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Working In These Times

Monday, Jul 27, 2009, 9:19 am

Scandal-linked “The Family” Says: Jesus Wants You to Bust Unions

BY Art Levine

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Abraham Vereide and President Dwight D. Eisenhower at the Presidential Prayer Breakfast in February 1960.   (Photo from www.wheaton.edu)

Controversy continues to swirl around The Family, the secretive Christian group linked to sex scandals by its GOP members—including Sen. John Ensign, Gov. Mark Sanford and Rep. Charles Pickering.

Also known as The Fellowship Foundation, the group’s perverse ideology-cum-theology promotes the notion that an elite group of powerful men should become close to Jesus and guide the rest of us on our behalf.

And their converted convent and residential headquarters, dubbed the C Street Residence, has become ground-zero in the latest outbreak of GOP hypocrisy.

Yet even as they believe that conventional morality shouldn’t have to apply to them, they’re also motivated by a deep belief in the value of free-market capitalism and the evil of unions. As The Week Magazine summarized:

 

The basic precepts came to [founder Abraham] Vereide in a vision in 1935, according to the group’s literature. Living in Seattle, he came to believe that union organizing in the city was communist-inspired. Jesus appeared to him in the form of the president of U.S. Steel, who told him to gather “key men”—prominent businessmen and political leaders—to beat back the unions in His name.

 

Vereide’s recruiting efforts spread eastward, and in 1941 he arrived in Washington, where he began cultivating friendships with powerful people and setting up prayer groups. By then, Vereide was convinced that conventional Christianity had it backwards: Instead of ministering to the down-and-out, Jesus wanted believers to tend to the “up-and-out”—members of America’s elite who lacked intimacy with Jesus.

 

In Vereide’s worldview, free-market capitalism is divinely ordained, and unions and regulations are a form of blasphemy.

 

It’s little wonder that Sen. John Ensign, among other GOP faithful, have been so virulently opposed to the Employee Free Choice Act, which is designed to level the playing field for workers.

As Senator Ensign boasted about fighting the legislation before last year’s election, when he headed the National Republican Senatorial Campaign Committee, “It’s our No. 1 issue to raise money on. It scares anybody who’s in business to death.”

Driven by such ideology, “The Family” has nonetheless influential tentacles in leading Washington prayer meetings and social events that cross party lines, including starting the annual, bipartisan National Prayer Breakfast that draws presidents, including President Obama. As author Jeff Sharlet notes, it has an ulterior motive:

Steadfastly ecumenical, too bland most years to merit much press, the breakfast is regarded by the Family as merely a tool in a larger purpose: to recruit the powerful attendees into smaller, more frequent prayer meetings, where they can ‘meet Jesus man to man.’

Even so, union-bashing is a key part of the organization’s legacy, as shown by the reporting of Sharlet, who wrote the definitive book about its operations after going undercover with the group, The Family: The Secret Fundamentalism at the Heart of American Power. As his original Harper’s article observed:

One night, while lying in bed fretting about socialists, Wobblies, and a Swedish Communist who, he was sure, planned to bring Seattle under the control of Moscow, Vereide received a visitation: a voice, and a light in the dark, bright and blinding. The next day he met a friend, a wealthy businessman and former major, and the two men agreed upon a spiritual plan. They enlisted nineteen business executives in a weekly breakfast meeting and together they prayed, convinced that Jesus alone could redeem Seattle and crush the radical unions. They wanted to give Jesus a vessel, and so they asked God to raise up a leader. One of their number, a city councilman named Arthur Langlie, stood and said, “I am ready to let God use me.” Langlie was made first mayor and later governor, backed in both campaigns by money and muscle from his prayer-breakfast friends, whose number had rapidly multiplied.

Now, it seems that same sort anti-union fervor has infected Big Business and the GOP leadership in its opposition to the Employee Free Choice Act, with apocalyptic rhetoric inflamed by the kind of religious intensity associated with The Family. As the AFL-CIO Now blog reported in sponsoring a mock contest about the right-wing’s over-the-top rhetoric:

Who’s earned ‘The Chicken Little Sky Is Falling Bizarre Corporate Panic Disorder Over Workers’ Rights Award?

—“A mortal threat to American freedom.” Newt Gingrich
—”…The fight against Employee Free Choice will be “a firestorm bordering on Armageddon.” Randel Johnson, U.S. Chamber of Commerce
—“The demise of a civilization.” Bernie Marcus
—“The road to poverty” that would “quickly put our American way of life at risk.” Gary Shapiro, Consumer Electronics Association
—“Calamitous.” Mitt Romney
—“The anti-free choice, pro-slavery bill.” Mike Ozanian, Forbes
—“A Gestapo tactic.” John Rutledge, Fox News
—“One of the two fundamental threats to society.” (The other is “radical Islam.”) Sheldon Adelson, casino billionaire

 

The winner was Adelson, for his extremist comments likening the Employee Free Choice Act to radical islam.

But, of course, there’s another vision of how people of faith view unions and workers’ rights that’s sharply at odds with the distortions of “The Family.”

It’s shown in everything from the Pope’s encyclical underscoring the value of unions to such pro-union organizations as Faith Leaders for Workplace Fairness.

In contrast to the anti-union ravings of Abraham Vereide and his spiritual descendants in the GOP, today’s forward-looking religious leaders have a different view of how, in their view, to follow the path of God by honoring the rights of workers. As the Faith Leaders organization states in its mission statement:

As people of faith, we must stand with workers in their struggles and ensure that they are protected and can provide for themselves and their families. That’s why we support the Employee Free Choice Act, which will give workers a free and fair chance to join unions without fear of intimidation.

 

In a time of economic hardship, it is essential to put the needs of workers and families at the forefront of plans to repair and stimulate the economy. In order to promote and defend the dignity of workers throughout our nation, we call on Congress to pass the Employee Free Choice Act as soon as possible.


 

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Art Levine, a contributing editor of The Washington Monthly, has written for Mother Jones, The American Prospect, The New Republic, The Atlantic, Slate.com, Salon.com and numerous other publications.

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