Church-State Update, Vol. 29, No. 6

Edd Doerr

‘Family’ Values

It’s a rather ordinary row house at 133 C Street SE—a short walk from the nation’s Capitol—but it has attracted attention of late because of its connection to Senator John Ensign (R–Nev.), Governor Mark Sanford (R–S.C.), and former Representative Chip Pickering (R–Miss.), whose well-publicized extramarital affairs piqued media interest. The C Street house just happens to belong to The Family, a secretive, shadowy fundamentalist outfit that provides a residence for a half-dozen members of Congress and a meeting place for others. The Family is classified for tax purposes as a tax-exempt church.

The Family was founded in 1935 by a quasi-Nazi admirer, a Norwegian immigrant named Abraham Vereide. Its only visible public function is the annual National Prayer Breakfast, begun in 1953 at the start of the Eisenhower administration, a reportedly boring affair that manages to attract a host of U.S. and foreign big shots. It’s also the outfit responsible for the conversion to Christian fundamentalism of Charles Colson, Nixon’s “hatchet man” and convicted Watergater.

Among the current and former members of Congress reported to be involved with The Family are Senators John Ensign (R–Nev.), James Inhofe (R–Okla.), Sam Brownback (R–Kans.), Jim DeMint (R–S.C.), Chuck Grassley (R–Ia.), Tom Coburn (R–Okla.), John Thune (R–S.D.), Mike Enzi (R–Wy.), Mark Pryor (D–Ark.), Strom Thurmond (R–S.C.), Dan Coats (R–Ind.), and Dan Quayle (R–Ind.). Representatives include Zach Wamp (R–Tenn.), Frank Wolf (R–Va.), Bart Stupak (D–Mich.), Mike McIntyre (D–N.C.), Todd Tiahrt (R-Kans.), and Jack Kemp (R–N.Y.).

Other prominent “religious right” names linked to The Family include James Dobson, Gary Bauer, Lou Sheldon, the late Bill Bright, David Barton, Rev. Rob Schenck (cofounder of the anti-choice Operation Rescue), Marvin Olasky (adviser to George W. Bush), Howard Phillips (a cofounder of Jerry Falwell’s Moral Majority), Reagan administration cabinet members Ed Meese and James Watt, and Justice Clarence Thomas.

Noticeable in these lists is the absence of any women. Not even ultraconservative Representative Michele Bachmann (R–Minn.) is permitted in their ranks.

High on The Family’s domestic agenda: promoting school vouchers, “Christian” academies, homeschooling, and abstinence-only sex ed and opposing abortion rights and same-sex marriage.

According to Jeff Sharlet, author of the must-read 2008 book The Family: The Secret Fundamentalism at the Heart of American Power (HarperCollins, 454 pp., $25.95, also recently released in paperback), The Family “espouses a religious philosophy that holds God-appointed leaders are necessary for Christ’s second coming.” He adds that The Family “does not register as a lobby even as it behaves like one, offering foreign leaders access to its politicians at events like the National Prayer Breakfast.”

At this point, it is not possible to estimate just how influential The Family is, but Sharlet quotes Family leader/guru Doug Coe as saying that “The more invisible you can make your organization, the more influence it will have.”

Needless to say, it is vitally important for the health of American democracy that this outfit be thoroughly investigated and exposed. It would also be important to know what American politicians are doing traveling abroad on Family business with taxpayers’ dollars.

From Hither . . .

Wisconsin’s supreme court ruled 4 to 3 in July that the state’s Fair Employment Act does not apply to age discrimination at a faith-based private school. As I pointed out in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel on July 27, this ruling “is just another reason such schools should not receive tax support through vouchers or any other means. If only the state legislature had allowed the Milwaukee school-voucher plan to be submitted to the voters of the state, it probably would never have been started, as voters in 25 statewide referendums from coast to coast consistently have shown.”

According to a Northwestern University study of over 23,000 school voucher students ordered by the Florida legislature and released in June, voucher students do no better than similar students in public schools.

. . . and Yon

Irish president Mary McAleese in July signed into law the Defamation Act, which contains a clause to outlaw “blasphemous libel.” The law makes it illegal to produce or say anything “that is grossly abusive or insulting in relation to matters held sacred by any religion, thereby causing outrage among a substantial number of the adherents of that religion.” The clause will probably be found unconstitutional by the Irish supreme court.

In The Irish Times, Breda O’Brien wrote, “The blasphemy provision . . . remains unpopular with religious believers and atheists alike. . . . Perhaps the real division is not between atheists and religious people, but between those who would wish to see a culture of social justice, concern for the vulnerable and weak, and a sustainable future, and those who are just out to grab everything they can for themselves.”

On May 20, the Irish government released a 2,600-page report from the Commission to Inquire into Child Abuse covering the period from 1936 to the present. Father Thomas Doyle, a Catholic priest and authority on clerical child abuse, wrote in the June 12 National Catholic Reporter: “The vicious sexual, physical, emotional and spiritual devastation inflicted upon these children was not accidental. It was part of the everyday life and indeed deeply ingrained in the very culture of the child-care system in Catholic Ireland. . . . The sadistic world of these institutions is not that of some crazed secular dictatorship. . . . This report describes a world created and sustained by the Roman Catholic Church.” Doyle concluded with a plea to Catholics “to free the Christian/Catholic community from the toxic control of the clericalized institutional structure so that once more the church will be identified not with an anachronistic and self-serving monarchy. . . .”

Edd Doerr

Edd Doerr is a senior editor of Free Inquiry. He headed Americans for Religious Liberty for thirty-six years and is a past president of the American Humanist Association.


‘Family’ Values It’s a rather ordinary row house at 133 C Street SE—a short walk from the nation’s Capitol—but it has attracted attention of late because of its connection to Senator John Ensign (R–Nev.), Governor Mark Sanford (R–S.C.), and former Representative Chip Pickering (R–Miss.), whose well-publicized extramarital affairs piqued media interest. The C Street house …

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