Yet Another "Sleeper Cell"
Jeff Sharlet printable version print page     Bookmark and Share
Mon Apr 09, 2007 at 07:22:27 PM EST
There's much concern that the Bush administration has been allowing the infiltration of federal government by Christian fundamentalist "sleeper cells," political appointees whose first loyalty is not to the Constitution, but a reductionist understanding of the Bible. It's true, of course, and here's another one...
In my latest Rolling Stone story, "Teenage Holy War" (only the first quarter of it's online, here; the rest is in the issue on the stands now) I wrote of one such character, Rebecca Contreras, whom I saw "lecture" at the east Texas Honor Academy of Ron Luce, a fundamentalist youth leader:
The week I'm at the Academy, the guest speaker is Rebecca Contreras, a pretty 35-year-old professional evangelist in blue jeans who was a former Special Assistant to the President in Bush II's first term, responsible for 1,200 presidential appointments.  She tells us about one of her first days in Washington. "The vice president is sitting there, and the president is sitting in his chair," she said. "There I was, little Latina Rebecca from the inner city." Contreras had not gone to college. She felt overwhelmed by all the advanced degrees in the room -- Cheney, with his almost-Ph.D (he's a drop-out), Bush, with his Harvard MBA. "The Devil began to say, `Look at you, you don't belong here. You're not credentialed.' Then I heard the voice of the Lord say, `Put you're eyes on me!'" Contreras raises her finger in imitation of God. " `I CREDENTIALED YOU! I HAVE PLACED YOU HERE!' " The moral of the story, she says, is that obedience to God matters more than education. Contreras speaks of "generational curses" for those who do not obey -- the idea that one must pay for the sins of one's fathers, after all, a notion rejected even by most fundamentalists -- and then she closes her eyes and begins swaying as she prays in a strong alto sing-song for the Battlecry interns, many of whom will go no further in their education than this hall, many of whom have risen to their feet during her story and some who have fallen to their knees. "I pray Father-God that these young people, that they would impact. That--Father-God--some would even--Father-God--become missionaries and pastors, some of them would become, oh Father-God, senators! And congressmen! I thank You, Father-God!" The boy next to me, a towering slab of earnestness with sheepdog bangs, shakes with tears as the class comes to a close.

The sad fact is that such "sleeper cells" aren't an invention of the Bush administration. In the 1970s, as the modern Christian Right took form, conservative evangelical activists realized that to win power they needed not just to elect leaders, but to get their people into the overlooked civil service jobs that are crucial to the way the country is actually run. For instance, in 2003 I wrote about a group called The Family, or The Fellowship, in Harper's; one of my neighbors when I lived in The Family's neighborhood compound was LeRoy Rooker, a mid-level Department of Education lifer (Director of the Dep. of Ed.'s Family Compliance Policy office) responsible, last time I checked, for policy related to student confidentiality and public schools. One of the men I lived with, Gannon Sims, has since gone on to work as a spokesman for a State Department office dedicated to fighting human trafficking. Nothing wrong with that, but it's worth considering that Gannon, when I knew him, was being trained in an organization that believed the only legitimate source of policy was Jesus as he reveals himself to a "new chosen."

I ran into Rooker again, while researching my book, Jesus Plus Nothing: How American Fundamentalism's Power Elites Shaped the Faith of a Nation and the Politics of an Empire (forthcoming in fall from HarperCollins; plug), in documents from the Ronald Reagan Library in California. There's my neighbor Rooker in a circle of correspondence that included fundamentalist leader Gary Bauer, then a Reagan education official; Ed Meese, Reagan's attorney general; and  another "sleeper cell," J. Douglas Holladay, who became a special Reagan emissary to apartheid South Africa. Rooker, Meese, and Holladay were members of The Family, committed to its ultra-Calvinist conception of government, and convinced that the best way for evangelical conservatives to bring about "Government by God" was to be "invisible" in the plain old government of the people. Invisible doesn't mean not present -- it means you do your job, you rise through the ranks, and you work for your theocratic vision over the long term.

There are many, many great evangelicals working in government, almost all of them clear about the constitution and every bit as dedicated to their jobs as their counterparts of other faiths and no faith. And, for the record, there's nothing illegal about getting yourself a government job because you believe government should be led by God, so long as you perform your job competently. But from a democratic perspective -- small d democratic, that is -- there's a real problem with men and women dedicated   not to democracy but to a sort of voluntary theocracy, especially when they work toward that end without regard for competence or rule of law (Goodling, Contreras above). And those of us opposed to the fundamentalist attempt to pack the bureaucracy have to recognize that this problem has been with us for decades.

What's the solution? I can hardly believe I'm writing this, but I think it's bloggers. I'm glad the mainstream media is picking up on Goodling and the Regent connection now, but there should have been reporters looking at these lower level appointments a long time ago. How did Contreras get her job? How did J. Douglas Holladay, a guy who continued to report to the leadership of The Family even as he steered U.S. foreign policy, escape notice? What was Goodling doing evaluating lawyers with far superior credentials? With newsrooms shrinking and newsmagazines sensationalizing, those kinds of stories are going to keep being ignored.

Don't blame the reporters -- blame us. It's the public hunger for ongoing soap opera scandals -- Plamegate, the prosecutors -- that drives the press to ignore the smaller workings of government. But don't just blame us -- do something about. Pick a federal bureaucracy and start learning about. See who's working there. See where else they work. Look past the big names. It doesn't take big media to bring down an unqualified or crooked official. Joe Feuerherd, of the National Catholic Reporter, forced the resignation of ultra-right Bush Catholic liaison Deal Hudson; Ayelish McGarvey, a young journalist with hardly any clips to her name, brought down Bush's FDA thug Dr. David Hager; journalist and blogger Cynthia Cooper exposed Health and Human Services Secretary Wade Horn as a fundamentalist flunky with shady ethics, leading to his resignation. Who'll reel in the next one? Could be you.  

(Cross-posted at Daily Kos)

Great overview and call to action.

One point I wonder about, though: are Contreras's ideas of "generational curses" really so far off the wall? I thought it was fairly standard in Pentecostal/Charismatic circles, and even among other Christians who avoid speaking in tongues one might find a sense of demonic power that would accommodate such a belief. In fact, even the very mainline SPCK has published a book on the subject.

And as you yourself have done so much to show, conservative evangelicals sometimes downplay charismatic aspects of their faith for the wider public - Ted Haggard's famous "Don't be weird" memo.

by Richard Bartholomew on Tue Apr 10, 2007 at 03:30:26 PM EST

I have just received an email from an activist website that deals with a lot of political coverup and sometimes inflammatory material. It seems that lately AOL has been blocking emails to that site - I wonder if this is tied in with government since this site frequently brings out news that is not printed in the regular papers and would often be embarrassing for them.  Is AOL tied in with the Religious right?

by Concerned on Tue Apr 10, 2007 at 11:24:19 PM EST time-warner.html

7/28/2003 $2,000.00
OAKTON, VA 22124
A.O.L. INC./INVESTOR -[Contribution]

3/17/2004 $1,000.00
MC LEAN, VA 22101

Nelson, Lisa B. Mrs.
6/17/2003 $1,000.00
Mc Lean, VA 22101
A.O.L. Time Warner/Government Relat -[Contribution]

by Concerned on Wed Apr 11, 2007 at 11:52:52 PM EST

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