Here is an edited version of the convention speech given by Jeff Sharlet at FFRF’s national convention on Oct. 19, 2019, in Madison, Wis. He was introduced by FFRF Associate Counsel Sam Grover:
Jeff is an award-winning literary journalist author of The New York Times bestseller The Family: The Secret Fundamentalism at the Heart of American Power and C Street: The Fundamentalist Threat to American Democracy. He is also executive producer of the new Netflix documentary series based on those books. Please give a warm welcome to Jeff Sharlet.
By Jeff Sharlet
Thank you for having me here.
In the so-called “cease-fire deal” that Mike Pence negotiated recently with Turkey, Pence declared that he not only wanted to thank President Trump, he wanted to thank the millions of Americans who were holding that moment in prayer.
The press passed over that nod to the evangelical base. But I believe it was key because, for a fraction of a second, Christian Nationalist support for Trump had wavered. You probably heard Pat Robertson’s warning that Trump was in danger of losing the mandate of heaven.
But the mandate of heaven is in Mike Pence’s portfolio, and Mike Pence wanted Christian Nationalists to remember that he is their man, their agent, and that he represents the covenant between Trumpism and the faithful that he, on behalf of Trump, heard their prayers. And, lo, he said, their prayers were answered. Peace in our time, said Pence. Don’t fret the details. Consider not the fate of the Kurds, not even their fellow Christians among them.
I don’t make many political predictions, but in 2010, I ended my book C Street, in which I’d written about a number of Christian Nationalist politicians fallen to scandal, with a little speculation about who might represent Christian Nationalism in 2016? Maybe, I wrote, it’ll be Rep. Mike Pence, a little-known Indiana congressman, a former right-wing radio host with White House eyes. I was so close. I could not imagine that Donald Trump would become the chosen one. How did that happen?
That question is at the heart of my recent documentary series on Netflix, “The Family,” directed by the brilliant Jesse Moss. The Family, also called The Fellowship, is the oldest and most influential Christian political organization in Washington. It’s also the most secretive. The longtime leader, Doug Coe, liked to preach that the more invisible you can make your organization, the more influence it will have. This so-called invisibility served The Family’s purposes because it’s not a mass organization. It’s not interested in your soul. It’s not interested in your salvation. This is one Christian Right group that is not going to try and convert you. It’s worse.
The Family began long before what we think of as the inception of the modern Christian Right. It was the midst of the Great Depression, 1935, when the founder Abraham Vereide was convinced that economic suffering was a punishment from God for socialism, for the New Deal, for Franklin Roosevelt.
God told Vereide — and I mean told him, spoke to him, he could hear the voice of God — that Christianity has been getting it wrong for centuries. It was focusing on the poor, the weak, the down-and-out. God told Vereide that he actually cared most for the strong, the wealthy, for those whom Vereide called the up-and-out men in power, given that power was better to build God’s kingdom.
A deal with God
How this can work, this deal with God? The Family moved to Washington, D.C., where it began organizing congressmen and business and military leaders in 1953. It created the National Prayer Breakfast to sanctify the nation to Jesus, and in its documents it’s explicit about this — to create a space to cut deals between Christ’s followers and government and business.
By the 1960s, it was firmly established around the world through its embrace of foreign dictators, whom it said had been chosen by God to aid America in the Cold War.
Here’s just one example among many. The Somali dictator Mohamed Siad Barre called himself a Koranic Marxist. But his Soviet backers had abandoned him. He needed some help and he agreed to pray to Jesus with Sen. Chuck Grassley, Republican of Iowa, who’s still serving us today.
Sen. Grassley, who is representing The Family in Somalia, was remarkably candid in his correspondence about what Barre wanted in return for his prayers to Jesus: military aid and a White House meeting — quid pro quo. Done and done, wrote The Family.
And, so it was. And, in return for that, The Family said in a now declassified CIA memo, Barre would give the U.S. full land and naval bases and complete access to his territory. So, for the dictator, this was a good deal. To The Family, to Sen. Grassley and his friends, it was faith. Everybody wins, except Somalia, to which Barre laid near biblical waste with the backing of the American Christ.
Such is the art of the deal. Let me give you another example.
American preacher and former Congressman Zach Wamp, a leader of The Family, told us as we made this documentary, that Trump is the vessel of God, albeit an imperfect vessel.
He says The Family is not blind to the vanity of man, especially to the man to whom it gives its backing. They know who they’re dealing with. One Family leader calls its clients its specialty dictators, murderers and thieves. Their words — “dictators, murderers and thieves.” The miracle, they say, is that such men — and it is almost always men — are chosen by God. The Family calls this quid pro quo a covenant. I’m going to quote Doug Coe, the longtime leader, what he means by that term covenant.
“Jesus says: ‘You have to put me before other people.’ Hitler, that was the demand of the Nazi Party. Quite a leap there. I’ve seen pictures of young men in the Red Guard of China. A table laid out like a butcher table. They would bring in this young man’s mother and father, lay her on the table with a basket on the end. He would take an ax and cut her head off. To have to put the purposes of the Red Guard ahead of the mother, father, brother, sister, their own life. That was a covenant, a pledge. That was what Jesus said. If you’re going to have any kind of movement, you have to have that kind of commitment.”
Which is why it does not matter to The Family, to Christian Nationalism, what Trump believes. Or whether he is, as some Christian Nationalists claim, a baby Christian, a man brought to grace by power. Each of his actions in the White House — the appointment of judges, a rollback of reproductive rights, spiritual war with Islam, the fortification of America as a chosen nation — symbolized by the wall to be built on its border. Each action is like a baby step toward the Lord. It does not matter whether he is a baby Christian or perhaps not truly a believer at all, but rather a tool in the hands of the Lord.
Trump as King Cyrus
This is the notion popularized in the 2016 campaign among evangelicals. The biblical story of King Cyrus the Great recast for the man who would make America great again. Both of them anointed by God. Even though neither necessarily had faith in God. It is King Cyrus, the king of Persia, a pagan, who the story goes, freed the Jews from Babylon and, what’s more, built a wall around Jerusalem. A wall. There’s real subtlety in this movement. And he didn’t actually build a wall either.
Now, some critics see these such beliefs as dangerous superstition, as naivete at its worst. Others say it’s cynicism.
And what I want to propose to you today is that it is both the art of the deal, of which Trump’s ghostwriters boast, and their best approximation of Trump. The real art of the deal is making everyone believe they got a good deal. It’s not the hard compromise of democracy where we’re aware of what we gave up.
The art of this deal is faith. The product of the deal is power, strength, total commitment. This is what The Family has dreamed of since its founder first wrote admiringly of Hitler’s effectiveness. It’s what Doug Coe spoke of whenever he cited Hitler, Lenin and Mao as the models of strength of the covenant, the deal with power that followers of Christ must seek. Trump instinctively understood early on that he was something like that model of strength — the unique figure who could bind reactionary forces together or according to Christian Nationalist mythology.
I want to emphasize this may not be true. It was allegedly Melania who figured it out, according to a 2016 best-selling campaign book called God’s Chaos Candidate: Donald J. Trump and the American Unraveling, by Lance Wallnau, an evangelical Trump adviser. Wallnau writes, “While [Trump is] watching the evening news with his wife Melania, they witnessed the escalating violence and riots happening in Baltimore. In that moment, Melania turned to Trump and said, ‘If you run now, you will be president.’
“‘What,’ said Trump? He was legitimately shocked by this sudden declaration. ‘I thought you said I was too bright and brash to get elected.’ Melania turned back to the plasma screen and said, ‘Something has changed. They are ready for you now.’”