If you like being scared, read Anne Nelson’s Shadow Network. It’s the alarming story of how Christian fundamentalists coalesced into a political force and have essentially taken over the Trump administration. They promulgate their hate and intolerance from there, from Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s references to The Rapture to Betsy DeVos’ dismantling of Education, to a flood of young ultraconservative life appointees to the bench.
It is so dramatic and complex, Nelson feels she has to provide a Dramatis Personae – a list of the major players, organizations, religious influencers and media manipulators. The book itself is a chronological climb to the top.
The conservatives were jealous of the Democrats, and came up with organizations inspired by them, copying even their names except for a word or two. Their goal was to outperform the Democrats’ efforts, and they have. Some hard work and huge dollops of money paved the way.
At the center is the Council for National Policy, the CNP, as close to a Deep State as there is. It was a blatant copy of the Council for Foreign Relations, with some stunning differences. Where the CFR is open, fair and credible, the CNP is totally closed — a secret society of evangelicals. It is only through the occasional leak of a list that we know who is a member or who is leading some aspect of it. Public events are purely and totally onesided. Members are the top players in other fields, like grassroots movements, the right-wing media, fundraising, and of course, religion. Lots of evangelical pastors with radio and TV shows. The whole foundation is based on fundamentalist religion, and imposing it on the entire country. At times I thought I was reading The Handmaid’s Tale only for real.
All the secrecy is the striking thing about this entire effort by Republican evangelicals. Some of the organizations are not even listed in their building’s directory. Security guards have no access to their floors. Membership rosters are only known if leaked. Don’t ask where the money comes from, just know there’s lots more where that came from.
The task of putting this whole story together is nothing shy of monumental. Nelson had to trace dozens of whole careers, meetings and announcements and the interconnections among the players as they intersected again and again. Criminal records played a large role. Bigotry is rampant. The connections between all the organizations is incestuous; all the same names keep popping up. They are busy all year long transferring money to each other.
What becomes obvious very quickly is the extraordinarily low quality of the players. They are not mere racists, bigots, white supremacists and xenophobes. They are lechers, adulterers, fraudsters, influence peddlers, perverts and the just plain dishonest. They are constantly having to resign, be arrested, and be covered up by their organizations. The CNP “took these speed bumps with aplomb, wrangling college presidents with feeble academic credentials, media moguls with no commitment to journalism, and self-righteous crusaders who committed criminal abuses. The CNP’s uncompromising vision required a surprising amount of compromise,“ Nelson explains. That neatly explains their support of Donald Trump.
The basic attitude is that “God doesn’t need a majority.” Whereas the Democrats like to think they are inclusive with labor, immigrants, women and the left, conservatives take under their wing haters, right wing extremists, racists and anti-everything except guns. As Nelson profiles them, many of the key players had to be fired, or went to prison or were sued into premature retirement.
The three biggest planks of their mission are abortion, homosexuality and the Christian bible. Their job is to make those three the most important issues to voters. Here are some the big names from the movement and how they do it:
-James Dobson’s empire was radio show and organization called Focus on the Family. He is famous for saying homosexuality comes from “a home where the mother is dominating, overprotective and possessive, while the father rejects or ridicules the child.” He announced that the only question about corporal punishment was whether to use a hand or an object to strike a child. On women as wives: “That functional role … is one of subjection. It is one of submission.” His Family Research Council is at the very core of the CNP, working with untold other groups to implant his attitudes.
-Evangelist Billy James Hargis promoted segregation as “one of God’s natural laws.”
-Pastor James Robison once rejected a million dollar donation of jade and ivory on the basis it consisted of “graven images”. (The irony escaped him.) He was best known for his homophobic tirades, claiming homosexuals were “prone to molesting and murdering young boys.” The larger irony would wait for decades, when one of the founders of the CNP, Judge Paul Pressler, was hauled into court for just that kind of activity, as was Billy James Hargis in connection with his bible students — of both sexes.
-Jerry Falwell raised money on the air by claiming homosexuals “want to transform America in a modern Sodom and Gomorrah.”
-Juan Pablo Andrade posted on a video: “The only thing the Nazis didn’t get right is they didn’t keep f***ing going.”
-On Jews, Pastor Bailey Smith asked a Dallas rally: “How in the world can God hear the prayer of a man who says Jesus Christ is not the true Messiah?”
-The Southern Baptist Convention maintains that homosexuality is ”a deviant behavior that has caused havoc in the lives of millions.” It continues to press for recriminalization and “conversion therapy”.
-Roberto D’aubuisson was the right-wing death squad leader in El Salvador. Nelson says she was right there in 1981 when D’aubuisson announced “it would be necessary to kill a quarter of a million people to pacify the country.” He was guest of honor at a Washington confab of fundamentalists.
-Oliver North, Edwin Meese, Pat Robertson and many other of the fallen make up this A-team for the evangelicals.
In imitating other organizations, the fundamentalists even created their own version of the Girl Scouts, in which six to nine year olds can earn badges by picketing abortion clinics and participating in select protests.
In addition to the millions donated annually by the rich (Templeton, DeVos, Prince, Brooks, Koch, Mercer et al.), the organizations collect vast sums from tens of thousands of churches. They pressure pastors to help raise money. They specify sermons, handouts and tithing to the cause of turning America into a Christian bible-run country.
The large donations are freely given, because it is all deductible, greatly benefitting the donor. These recipient organizations are almost all non-profit and charitable, which is a farce in itself, as those kinds of outfits are not allowed to participate in political activity by law (the Johnson Amendment). It is a continual criminal act that goes completely unpunished as funding is cut back at the IRS. One of the conservatives’ top goals is to repeal the Johnson Amendment and specifically allow churches to participate in politics and promoting sponsored candidates.
Evangelicals hated the thought of Trump in the White House. They were totally against him, his lies, vulgarity and divorces. But with no religious alternative, they embraced him, and delivered in a big way. Now, they are giddy with Trump. Because he had no network of his own to draw on, he has picked his people for their adherence to evangelical organizations. So they are everywhere, in every government department and agency, undermining them. From Mike Pence on down, they were the CNP’s choice. For the evangelicals, it is euphoric. Every day brings new easy access and victories. They are enjoying such success that CNP leaders had their own images portrayed in stained-glass windows in a megachurch in Texas, including their wives and one’s dog, overtaking for the space usually reserved for Jesus. (Those panels have since been removed).
The key to their electoral success is individual targeting. They have data on voters that would make Mark Zuckerberg blush. They can target the undecided with specific appeals that don’t expose the hypocrisy, infighting and self-contradictions. They get a higher percentage of people to the polls, giving their votes more weight. In addition, the focus is on the more lightly populated so-called flyover country, where a single vote can have the impact of six votes in a big city. The result is a tyranny of the minority.
Nelson has done an outstanding job of putting the hidden and disparate pieces together and making a coherent, if horrifying story out of it. She shows the connections between the organizations, the direction from the top, and resulting backward steps this movement is imposing on the country. It makes sense of the chaos that has become Washington’s daily routine. Unfortunately.
Editor's note: This review has been published with the permission of David Wineberg. Like what you read? Subscribe to the SFRB's free daily email notice so you can be up-to-date on our latest articles. Scroll up this page to the sign-up field on your right.
Order it on Amazon today.
Two kings. Two princes. One queen. The true story of five aristocrats separated by time, culture, and circumstance -- all of them bound to the United States by accidents of history and left to hope for a tomorrow better than today. Prepare for a vision of the American Dream as few others have ever seen it.