“We didn’t want to go too public at first. You pushed us—you and others.”
That’s Bob Hunter, speaking to Rachel Maddow on Wednesday’s program on behalf of the secretive religious organization that runs the C Street House, known as The Family, or the Fellowship. After decades of silence and denials, Rachel Maddow, and my book on the group’s history, The Family, have forced the organization’s hand. At stake is the group’s relationship to the Ugandan Anti-Homosexuality Bill -- the “kill-the-gays” bill -- and how far the Family will go to stop the Ugandan politicians it’s supported from embracing genocide.
Over the course of a recent three hour interview I conducted with Hunter, I learned that last fall the Family held a summit of sorts in search of a strategy with which to respond to the unwanted scrutiny. The Christian Right World magazine reported that the meeting became a referendum on the Family’s decades-old culture of secrecy and denials, with professional media advice coming from one of Rick Warren’s PR advisors and far-right columnist Cal Thomas.
The result is a strange mix of candor and evasion. As the architect of the Family’s 24-year relationship with Ugandan dictator Yoweri Museveni, Hunter wants it clear that killing gay people was not what he had in mind. He told me he wanted to speak with Rachel to denounce the bill and put pressure on Oklahoma Republican Senator Jim Inhofe -- the Family’s formally designated point man for Uganda. In a subsequent conversation, Hunter clarified that had been willing to talk about Inhofe but preferred not to.
Instead, he attacked me. My facts? No. My arguments? Not so much. No, Hunter went for the jugular: my book cover. Declared Hunter: “I think a lot of what has been said historically has been inaccurate. And Jeff Sharlet in interviews with me has admitted a lot of it has been inaccurate. In fact, he even has said that the cover of his book is inaccurate.”
How can a book cover be “inaccurate”? Hunter nailed me: I did indeed tell him I don’t like the cover much. What can I say? I would have preferred some color. But the facts inside? I’ll stand by those, with one exception.
Working with two documents Hunter prepared for government and Family leaders, “Re: organizing the invisible” and “A Trip to East Africa—Fall 1986,” and Family leader Doug Coe’s account of Hunter’s trip, I argued that Hunter traveled at the behest of the U.S. government. Hunter’s correction? He didn’t go at the government’s behest; American politicians went to Uganda at his behest. He didn’t work for them; they worked for him.
Hunter also told Rachel, “I also gave you the clips on the fact that [Sharlet] said that the Fellowship does not engage in politics as evidenced by the fact that we attract politicians of all stripes.” The truth is that much of 32,000-word transcript of our interview Hunter had professionally prepared is dedicated to a polite but firm argument between us over this very point. Nowhere do I say that the Family does not engage in politics.
Writing on the blog of Warren Throckmorton, a conservative Christian scholar of real conscience who has taken the lead in fighting the kill-the-gays bill, I responded to Hunter:
The Family/Fellowship has functioned as a political organization ever since it was first formed in the 1930s to elect Arthur Langlie to the office of the Washington governor’s office. It was political when it threw its muscle behind the 1947 Taft-Hartley Act that undid much of the New Deal; it was political when it lobbied vigorously against the creation of Israel; it was political, in 1959, when it arranged U.S. support for the Haitian dictator Papa Doc Duvalier; it was political in the late 60s, when it became the back channel of communication between the Nixon administration and the genocidal regime of Indonesian dictator Suharto; it was political when became a forum through which associates lobbied for billions of U.S. aid to the junta of Brazilian generals in the early 70s; it was political when it sent Senator Chuck Grassley to Somalia (and Uganda) in the early 80s to build U.S. support for the genocidal regime of dictator Siad Barre; and it’s political now, as it struggles to do damage control over the Uganda issue. Sending someone like Senator Jim Inhofe to meet with foreign leaders — readers should know that goes through the State Department — on the taxpayer’s tab is political.
Hunter contacted Throckmorton to complain about my comment. Throckmorton cited the examples above as evidence that the group is, indeed, political. Hunter’s response? “Ancient history.” Nonetheless, he contacted another senior Family member, Kent Hotaling, who has been involved with the Family’s foreign affairs since the 1960s. Hunter agreed to share with me their exchange. Hotaling informed Hunter:
“I think it is impossible to say that we are not political when we work with so many in the political world. However, the key issue is that we do not as a group have a political agenda that we are promoting. We support one another because of the friendships that develop."
There you have it: The Family is political, but it has no political agenda. This in keeping with Hunter’s insistence that there is no membership despite the fact that he refers to prominent politicians as members, that the group is too secretive, even though he can’t really tell you about it.
The Family says that it’s dedicated to holding its powerful members accountable, but Hunter didn’t have much to say about Museveni. Instead, he threw two other Family men connected to the bill under the bus. Speaking of Uganda’s minister of ethics, James Nsaba Buturo, one of the bill’s chief backers, Hunter said, “I’ve never heard of the… guy.” (Hunter later told me he meant to say he’d never heard of Buturo before this controversy.) Buturo, who told my researcher that’s he planning on attending the Family’s National Prayer Breakfast in Washington this February (Hunter says otherwise) is anorganizer of the Ugandan National Prayer Breakfast -- an event Hunter helped found. Says Hunter in our interview: “He inherited [the job], because they decided the minister of ethics should run it.”
Hunter argues that there is no “control or command” in the Family. The nearly 600 boxes of documents the Family dumped at the Billy Graham Center Archives – membership lists, authority flow charts, minutes of leadership meetings, budgets, and more – tell another tale. Said Hunter when I raised this point: “I really don’t know the history as well as you do. “
The Family is not a conspiracy. But it is a very well organized social movement, with clearly designated roles and responsibilities, as revealed by a documents related to the Family’s African work supplied to me this week by a Family associate troubled by Hunter’s contradictions. Here’s a statement of purpose for part of the African mission:
When Hunter met kill-the-gays bill author David Bahati in the United States at the National Prayer Breakfast, was he here to learn “how to live, what to think and what to say?” We don’t know. (Hunter says he doesn’t, either.) But a 2003-4 budget for the project makes clear who the U.S. Senator is: Jim Inhofe of Oklahoma, designated as partner for 11 African leaders, including the presidents of Burundi, Rwanda, and Uganda, relationships supported by funds raised by teams of American businessmen and religious activists. Inhofe’s Uganda mission was budgeted for $70,000 – he traveled there on the taxpayers’ dime – almost twice as much as that for the other nations.
It’s clear that the kill-the-gays bill is an embarrassment to the Family, even to Senator Inhofe, who once took to the floor of the Senate to proudly boast that there are no homosexuals in his family. But Bob Hunter’s not cut from the same cloth as Jim Inhofe. Most of his personal efforts in the Family really do come under the heading of “good works,” helping orphans and hospitals, recruiting political figures such as Senator Chuck Grassley and Andrew Young to bring warring parties in Africa to the negotiating table. (In our interview, Hunter refers to them as “bait. They wouldn’t like to hear me say that, but that’s what they were.”) When Hunter told me he wanted to fight the bill, I was glad to help reach out to media outlets. Stopping the kill-the-gays bill from becoming law is more important than any argument we have between us. And I believe Hunter when he says the Family is now working “privately on the ground” to kill the kill-the-gays bill. I even believe Hunter when he says he wants the Family to be more transparent.
But the interview he gave Rachel on Wednesday’s show was a bad start on both scores. Not only were his statements lacking in transparency, they also fell far short of accountability. “I think one of the points that you make is valid,” Hunter told me when we spoke, “is the tension between accessibility and accountability.” The tension, that is, between winning access to power and holding power accountable. By refusing to take responsibility for its relationships with the three key Ugandan political figures associated with the bill – Bahati, Buturo, and President Museveni – the Family has chosen access over accountability rather than reaching for what’s best about their own Christian tradition—bearing witness, speaking truth to power.