National Commentary

Church Defectors Acted Immorally, Part 3

nfbentonpic(Part 3 of a series following the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling earlier this month to let stand the lower court decision that the property of the historic Falls Church in Northern Virginia belonged to the Episcopal Diocese of Virginia, and not an arch-conservative pack of defectors from that church who voted to leave it in December 2006, but subsequently occupied the property for five and a half years. For part one, click here. For part two, click here.)

“In the family.” This was the farewell valediction that the Rev. John Yates, leader of the mass defection from the Falls Church in December 2006, penned to his flock this month, concluding his missive on the U.S. Supreme Court’s final ruling that the property of the historic church belonged not to them, but to the deed-holding Episcopal Diocese.

“In the family.” Odd: not “Yours in Christ,” or “In His Name,” far more common sign-off phrases by religious figures, but “In the family.”

It suggests that in these closing words, he perhaps swore fealty to a wider circle of like-minded persons and groups than even to the spiritual author of his faith or his own followers. It signaled a tell-tale clue, perhaps, to what animated him, and leaders of other breakaway groups in mainstream Protestant denominations, such as his sidekick and, some would credibly say, overlord, the Rev. Martyn Mimms of the fairly nearby Truro Church, another Episcopal parish, to strike a schism within in their congregations.

These efforts involved not only a sharp split by their followers in the historic, beneficent relation between a church and its surrounding community, but an even more painful split between congregants, one from another, within a church, and the theft of church property by the initiating faction against their ostensible brethren that they subsequently drove from that property.

As an eyewitness to these developments at and around The Falls Church, and chronicling them in my local newspaper, it was enormously helpful to me to when Jeff Sharlet’s painstakingly well documented book, The Family, The Secret Fundamentalism at the Heart of American Power, published by Harper-Collins, hit the bookshelves in 2008 and went six months on the New York Times best seller list. The fact-filled 454-page volume unlocked the mystery for me about, well, “The Family,” perhaps the same entity that that Rev. Yates apparently swore allegiance to in his letter this month.

Upon reading the book (I’ll never adapt to Kindle, because I wrote copious notes all over this volume, as is my custom), I contacted the author and trained up to New York to meet with him for over two hours at a coffee shop in Brooklyn. Since then, he’s written a sequel, C Street: The Fundamentalist Threat to American Democracy (Little Brown, 2010).

With its “Evanvald” headquarters nearby on 24th Street in Arlington, Virginia, The Family was infiltrated by Sharlet, who gained a first hand appreciation thereby of the messianic mindset of its true believers, many young and being prepared to infiltrate and take over the corridors of power just a few miles away in Washington, D.C.

The movement was launched in the early 20th century by industrialists and their fellow travelers to wed radical free market economics, aggressive American internationalism and an antipathy toward organized labor with, as it were, the “fear of God.”

The “salvation of souls” was always understood in terms of this end: the maintenance of a social order rooted in these values.

As the movement, which clashed violently with organized labor during the Great Depression, spread its influence into the American political fabric, it went underground, or stealth, so to speak, to work more covertly and insidiously through the height of the U.S. civil rights movement.

Co-optation and influence are its watchwords, always linking for politicians the fate of their eternal souls to a radical free market agenda, and they readily worked across the aisle toward these ends.

Is it any wonder that with the “Reagan revolution” in the Washington, D.C. area in the 1980s came an enormous opportunity for The Family to expand its influence there, including by taking over an historic church just across the Potomac associated with the name of George Washington, himself?

(To be continued)