THE BLOG

Hillary's Nasty Pastorate

05/25/2011 12:25 pm ET

There's a reason why Hillary Clinton has remained relatively silent during
the flap over intemperate remarks by Barack Obama's former pastor, Jeremiah
Wright. When it comes to unsavory religious affiliations, she's a lot more
vulnerable than Obama.

You can find all about it in a widely under-read article in the September
2007 issue of Mother Jones, in which Kathryn Joyce and Jeff Sharlet reported
that "through all of her years in Washington, Clinton has been an active
participant in conservative Bible study and prayer circles that are part of a
secretive Capitol Hill group known as the "Fellowship," aka The Family. But it
won't be a secret much longer. Jeff Sharlet's shocking exposé, The Family:
The Secret Fundamentalism at the Heart of American Power
will be published
in May.

Sean Hannity has called Obama's church a "cult," but that term applies far
more aptly to Clinton's "Family," which is organized into "cells" -- their term --
and operates sex-segregated group homes for young people in northern Virginia. 
In 2002, writer Jeff Sharlet joined the Family's home for young men,
foreswearing sex, drugs, and alcohol, and participating in endless discussions
of Jesus and power. He wasn't undercover; he used his own name and admitted to
being a writer. But he wasn't completely out of danger either. When he went
outdoors one night to make a cell phone call, he was followed. He still gets
calls from Family associates asking him to meet them in diners -- alone.

The Family's most visible activity is its blandly innocuous National Prayer
Breakfast, held every February in Washington. But almost all its real work goes
on behind the scenes -- knitting together international networks of rightwing
leaders, most of them ostensibly Christian. In the 1940s, The Family 
reached out to former and not-so-former Nazis, and its fascination with that
exemplary leader, Adolph Hitler, has continued, along with ties to a whole
bestiary of murderous thugs. As Sharlet reported in Harper's in 2003:

During the 1960s the Family forged relationships between the U.S. government
and some of the most anti-Communist (and dictatorial) elements within Africa's
postcolonial leadership. The Brazilian dictator General Costa e Silva, with
Family support, was overseeing regular fellowship groups for Latin American
leaders, while, in Indonesia, General Suharto (whose tally of several hundred
thousand "Communists" killed marks him as one of the century's most murderous
dictators) was presiding over a group of fifty Indonesian legislators. During
the Reagan Administration the Family helped build friendships between the U.S.
government and men such as Salvadoran general Carlos Eugenios Vides Casanova,
convicted by a Florida jury of the torture of thousands, and Honduran general
Gustavo Alvarez Martinez, himself an evangelical minister, who was linked to
both the CIA and death squads before his own demise. 

At the heart of the Family's American branch is a collection of powerful
rightwing politicos, who include, or have included, Sam Brownback, Ed Meese,
John Ashcroft, James Inhofe, and Rick Santorum. They get to use the Family's
spacious estate on the Potomac, the Cedars, which is maintained by young men in
Family group homes and where meals are served by the Family's young women's
group. And, at the Family's frequent prayer gatherings, they get powerful jolts
of spiritual refreshment, tailored to the already-powerful.

Clinton fell in with the Family in 1993, when she joined a Bible study group
composed of wives of conservative leaders like Jack Kemp and James Baker. When
she ascended to the senate, she was promoted to what Sharlet calls the Family's
"most elite cell," the weekly Senate Prayer Breakfast, which included, until his
downfall, Virginia's notoriously racist Senator George Allen. This has not been
a casual connection for Clinton. She has written of Doug Coe, the Family's
publicity-averse leader, that he is "a unique presence in Washington: a
genuinely loving spiritual mentor and guide to anyone, regardless of party or
faith, who wants to deepen his or her relationship with God."

Furthermore, the Family takes credit for some of Clinton's rightward
legislative tendencies, including her support for a law guaranteeing "religious
freedom" in the workplace, such as for pharmacists who refuse to fill birth
control prescriptions and police officers who refuse to guard abortion clinics.

What drew Clinton into the sinister heart of the international right? Maybe
it was just a phase in her tormented search for identity, marked by
ever-changing hairstyles and names: Hillary Rodham, Mrs. Bill Clinton, Hillary
Rodham Clinton, and now Hillary Clinton. She reached out to many potential
spiritual mentors during her White House days, including new age guru Marianne
Williamson and the liberal Rabbi Michael Lerner. But it was the Family
association that stuck.

Sharlet generously attributes Clinton's involvement to the underappreciated
depth of her religiosity, but he himself struggles to define the Family's
theological underpinnings. The Family avoids the word Christian but worship
Jesus, though not the Jesus who promised the earth to the "meek." They believe
that, in mass societies, it's only the elites who matter, the political leaders
who can build God's "dominion" on earth. Insofar as the Family has a consistent
philosophy, it's all about power -- cultivating it, building it, and networking
it together into ever-stronger units, or "cells." "We work with power where we
can," Doug Coe has said, and "build new power where we can't."

Obama has given a beautiful speech on race and his affiliation with the
Trinity Unity Church of Christ. Now it's up to Clinton to explain -- or, better
yet, renounce -- her longstanding connection with the fascist-leaning Family.

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