On Tuesday night, The Humanities Project wrapped up its series on Religious Cultures of the African Diaspora in the Hawkins-Carlson room in Rush Rhees Library with a talk given by New York University research scholar and author Jeff Sharlet. The scholar’s most recent work, “The Family: The Secret Fundamentalism at the Heart of American Power” comes out in late May and was the topic of most of his lecture.
“The project is designed to bring to campus the best scholars in the study of religion in the Diaspora to invigorate our students’ curricula with new scholarship in the field and to invite the community at large in the Rochester area to consider the ways in which religion has also shaped the diversity of the African Diaspora community in the city of Rochester and beyond,” event organizer and Assistant Professor of Religion Anthea Butler said of the project.
With motive so often in question in the realm of politics, Sharlet’s talk was relevant on a number of levels. The scholar spent the majority of his lecture discussing the “Family” – a fundamentalist organization priding itself on its secrecy and whose membership has extended to the likes of U.S. Senator Sam Brownback and former President Gerald Ford. Sharlet himself became a member “by accident.”
The society, as Sharlet went on to detail, has wielded its power in a variety of political settings, emphasizing that all that was required to join was “an interest in Jesus” – a statement that has made the organization popular among conservative leaders.
According to Sharlet, however, the groups’ interests extended far beyond a dedication to Christ’s son. In reality, the Family better exemplified a bastardized Calvinism that antagonized the idea of conventional Christianity. Sharlet explained that, unlike typical religion, the group did not work to convert the masses – just important male figures it deemed worthy of implementing its objectives.
The scholar claimed that perhaps the most critical part of this organization was its dedication to secrecy, noting that the organization prided itself on the idea that the more invisible you were, the more power you were able to wield.
“The idea was that the rest of the world wouldn’t understand what we were doing there,” Sharlet said of the organization’s rationale for secrecy.
Sharlet also went into detail, describing the way the organization manipulated its power to impede racial equality and take away basic human rights through the advocating of slow and quiet political initiatives. He explained that, as a result of the group’s elite fundamentalist attitude, a form of cynical paternalism has evolved.
The audience, while small, was very attentive. Sharlet’s speech at times evoked satirical laughter from the crowd and, overall, the group of attendees seemed appreciative of the insight and research Sharlet presented.
The talk was the final installment for the 2008 spring semester in the Humanities Project’s Religious Cultures of the African Diaspora series that focused on religion’s effects on the lives of persons of African descent.
Sharlet’s talk was co-sponsored by Politics and Media Construction: Anticipating the 2008 Election, another subject included in the Humanities Project series.
UR President Joel Seligman has allocated $150,000 annually to supporting the Humanities Project, a venture aimed at highlighting the modern examination of objects and ideas that encompass all fields of humanistic inquiry.
Following the lecture, the floor was opened for questions. Sharlet was asked to discuss in greater detail the role of women in the Family, as well as the result of taking religion out of the power equation. With regard to the function of women in the organization, Sharlet explained that while there were not women leaders in the Family, it was believed that men and women played separate but equal roles under God.
In the terms of religious influence on power, Sharlet noted that he believed religion plays too key of a role to be disposable.
“I believe piety is the yeast of empire,” Sharlet said. “It serves not as a veneer but as a justification.”
Hilfinger is a member of the class of 2010.