walkitout (walkitout) wrote,

_C Street_, Jeff Sharlet (kindle)

Subtitled: The Fundamentalist Threat to American Democracy

This is definitely a sequel to _The Family_ -- not a retread. The structure is basically the same, in that a little over half of the book is devoted in particular to the somewhat-decentralized international group started by Vereide and currently presided over by the Coes and called, variously, The Family, The Fellowship, etc. The remainder of the book is devoted to evangelicals in America in general.

Sharlet finds really horrifying stories. Better yet, he doesn't just find the victim of some nasty piece of work and then do a little fact checking. He works pretty hard to get the perpetrator to talk to him. The result sounds a little dangerous at times (the trip to Uganda to talk to Bahati, notably), and at other times, just disturbing. Listening to someone in the military explain in detail that no, they weren't talking religion to a group of troops or whatever, just America, and then go on and on and on about God -- that's just bizarre. Unfortunately, also believable.

What's in here: the Uganda Kill-the-Gays bill is covered in detail, with a lot of talking to people in Uganda, including, amazingly Bahati; the Jesus-Killed-Mohammed incident in Samarra that Sharlet wrote up as a Harper's article; what's going on at the Air Force Academy; evangelicals in the military, and Mikey Weinstein's single-handed efforts to make sure freedom of religion is a reality in the armed services; a bunch of stuff about Siljander and what he did and how he got in trouble for it; some hair-raising stuff about the Family's activities in Lebanon and Tom Coburn; ditto Sri Lanka; and, inevitably, summary coverage of Ensign, Sanford, and Pickering (which is presumably what everyone would be expecting, given the title part of the title).

There are parts of the book that are problematic. The description of going to protest the 2004 Republican National Convention in NYC, for example, felt in some ways a little self serving and long-winded. On the other hand, the description of the street preacher who was there protesting but still intending to vote for the Republicans only made sense in the larger context. And _that_ is a very important story to tell. Throughout the book, Sharlet describes evangelicals who use small stories from their personal lives (or retell something from someone else's life) in service of a larger lesson. Telling the 2004 RNC story fits into this context on many levels -- that's good. Sharlet uses a wide variety of adjectives to describe this particular narrative tic of evangelicals: narcissistic, projecting, modest. And while those adjectives don't feel very compatible, they're all basically accurate. Evangelical story telling and evangelical narrative in general suffers from an enormous amount of self-incompatibility that is generally completely unrecognized by the person doing the telling. This isn't an easy thing to depict and it is even harder to present in a way that isn't snarky, sarcastic, vicious, contemptuous, or something else very negative. Sharlet does a remarkable job of portraying the narration and highlighting the problems presented by the narration, without apologizing for it or being mean.

We have a political story, or frame, or meme, or whatever, in this country, that we are a small-c conservative country, and that the country has been headed to the right for some unspecified period of time. Depending on who is repeating this idea, it is either Too Awful or Yay Team. In Sharlet's description of Vereide's Idea, "the unsung virtue of the American Right that has allowed it to endure through liberal and conservative seasons, transforming the nation not so much through grand programs as by tiny steps" includes undercutting DC gun control laws, a 2010 Utah law "that effectively criminalizes miscarriage", the possibility of "requiring women to review ultrasound images of their fetuses before getting an abortion", "a conscience clause allowing pharmacists to refuse prescriptions for birth control -- possible under the Workplace Religious Freedom Act, not yet passed but supported by members of both parties". He talks about the tea partiers and Grover Norquist, Citizens United and Holder v Humanitarian Law Project, Fugitive Safe Surrender in 2007. He pulls in charter schools in the context of those who would like to see an end to the Department of Education.

Sharlet knows that this isn't particularly likely stuff and then suggests that if we focus on The End and deem it implausible, we'll miss what's happening in the here-and-now: the evangelicals who are post-millenial, not pre-millenial, the ones who want to implement God's Kingdom on Earth, "brick by brick, a foundation strong enough to endure any electoral tides".

It sounds ominous, and makes a nice lead in to the tale of Wilberforce. But like all attempts to demonstrate that a backlash is stronger than whatever led to it, it suffers in the face of reality. There are women in the air force who get pilot slots and then walk away from the because a christian commander tells them to go home get married and make babies. Yeah, that's bad. Yeah, that needs to be fixed. The commander needs to go. The guys above him need to be picked up by the scruff of the neck and given a good shake. And the whole chaplain systems needs to be dramatically modified. But let's not forget: _there are women in the air force who get pilot slots to walk away from_. We're currently arguing about gays serving openly in the military. The women aren't leaving the military and there's no indication that'll happen any time soon, if ever.

You could laundry list any area where the backlash (and that's all C Street and the rest of them are anyway) is working and document that all their efforts net to less than nothing. Conscience clause for pharmacists? Plan B became available without a prescription a few years ago. It is more useful to worry about the backlash as a regional phenomena (particularly with the murder of Tiller) and as damaging to marginalized people (altho I feel really bad describing the population of DC that way, they don't have representation so they really are marginalized). It might be helpful to get the general population riled up so they feel inclined to defend the victims. But it'd be sad if the energy got dispersed protecting people who don't necessarily need protection -- which is often what happens when a problem at the margins is presented as a more general problem.

Those are all comments on what to do with the energy you might have as a result of reading this book. It's definitely a book worth reading. Sharlet is enjoyably geeky when interviewed: a smart, detail-oriented guy who never loses his focus. He is admirable. He'll do good things with the money that comes from buying his book. I'm sure of that; after all, the money from _The Family_ led to _C Street_. Let's make sure there's a third one to come.
Tags: book review, non-fiction, politics, religion
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