TERRY GROSS, host:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.
My guest, Jeff Sharlet, has spent the past few years reporting on the secretive Christian fundamentalist group known as the Family, or the Fellowship, and how it's promoted anti-gay, anti-abortion and pro-free-market policies in the U.S., as well as in other countries.
Powerful politicians and world leaders are affiliated with the group. In fact, some politicians live or have lived at a residence near the Capitol known as the C Street House, which Sharlet has reported is run by a Family affiliate known as the C Street Foundation.
Last year, the secrecy of the C Street House was broken when it was reported that one of its residents, Senator John Ensign, was having an affair with his campaign aide's wife.
Senators Tom Coburn and Jim DeMint and Congressmen Zach Wamp, Bart Stupak and Heath Shuler were also living at the C Street House. Stupak and Ensign have since moved out.
Jeff Sharlet's new book is called "C Street," and it's about how the Family and other fundamentalist groups are influencing American politics, policy and the military, raising questions about the separation of church and state. Sharlet is a contributing editor for Harper's Magazine.
Jeff Sharlet, welcome back to FRESH AIR. Well, let's look at one of the C Streeters in the news, Senator Jim DeMint of South Carolina. He's been very active in supporting Tea Partiers. He was described by the Associated Press as having done as much as anybody else to incite the Tea Party uprising and bitter infighting that has riled GOP primaries this year.
He supported Christine O'Donnell in Delaware, and she won in the Republican primary, Rand Paul in Kentucky, Pat Toomey in Pennsylvania. He's given these candidates financial support, as well.
So let's look at Christine O'Donnell. Now, she's example of a candidate the Republican Party did not endorse. The Delaware state Republican Party chair called her a fraud who couldn't get elected dogcatcher, but now he's in the position of having to support her.
What was Jim DeMint's help or contribution to her campaign?
Mr. JEFF SHARLET (Author, "C Street"): What Jim DeMint is doing for all these candidates, and what makes him such an interesting figure, is representing this convergence of a kind of populist fundamentalism with the elite fundamentalism represented by figures like DeMint, the folks who are not outsiders, like O'Donnell, but insiders. They're in Washington, and granting a kind of legitimacy.
Even as certain factions within the Republican Party struggle against it, DeMint's coming out on top in race after race. And that's one of those moments that you look at, when populist and elite fundamentalism converge like that, then it becomes a more politically and culturally potent force, a transformative moment.
GROSS: One of the things I find interesting about his helping to empower the Tea Party is that the Tea Party seems to be based on more of economic disenchantment with the bailout, with federal spending, as opposed to, you know, Christian values.
It emphasizes federal bailouts and its opposition to that more than it emphasizes its, you know, any opposition to homosexuality, for example. So do you see him as bridging a more kind of Libertarian streak within the Tea Party to a more fundamentalist streak within politics?
Mr. SHARLET: You know, I don't see Senator DeMint as bridging that gap as being sort of a gatekeeper. As this establishment figure, he's saying to the Tea Party Movement, that does contain a lot of sort of traditional Libertarians who don't to get into don't see themselves religiously motivated, and he says: You want to get in through the halls of power, you're going through me. I'm the man who can take you there. I'm your Moses. And I see this movement he's been explicit about this - as a great awakening, as a religious movement.
And there are enough people in the Tea Party Movement who share that view, and he can shape it.
He wrote a book last year called "Saving Freedom: We Can Stop America's Slide into Socialism," in which he creates a sort of paradox of Libertarian authoritarianism, you know, on the one hand this sort of radical laissez-faire economics, combined with an authoritarianism that he roots in his religion, although it doesn't look like a Christianity most of us are familiar with.
It's more about power and where is the source of government. And for him, the only legitimate source of government is God. And so he sees that actually as informing the shape of the Tea Party, that the Tea Party, by rebelling against big government, is carrying out God's mandate to turn over the economy, turn over governance to him, God, and his chosen ones, Senator DeMint.
GROSS: How do you think that DeMint's championing of some Tea Party candidates is affecting his status within the Republican Party because a lot of the candidates were often, the Tea Party candidates were in some instances, including Christine O'Donnell, going against the candidate endorsed by the party.
Mr. SHARLET: You know, the person who is being most helped by DeMint's endorsements is Jim DeMint. You know, everybody knows that endorsements ultimately don't matter that much in politics. But there's another level in which Jim DeMint is emerging as a guy who knows how to pick winners, a guy who, you know, knows which way the wind is blowing.
And the Republican Party is increasingly going to have to say either we're going to take a stand and fight against this, or we are going to follow Jim DeMint, Jim DeMint is a leader. And he's certainly emerged as a leader.
One faction, you know, you hear the inevitable chatter that maybe he'll run for president. I think that's unlikely, and I don't think he'd get there. His role is much more that of a kingmaker. And he has now staked out a faction, and he's done that work of bridging these two traditional - traditionally at odds factions of the Republican Party, which is a sort of economic libertarianism and the religious conservatism.
And in that way, he is an exemplar of the Family's theology of the C Street approach to politics, which is to see those two things as not at odds - that kind of laissez-faire economics and religious conservatism and authority not at odds but as one in the same, as each an expression of the other.
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Jeff Sharlet. His new book, "C Street," is about how Christian fundamentalists have tried to reshape American politics and the military. It's the follow-up to his bestseller "The Family" about the evangelical Christian group that includes powerful senators and congressmen.
So Tuesday of this week, Republicans prevented a vote in the Senate on overturning Don't Ask, Don't Tell. And in thinking about that story, I was reminded of a quote in your book "C Street" because you have a whole chapter on fundamentalists and the military. And you quote Colonel Bob Young, who was a commander at Kandahar Air Base. His battalion was responsible for logistics support for combat operations through Southern Afghanistan.
And he said to you: There's a sense in which the military is now the only safe place to be. In the military, homosexuality is illegal. I don't want to get into all the particulars of Don't Ask, Don't Tell, but you can't act on homosexual feelings. And adultery is illegal. Arguably, the military is the last American institution that tries to uphold Christian values. It's the easiest place in America to be a Christian.
I'm wondering if you heard that sentiment expressed by others, that because of things like Don't Ask, Don't Tell, which make it against regulations to openly discuss or express your homosexuality, that the military is the last safe institution for a Christian.
Mr. SHARLET: Yeah, I heard that very commonly. I mean, first, I should say the vast majority of military personnel understand their oath to the Constitution and understand why they're there and their duty.
But there is a very significant movement within it that sees the military as a Christian institution. They see themselves as Christian warriors. They see themselves as responsible for protecting and defending America's tradition as a Christian nation and representing that overseas.
And for a lot of them personally, it just meshed well with their personal beliefs because they didn't have to engage in these kinds of culture war issues, and the military has decided for them, and that decision comes down on terms that are very comfortable for religious conservatism.
GROSS: Do you think the group of people who believe that are large enough to have influenced the continuation, for now, of Don't Ask, Don't Tell?
Mr. SHARLET: Absolutely. There's an organization called Officers for Christian Fellowship, 15,000 members - and they're officers, obviously -includes many top-ranking generals and former generals and admirals.
They define their mission as reclaiming territory for the Christ in the military, not allowing the opposition, all of which is spearheaded by Satan, to stand in the way. And that's from their mission statement of what they're doing.
They even refer to military personnel who may be Christian but not saved, not evangelical, as unwittingly doing the work of the enemy, of spiritual terrorists they even refer to people who share their religious beliefs.
And we're talking about folks like General Bob Caslen, a senior commander, General Robert Van Antwerp, another senior commander. So when you have that level of command committed to the idea that the military exists to embody their understanding of Christian values, it's not surprising that they can exert a force or a political influence that even a lot of the officers with a clear understanding of their duty find hard to resist.
GROSS: In your chapter in the book "C Street" about fundamentalists in the military, you describe a powerful movement within the military of people who think of themselves as spiritual warriors, who are trying to displace the military's once staunchly secular code with religious authority.
And the secular code you refer to is Order 1B, which forbids proselytizing of any religion or faith or practice.
Mr. SHARLET: That's actually an order for Iraq and Afghanistan. That's a more recent order. The real secular order to which I'm referring is the First Amendment of the Bill of Rights, which has the Establishment Clause that says government can't establish religion.
And it has a Free Exercise Clause, which says you have a freedom to exercise your religious beliefs or not exercise your religious beliefs.
And these, a lot of these officers, these leadership are in violation, clear violation of both, and then there's other officers, the military's gone so far astray, other officers aren't even they've lost sight of the First Amendment.
I spoke to General John Regni, a three star in the Air Force, and I tried to talk to him about his understanding of this. I thought it was a softball question. He wasn't familiar with the Establishment Clause. I read to him the First Amendment. He consulted with two of his advisers, a colonel and a retired colonel, said they weren't quite familiar with those constitutional things and ultimately decided to pass on the question.
GROSS: Give us another example of how you think the military - that certain fundamentalists within the military are trying to displace the military's secular code with religious authority.
Mr. SHARLET: You know, it happens in this sort of you know, no one there's no conspiracy here. There's no, you know, we're going to take over the military. It's an idea of cultural transformation.
And while there's other issues - but you see in this sort of this personal level, I interviewed so many Iraq veterans who would tell stories of coming back from Iraq, getting off the plane and being forced, you know, to stand at attention while a senior officer told them that they had been fighting for Christ. And that's not what they had been there for. Or others, who would describe situations where they had lost a fellow soldier, who they knew not to be a Christian, and yet his sacrifice being put in Christian terms.
And while this all may seem symbolic, it's hard to express how troubling that was to those folks to say that they had gone there thinking they were doing one thing and had their mission repurposed and repurposed in the very terms that the people they were fighting, you know, the very terms that al-Qaida uses to describe America, to say that America is fighting a crusade.
Well, it's hard to convince people that you're not fighting a crusade when you have someone like General Bruce Pfister describing the war in Iraq and Afghanistan as a spiritual war of the greatest magnitude.
GROSS: There was a scandal in 2005 about proselytizing within the Air Force Academy. Would you review what happened there for us?
Mr. SHARLET: Well, that's really a story that revolves around a man named Mikey Weinstein, who is head of an organization called Military Religious Freedom Foundation. And Weinstein was a graduate of the Air Force Academy himself, and he sent two sons there, and they happened to be Jewish.
And they had encountered really a lot of anti-Semitism. And, you know, these were young Academy guys. They weren't guys to sort of give in quickly. But it was pervasive.
And so they started looking into this and started talking to other people, discovering that a lot of other cadets had had experiences not with anti-Semitism but with faculty, promoting their Christian ideas from the head of the classroom.
General Johnny Weida, who was a senior commander there, developing a Christian code for cadets to shout back, special privileges for Christian cadets, so extensive that one of the whistleblowers, Captain Melinda Morton, who was a chaplain there at the time, described an environment where your religious beliefs had become instrumental to determining your future career in the military.
That was especially disturbing to her because she was counseling a lot of young women cadets who would come in there and had learned that their place as women was not to become fighter pilots but to be in a position where they could stay closer to home, they could raise a family.
And that was, you know, very upsetting to her on all sorts of levels, but not just as a person who believes in women's rights but also as an officer in recognizing you're skewing the talent pool. You're taking women who are the best fighter pilots and moving them aside so that men, who are presumably designated by God for this kind of combat, can be moved up the ladder.
GROSS: Now, the group that you referred to, the MRFF, the Military Religious Freedom Foundation, more recently wrote a letter with Veterans for Common Sense to Secretary of Defense Robert Gates saying that the military's practice of substituting religion for professional mental health care for post-traumatic stress disorder and suicide prevention has become increasingly frequent. What do you know about that?
Mr. SHARLET: Yeah, that's been sort of one of the sort of the saddest cases is this replacement of good mental health counseling and frankly good chaplain spiritual advising for those who want it and need it with a kind of a proselytizing agenda.
One of the things I looked at that the Military Religious Freedom Foundation had found was a PowerPoint presentation given to about 1,000 airmen at an air base in the United Kingdom based on the "Purpose Driven Life," Pastor Rick Warren's big evangelical bestseller.
But this was called the "Purpose Driven Airmen," and this was to give you everything you needed to deal with your depression issues. It was described as a suicide prevention work. It was created by a chaplain named Christian Biscotti, a graduate of Pat Robertson's university.
And it says: Here, there are three levels of purpose that you can choose from in your life. And on top is God-given, and then down the scale is man-given, which is described as philanthropy, and that's described by Karl Marx. You don't want that. And at the bottom of the heap, there's self-given purpose, and that's championed by Darwin, and you don't want to have anything to do with that.
So unless you have a God-given purpose, unless you are an airman who sees yourself as doing your duty for God, you're going to be exposed to this kind of crippling depression, a spiritual war, you know, being launched on you by dark forces and all this kind of stuff, and it could lead to suicide is the thinking.
Well, that was presented to 1,000 airmen. It was then shared with more airmen. And, you know, as I started to talk to soldiers, sailors, Marines, airmen, to find out if they had experienced similar ideas, what was astonishing to me was that this was not a case (technical difficulties) somebody who didn't understand the rules. This was someone who was kind of following protocol.
GROSS: My guest is Jeff Sharlet. His new book, "C Street," is a follow-up to his bestseller "The Family." We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: My guest is Jeff Sharlet. He spent the past few years investigating the secretive fundamentalist group The Family and the American congressmen and senators affiliated with it. His new book "C Street" is a follow-up. One chapter is devoted to evangelicals in the military.
You trace part of the evangelical power within the military to the mid-1980s, when the process of accrediting military chaplains changed. How did the process change?
Mr. SHARLET: Well, there was a great withdrawal of chaplains from the old mainline Protestant denominations: the Episcopalians and the Methodists and the traditional Presbyterians who were leaving in a large part.
That was a legacy of the Vietnam War, and there was a shortage of chaplains. And so the military, through no attempt to create this fundamentalist movement, started really radically broadening first the accrediting agencies it recognized chaplains from, so Bible colleges where instead of learning about all different faiths and how to minister to groups of all different faiths, you learn that there's a right way of Christianity, my kind of Christianity, and a wrong way, everything else.
Suddenly, those people started infusing the military. And at the same time they lifted regulations that said okay, you've got 10 percent Presbyterians, you should have roughly 10 percent Presbyterian chaplains. That doesn't mean you get a Presbyterian chaplain but you know they're out there.
That's all gone. And now we've reached a point where according to one chaplain, who is herself a history of the chaplaincy, about 80 percent of the chaplains describe themselves as conservative or evangelical. And when I looked, at least more than 60 percent, about two-thirds, are affiliated with denominations that you would describe that way.
GROSS: Looking at the past few years in terms of how you think some evangelicals have abused the First Amendment in the military, do you think that things have improved since then?
Mr. SHARLET: It's really hard to know. You know, I spoke to a three star general who wants to remain anonymous, and that's a sign of the times when a three star general who is critical of what he sees as a pervasive fundamentalist culture in the military, who is standing for traditional he's afraid that it'll hurt his career.
I spoke to him before and after the election. Before the election, he said, well, if we have a change of administration, you know, things can start changing up. And other senior commanders said, look, this is going to take years for us to get back on track, but we can do it.
And he was confident then. I spoke to him after the election and well into sort of the Obama administration, in which he'd seen no action on this front.
GROSS: So you've been following the influence of fundamentalism on politics and in the military for several years now. Are you going to keep on that story?
Mr. SHARLET: No.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. SHARLET: I think I have done my time with fundamentalism. And, you know, I got into this because I just love the varieties of religious experience in American life, and there's so much fascinating things, and there's so many, even within fundamentalism, there's so many movements that are beautiful and kind of wonderful.
And having spent all these years looking at these sort of, some dark places, I'm very interested now in working on a new book that's going to be looking at things that I believe are more hopeful, the way religion intersects with art and music and so on.
That's all there, and that's always been a presence. And I've been shaped by my research on fundamentalism in that regard, too. And, you know, it's almost because the politics drove this, there wasn't time to write about all the creativity that's even within the fundamentalist tradition, maybe especially within the fundamentalist tradition.
GROSS: Jeff Sharlet, thank you so much for talking with us.
Mr. SHARLET: Thank you, Terry.
GROSS: Jeff Sharlet's new book is called "C Street." You can read an excerpt of it, find links to other FRESH AIR interviews with Sharlet and find a profile of Senator Jim DeMint on our website freshsair.npr.org. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.