October 28, 2008


Worse Than Fascists: Christian Political Group 'The Family' Openly Reveres Hitler: Did you know that the National Prayer Breakfast is sponsored by a shadowy cabal of elite Christian fundamentalists? Jeff Sharlet's new book, "The Family: The Secret Fundamentalism at the Heart of American Power," offers a rare glimpse of this remarkable network, which is known variously as the Family, the Fellowship and the International Foundation. (Lindsay Beyerstein, 6/12/08, AlterNet)

AlterNet writer Lindsay Beyerstein recently sat down with Jeff Sharlet at a Brooklyn coffee shop to discuss the Family.

Lindsay Beyerstein What is the Family?

Jeff Sharlet: It's an international network of evangelical activists in government, military and business. The Family is dedicated to this idea that Christianity has gotten it all wrong for two thousand years by focusing on the poor, the suffering and the weak.

The Family says that instead, what Christians should do is minister to the up-and-out -- as opposed to the down-and-out -- to those that are already powerful. Because if they can win those people for Christ, they win the whole deal. That's what this network is dedicated to. It includes nonprofit organizations, it includes think tanks, it includes various ministries. [...]

Lindsay Beyerstein: What kind of empire do they envision?

Jeff Sharlet: They envision the empire that we have. Doug Coe says, "We work with power where we can and build new power where we can't." Usually they can work within power. Rob Shank, another Christian right activist in Washington, says, "The Family is into living with what is."

In the immediate postwar era, they were talking about Christian D-Day and Washington as the world's Christian capital. And World War Three, they were very excited about that, all full-steam ahead. But they sort of subsided and were subsumed into the American Cold War project, which ended up becoming an imperial project.

Lindsay Beyerstein: What did the Family have to do with a B-movie called "The Blob"?

Jeff Sharlet: The best illustration of the Family's involvement in the Cold War was something that I stumbled on by accident: The 1958 film "The Blob." It began at the 1957 National Prayer Breakfast. "The Blob" was a famous horror movie that was a metaphor for Communism. This is their imagination of how Communism spread. At the time, the American imagination couldn't grasp ideology, so it had to be an actual goo that globs more and more people and grows and becomes expansive. As I recall, they have to blow up the town at the end. The logic of "The Blob" is that we must destroy the village in order to save it. That's the logic of Vietnam.

The project actually began at the National Prayer Breakfast. This filmmaker who had been making fundamentalist films, Irvin "Shorty" Yeaworth, was on the lookout for someone to make this film. (The writer) Kate Phillips was a B-movie sci-fi actress. Not a Christian Right person; (she was) there as a guest of a friend of hers. She's there at the breakfast and they become friends. They end up making this movie.

The Blob and I: Was the 1958 horror flick created to advance the agenda of a Christian fundamentalist cabal close to the dark heart of American power? (Rudy Nelson, Books & Culture)
All my alarm systems go off at once. I freely admit I'm no expert on the finer points of religion and politics inside the beltway. But as the crazy circumstances of life would have it, there's a lot of firsthand knowledge about The Blob in my memory bank. I was present at the creation. During the summer of 1957, my wife Shirley and I and our two young sons were in Chester Springs, Pennsylvania for the studio and location shooting of the film, when I was involved in revisions of the script.

Sharlet's full answer to Lindsay's question about The Blob is a litany of misinformation, one incorrect fact after another. So I now know I'll have to check into his book. Our town library doesn't have it, as it turns out, nor does the local independent bookstore. I even come up empty at Barnes and Noble. But I want the book in a hurry, so I resort to Amazon. When the package arrives, the first impression on opening it is weird. The book jacket is designed to look like an old-timey family Bible.

I note, with some dismay, that there's an entire 23-page chapter titled "The Blob." What on earth can Sharlet say about the movie that will fill 23 pages—especially when what he thinks he knows is all wrong? As I read, I find that The Blob is mentioned only in the chapter's first two pages and in its concluding sentence. Then why the title? That seems like a good question, but I set it aside. First I need to know whether the record in the book is any more accurate than the interview.

It is not.

Like the interview, the book pinpoints the 1957 National Prayer Breakfast as the time and place of the film's birth. Strike one. The film had been under discussion for over a year. In fact, quite by accident, I attended an exploratory conference at Valley Forge Films in the spring of 1956 when a delightful raconteur named Irv Millgate was present to pitch a film idea. He had with him a small container with a gelatinous mass of silicone. His goal was to see whether he could interest the company in doing a film that would, so to speak, have this stuff as its main character. I don't recall that anyone actually used the word "blob," but I do clearly recall the tactile sensation of the silicone ball that was passed around the table.

Strike two: The film's director, Irvin "Shorty" Yeaworth, is identified as an "evangelical minister." An understandable mistake. Shorty was a junior. It was his father, the Reverend Irvin Shortess Yeaworth, who was a Presbyterian clergyman in West Philadelphia.

Both the interview and the book claim that a woman named Kate Phillips was the writer. Wrong. Her contribution to the film was minimal. Ted Simonson was the writer, and by the time Kate Phillips was brought on the scene, supposedly to add some professional polishing, the screenplay was well underway. But this too is an understandable error. With her experience as both a Hollywood actress and screenwriter, Ms. Phillips was named writer in the finished film credits along with Simonson, at the insistence of the executive producer (not Yeaworth). He reasoned that the input of a professional among this bunch of amateurs might make the film more salable to a major studio. So Sharlet gets a pass on this one.

Back to the interview: Sharlet says, "As I recall, they have to blow up the town at the end. The logic of The Blob is that we must destroy the village in order to save it. That's the logic of Vietnam." Bad mistake. As any blobster could confirm, the teenagers in the film, led by Steve McQueen in his first screen role, actually save the town when they realize that freezing the creature with CO2 fire extinguishers is the only answer and collect enough of them to do the job. Nothing was blown up. The monstrous mass from outer space was cut into sections and dropped over the Arctic ice cap. Strike three.

But these inaccuracies are minor compared to the most egregiously mistaken claim of all—that the blob was intended as a metaphor for communism. When Lindsey Beyerstein asks what the Family had to do with The Blob, Sharlet replies: "This is their imagination of how Communism spread. At the time, the American imagination couldn't grasp ideology, so it had to be an actual goo that globs more and more people and grows and becomes expansive." No, no, no. In fact, the motive behind the company's involvement in the production was totally commercial, the universally recognized capitalistic one of making some money. The company badly needed money, and someone had discovered that there'd rarely been a monster movie that had failed at the box office. Bottom of the ninth. Three outs. Game over.

In my experience of working on the movie, I was not aware of one single stray reference to anything remotely connected with communism. Not at the initial story conference, not throughout the shooting schedule. As "Third Assistant Director in Charge of Daily Script Revision" (a string of important-sounding words to describe a responsibility that finally didn't rate a screen credit), I was in daily contact with the writer and the director. If communism had been on anyone's mind, I would have known.

...when the Left insists that the Right deserves all the credit for defeating the Evil Empire?

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Posted by Orrin Judd at October 28, 2008 6:35 PM
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