role in both U.S. and Ugandan politics. Hunter is credited as the liaison between the Family and leaders of the current Ugandan administration, which has proposed a brutal anti-gay law.
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A Different Perspective On 'The Family' And Uganda

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A Different Perspective On 'The Family' And Uganda

A Different Perspective On 'The Family' And Uganda

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This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

Last month we featured an interview with Jeff Sharlet, the author of the book �the Family: The Secret Fundamentalism At The Heart of American Power.� Sharlet has spent years researching the Family, which is a secretive group that some senators and congressmen are affiliated with including Tom Coburn, John Ensign, Joe Pitts, Jim DeMint and Sam Brownback. the Family's most visible project is sponsoring the National Prayer Breakfast each year in Washington, D.C.

After Sharlet's interview last month, we received an email from a longtime member of the Family who was mentioned in the interview, Bob Hunter. He wanted to respond to things that were said about him and the Family, which he says is better known as the Fellowship. So we invited Hunter to talk with us.

In an email he sent us prior to the interview, he was concerned that he'd been portrayed as a right wing fundamentalist when in fact he's a long-time consumer activist and is now the director of insurance with the Consumer Federation of America. He served in the Carter administration as well as the Ford administration.

Bob Hunter's work with the Family came up in my interview with Jeff Sharlet when we were discussing Uganda, where anti-gay legislation has been proposed that would sentence to death some homosexuals and imprison anyone who didn't report a homosexual. In my interview with Sharlet, he talked about the Family's connections to Uganda and their possible influence on this draconian bill.

The president of Uganda was brought into the Fellowship by Bob Hunter, who's been working in Uganda since the '80s with hospitals and other charitable groups. Hunter says neither he nor anyone he knows in the Fellowship supports the Ugandan bill and that's one of the things he told Jeff Sharlet in the meeting that they had after our interview.

Sharlet wrote a post on Warren Throckmorton's blog about their conversation clarifying and correcting some of his statements. You'll find a link to that blog on our Web site.

I spoke with Bob Hunter yesterday. We talked first about his work in Uganda.

Bob Hunter, welcome to FRESH AIR. Now, what did you do to help connect the leadership of Uganda with the Fellowship?

Mr. BOB HUNTER (Consumer Federation of America): Well, I started reaching out because the trouble was so bad in the country, I started reaching out to the various leaders, and because I was one of the very few white people in the country during this really troubled time, I could walk in and see anybody and they would let me in.

And so I met with leaders from the opposition party. I met with leaders from the president's party. I met with leaders even in the bush, and I started saying, can't we get you guys together? And they were willing to try to, because they all claimed to be Christians, and they were willing to try but they were afraid of the president and they said the president might think it's a coup if we get together.

Then I was giving up, really, but on the way out of the continent, I bumped into at Nairobi airport an African-American woman who was a missionary to Uganda whose father was Andrew Young. So through that chance encounter, I reached out to Andrew Young, who came with me on the first trip where we actually got to meet a president.

It was before Museveni. It was the President Obote, who was a very evil man. But we met him and he gave the authority for us to try to bring some people together, which began the process.

GROSS: Now, what's the Family's relationship, or the Fellowship's relationship now, with the Ugandan President Museveni?

Mr. HUNTER: He...

GROSS: Because Jeff Sharlet, who wrote the book "The Family," says that Museveni is the Family's key man in Africa.

Mr. HUNTER: Well, that's probably an overstatement. The Fellowship has key people working in countries. These are the people that, you know, help put together meetings, make sure the people from various tribes get involved, the various religions, and not just Christian, get involved, and those are the people that are really the close-in family, and they're actually meeting and praying together and trying to figure out ways to help people get together that normally would be divided. They're the close in ones.

The presidents are sort of tools to hold prayer breakfasts and so on to try to move the agenda toward peace. There's no doubt President Museveni has been one of the close contacts since I first introduced him to people here. But he is not the day-to-day guy, nor is he the guy you can push around and suggest that he adopt a position or something.

GROSS: Uganda now has anti-gay legislation before parliament that is really draconian. It would call for the death penalty for anyone who is gay who had HIV-AIDS, the death penalty for adults who have gay sex with minors, jail for anyone who fails to report a gay person within 24 hours if there's been gay activity, life sentences for people in same-sex marriages, and this bill also calls for extraditing gay Ugandans living abroad so that they can be brought back to Uganda and be prosecuted.

What's your opinion of that bill, being so close to the country of Uganda?

Mr. HUNTER: Well, my opinion is it's a terrible bill and shouldn't be adopted, and I believe no one that I know, in America particularly, and my close friends in Uganda, I know of no one who supports it in the Fellowship.

GROSS: Since you have so many connections in Uganda and since you know President Museveni and helped bring him to the National Prayer Breakfast in 1997, which is organized by the Fellowship - the Family - did you - have you spoken out to your connections in Uganda?

Mr. HUNTER: Oh yes. Definitely. In fact, when I first called them, and well, first was an email contact, they said, look, the guy who introduced the bill came to one of our prayer breakfasts and afterwards, in a private meeting he told us about the bill and we told him it was a bad idea. So even before the bill was introduced, members of the Fellowship had said you should reach out to other people before you do this. It's, you know, be cautious. This is not a good idea. They did it in a very polite Ugandan way but the fact is they spoke out even before it was introduced.

GROSS: Now, some members of the Fellowship in the United States have eventually spoke out against the bill in public, including Senators Coburn and Grassley. I'm wondering if other members of the Fellowship in the United States who have made Africa among the top things on their agenda have spoken out, such as Senators Brownback and Inhofe.

Mr. HUNTER: Inhofe has. I know that. I don't know about Brownback. I haven't heard. We have certainly passed the word around to contacts on the Hill of our position, but I don't keep track of day to day what each on said. I know Inhofe did.

GROSS: Now, so these are statements that have been made in the United States. What about statements to Ugandans like calling up connections or calling up people who they have prayed with?

Mr. HUNTER: My understanding is there has been some connections. I know I have done it personally and talked to people who would be close to people in the decision-making process about our concerns, which is very unusual. You know, we never involve ourselves in these political things. That's not our role. But this one became so, you know, hot that we decided - I decided that I should speak out, and then I found out they were already speaking out in Uganda.

I would say that, one other thing...

GROSS: Mm-hmm.

Mr. HUNTER: ...and that is that Mr. Sharlet now recognizes that we had nothing to do with the anti-homosexual bill and has so said so in post by Warren Throckmorton.

GROSS: David Bahati, who introduced the bill to the Ugandan parliament that is a draconian anti-gay bill, did David Bahati organize or is he involved with organizing the National Prayer Breakfast in Uganda now?

Mr. HUNTER: He was involved in this last one. As a member of parliament, anyone who went - who goes to the prayer breakfast - the weekly prayer breakfast of parliament where people pray together and talk about their families and such, is part of that organizing committee. So he was a part of the organizing committee but he was not central, in my view, to actually organizing, putting together the prayer breakfast.

But he was on - he's a member of parliament and he goes to the prayer breakfast weekly. And so therefore he was I think on the - I don't know. I haven't seen it. But he probably would be considered an organizer, yes.

GROSS: Is David Bahati a member of the Fellowship?

Mr. HUNTER: Well, he's a part of that group that meets in the parliament, so to that extent he is. There's 10,000 groups around the world, so I don't know what they're all doing. But yeah, he, to that extent he would be considered part of the Fellowship, yes.

GROSS: Now, Jeff Sharlet did say that he found two memos you submitted to Doug Coe detailing your meetings with Ugandan and Kenyan officials and a possibility of recruiting them for the Family or the Fellowship. What do you say to that?

Mr. HUNTER: Oh, it's possible. I mean I wrote trip reports on all of my 25 or so trips to Africa. I write trip reports on my trips and I send them to a lot of friends, including some that are in the Fellowship and some that aren't, to members of my family and so on. There's nothing ever about me doing a political trip trying to gain political access.

Maybe I would like to reach, say, the Hutu, who was the number one political Hutu in Burundi and also the number one Tutsi to try to find a way to bring them together to avoid another Rwanda next door, you know, things like that I would say. But the goal was always out of love to try to find a way to bridge gaps between people.

All kinds of gaps - ethnic, tribal, economic, religious - we try to find a way through, and we also try to build groups in the parliaments that represent the whole country so that the group would have a Muslim and a Christian and a northerner and southerner and, you know, this tribe or that tribe. And so I would write, yeah, I'm trying to reach somebody. We have these three but we're missing the very important fourth. We're trying to reach them. I would write something like that.

GROSS: And did you submit a report to Chester Crocker after one of your trips to Uganda, who was then the undersecretary of state for African Affairs?

Mr. HUNTER: He might've gotten a copy of one of my trip reports. I only met him once and I could've possibly sent him a copy of one of my trip reports. A couple of times we discovered things. Like on my very first trip I got taken into the Luweero Triangle, which is where most of the killing was, taken into one of the camps that was a death camp and I was able to actually witness it and I did write when I got back and told the government what I saw, because, you know, I thought it was so horrible.

I don't remember if that one went to him. I don't think so. I may have sent a later one. When we were helping bring the final tribal group - the powerful Hutu in Burundi into the peace talks, and our role was never peace talks, our role was build trust between the various people so that they would feel comfortable to start peace talks.

When I came back and said we had actually brought them together and I actually called the State Department to tell them, they said I don't believe you. No one can do that. Mandela has tried, you know, the U.N. has tried, we've tried. No one can do it. I said, I'm telling you the truth. They said it's ridiculous. It's impossible. But it happened.

GROSS: My guest is Bob Hunter. He's been a part of the Fellowship, also known as the Family, for about 30 years. We'll talk more after a break.

This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: My guest Bob Hunter is here to respond to an interview I recorded last month with Jeff Sharlet, the author of "The Family: The Secret Fundamentalism at the Heart of American Power." The Family is a secretive religious group that several prominent senators and congressmen are affiliated with.

Hunter has been part of the Family, which he says is better known as the Fellowship, for about 30 years. He objected to some of the things Sharlet said and to a couple of things I said.

I know one of the things you objected to when I interviewed Jeff Sharlet, author of the book "The Family," was my introduction to the interview. And in that introduction I said the fundamentalist group the Family has operated secretly 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.

I know you have a lot of objections to that sentence, so tell us what they are.

Mr. HUNTER: Well, first of all, the Family has no idea or agenda like anti-gay, anti-abortion, pro-free market. It's - there is no agenda. The agenda is to reach people, to bring them into small groups where they could read the Scriptures.

It's always focused on Jesus but it's focused in a way that comfortable for a Muslim, because we say, okay, you think he's a prophet, come on in and have fellowship with us. Or even, you know, Jews, you say he's a great rabbi, come on in and have fellowship with us. And it works. We can get through, because unlike a lot of Christian groups, we don't say you got to convert and be like us before you can join. We let people join - in fact, some of the religious community are upset with us because we don't - they say we are, you know, not following through on the great commission and - but we think if you're going to build a - within the country, some kind of unifying force. We think Jesus can do it but because he can - he does cross those religious boundaries. Christianity doesn't. If you go in and say, let's have a Christian group then a bunch of people don't show up. And so we try to use that as a way to bring people together.

GROSS: So, I describe The Family as operating secretively.

Mr. HUNTER: Yeah.

GROSS: Your reaction?

Mr. HUNTER: Oh, I think we are little too secretive. There are some things have to be secret, you know. For example, if I'm in the middle of a negotiation with Hutus and Tutsis and Twa in Burundi trying to bring them together, I can't be public - go out that night and hold a press conference every night. It simply doesn't work. We're trying to build relationships and trust. We have to do that quietly. There are things that are like confessionals where people tell me, you know, or we tell each other some of our issues, temptations, things we're dealing with. You don't broadcast that obviously. But I also think we should have a Web site. We don't really, you know, we should tell the good stuff about the orphanages, we help the hospitals, we help - the work with children all over the world that we're doing. I think we have a great story to tell. And there is some resistance in the organization against being more open and I think it's a mistake. I think we can be open without giving up things that have to be private.

GROSS: In Jeff Sharlet's book, he says that in 1966, Doug Coe, who was the leader of The Fellowship also known as The Family, decided that the time had come to submerge and that after that The Fellowship avoided any appearances of being an organization. And also like Doug Coe has made the analogy to the mafia, that the mafia gets a lot of its power by being secretive and the way to have to power is to operate kind of secretly.

Mr. HUNTER: Yeah, I - but I've heard Doug talk about it a lot. He believes that things that are invisible are more lasting than things that - and that's from scripture: things that are invisible and more lasting than things you can see, that the rest - the things you can see will pass away, some of the invisible things will last forever. And things like that which I think influence him on that. I think - there was a time when it probably was okay to not have public information. But I think we should be reaching out more and making people more aware of what we're doing without giving out the part that has to be private.

GROSS: Do you think that that will happen, that The Family will be less secretive?

Mr. HUNTER: Well, there's a discussion underway. There was a meeting couple of weeks ago and certain people spoke out for a Web site and more openness and others were resistant. But I think sooner or later it will be more open.

GROSS: Why now? What was that meeting the reaction to?

Mr. HUNTER: Well, it was part reaction to Sharlet's book and this history, you know, troubles and the inability for anyone to be able to respond because they just don't have a mechanism for responding. And so the media looks for a Web site, I would too. And there is nothing there and so the media goes, well, it must be a secret organization even though Jeff Sharlet found 273 footnotes in his book. So, it isn't totally secret. And so, it's - I think the secrecy will end. It just - I think we're just going through the process.

GROSS: And by that�

Mr. HUNTER: I think it was - I think the notoriety and the lack of a response has hurt The Fellowship and I think it's time to - I haven't, by the way I haven't cleared this with anybody. I'm here because I felt I was personally scandalized as�

GROSS: On our show?

Mr. HUNTER: �right-wing fanatic on your program�

GROSS: Mm-hmm.

Mr. HUNTER: �as a right-wing fanatic who the U.S. government sent over to Uganda and so on. And I think we've straightened that out I hope. But that isn't who I am.

GROSS: Isn't it kind of okay for you to be here without telling other members of The Fellowship that you were doing this?

Mr. HUNTER: Sure.

GROSS: Are you breaking any kind of understanding?

Mr. HUNTER: No there is no code. There is no code or creed or anything. It's just sort of the way it's been. You know, I suppose I could get in a little trouble with some of the people. I will find out. It's not a written down thing. It's just been sort of the way it's been.

GROSS: Okay, one more thing in my one sentence, and we're getting a lot of mileage out of that one sentence�

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: �my introduction to Jeff Sharlet's interview. I said that The Family operated secretly 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 American and other parts of the world. So, let's get to that idea of promoting anti-gay, anti-abortion pro-free-market ideas around the world.

Mr. HUNTER: Well, The Fellowship does not promote any agenda that's political. The only agenda is to get, to reach people and try to bring them closer to God and to each other in a way that would help people. Hopefully, you know, it doesn't seem to be working. Republicans and Democrats would respect each other better if they sat down and prayed with each other and learned about each others' families and, you know, shared each others' pains and triumphs and so on.

GROSS: My guest is Bob Hunter. He has been part of The Fellowship also known as The Family for about 30 years. We will talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: My guest Bob Hunter is here to respond to an interview I recorded last month with Jeff Sharlet, the author of, "The Family: The Secret Fundamentalism At The Heart Of American Power." The Family is a secretive religious group that several prominent senators and congressman are affiliated with. Hunter has been part of The Family, which he says is better known as The Fellowship, for about 30 years.

The Fellowship, also known as The Family, raises some complicated questions about the separation between church and state and I'll give you an example of what I mean here. Senator James Inhofe of Oklahoma spoke and this is - there's a clip of this on YouTube. I would play the sound except the sound is a little too muddy for the radio. I think our listeners would have trouble hearing it. But he is talking to Rob Schenck who is the founder of a ministry called Faith And Action In The Nation's Capital. And in this conversation, he said that Jesus said, take my name Jesus to the kings. And Inhofe says, if you're a member of the U.S. Senate in Africa they think you're important. So, you always get in to see the kings. The first one he went see was a guy that our State Department thought was the worst terrorist in the world, Sunny Abacha from Nigeria. He started talking about political things. And so, after a little while I said, Mr. President really, yeah, I'm a member of the U.S. Senate but I didn't come over here as a senator. In fact, I came all the way across the Atlantic and down to Sub-Saharan Africa to tell you that in the spirit of Jesus, we love you.

Now he's saying, Senator Inhofe is saying to Abacha in the story, I'm not here as a senator. I'm just here to tell you that in the name of the Jesus we love you. But at the same time Senator Inhofe is, in fact, a senator. And the contact that he is making there is a contact that he can also use as a senator. And if you do this in a country where, say, you're coming in the name of the Jesus but you're really a senator and that country is looking for money, for grants from the United States, you could use your influence to get it. There is a lot of political favors that could be traded. And it's really a murky line there between what's church and what's state, and a visit like that when a senator says that they are taking the name of the Jesus to the kings.

Mr. HUNTER: I'm not surprised he would say something like that. That is sort of is the message that we are not there for politics, he said. And we are here to reach a different level of spiritual connection with you and, ultimately, with people in your parliament and, elsewhere. And you usually start at the top to get clearance, particularly if there is some kind of ethnic trouble or religious trouble going on in the state that you're going to.

Now, can you use those contacts wrong? Sure. I mean, I - there are definitely social climbers who come to The Fellowship to try to meet important people. And there are people who might even try to make money. But, the people I work with, they tend to fall away because it that isn't the way it works, you know (unintelligible).

GROSS: But we're talking about Senator Inhofe here. We are talking about a very powerful senator�

Mr. HUNTER: Well, I�

GROSS: �who is going in the name of Jesus but he also a senator and isn't that muddying the line between church and state?

Mr. HUNTER: I don't think so because I think he is being clear there. He is saying that I'm not here on political state business. I'm�

GROSS: But he is still - but he is still�

Mr. HUNTER: Well, he can't help�

GROSS: �a senator making an international trip seeing a head of state.

Mr. HUNTER: You can't help who you are. I mean, if I - can't he have a friend.

GROSS: But what got him in the door in the first place was being a senator. He says, if you're a member of the U.S. Senate in Africa they think you're important. So, you always get into see the king. So, he is using his stature as a senator to see a head of state and then say oh, I'm not here as a senator. I'm here representing Jesus.

Mr. HUNTER: Yeah, well, as long as he - I have no idea what he did in Nigeria which is where Abacha was, as long as, he keeps it clear and separate, I don't see it's a problem.

GROSS: The way Jeff Sharlet portrays it, The Fellowship is about trying to reach leaders, powerful people. And that there is one set of teachings for the powerful people and another set for people less powerful, but that The Fellowship is really geared toward the powerful, whether it's members of Congress or heads of state in other countries.

Mr. HUNTER: Well, he calls it the elite. There is a ministry toward leaders in The Fellowship. There are also ministries toward poor people in The Fellowship. But yeah, you know, The Fellowship does reach to leaders as part of the strategy to bring more unity into countries and into troubled situations.

GROSS: Well, Bob Hunter, I appreciate you're responding to us after our interview with Jeff Sharlet. I appreciate your coming on to talk about your response to it. Thank you very much. And I wish you a merry Christmas and also a good and healthy new year.

Mr. HUNTER: Oh, thank you, Terry. Merry Christmas to you and to your listeners.

GROSS: Bob Hunter is a longtime member of the secretive religious group The Fellowship, also known as The Family. He is also director of insurance with the Consumer Federation Of America. He was responding to an interview I did about the group, The Family, with Jeff Sharlet, the author of "The Family." After that interview, Sharlet and Hunter met. Sharlet blogged about their meeting. You will find a link on our Web site freshair.npr.org.

I'm Terry Gross.

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