BOOKS / The Secret Fundamentalism of ‘The Family’

The Family:
A little-known Christian ‘Mafia’

By Sherman DeBrosse / The Rag Blog / October 18, 2009

[This is the first of a two-part series.]

The Family: The Secret Fundamentalism at the Heart of American Power by Jeff Sharlet. 464 pp. Hardback, Harper (May 20, 2008); trade paperback, Harper Perennial (June 2, 2009).

Jeff Sharlet has written a very provocative book entitled The Family: The Secret Fundamentalism at the Heart of American Power. It is about the powerful “Family” or “Fellowship” of politicians, corporate types, and other “big men” who pray together and consider themselves brothers.

Members define themselves as a “Christian Mafia,” but they do not pack heat or break the law. These people are not ignorant wingnuts. Rather, they are intelligent, resourceful, accomplished, and often very charismatic. They operate secretly, are hierarchically organized, and place great stock in obedience, which they constantly describe as “love.” They claim to be non-partisan, but they are on the way to becoming the officer corps for the Right.

Sometimes they seem to say one thing and do another, and Charles Colson, who is tied to them, might be shedding light on this practice when he frequently discusses the value of the “noble lie.”

Brothers are organized into prayer cells, and this method of organizing has been widely adapted in conservative Christian circles. They have a network of houses and campgrounds, and there is a famous house in Washington, DC where some members of Congress live. Recently, we learned that three members of Congress living in the Fellowship’s house on C Street were involved in sexual scandals. An estate on the Potomac named “The Cedars” is their headquarters.

After 9/11, Sharlet spent some time in “Ivanwald” a training house in Arlington, Virginia, where the brothers trained young men thought to have leadership potential. This movement attracts people who want black and white clarity rather than subtle thinking; they are either Alpha males or want to become them.

From the beginning, the Family has claimed that it was taking Christianity back to what it was in the first century. They never explain what that is, and this claim can best be taken as an indirect way of saying other Christians simply have it wrong. Early Christianity was the religion of the poor and marginalized. These Christians did not seek power and wanted to live apart, thinking that the Second Coming was imminent. They often held goods in common and sometimes bought the freedom of slaves. That kind of Christianity is light years away from what the Family represents!

The Fellowship has existed for seventy years, going back to a group in Seattle who came together to fight unionized longshoremen. They saw strikes as sinful and acts of disobedience against God. It claims to be non-partisan and has some Democratic members, who are usually conservatives. There have been a few liberal members. These people rarely come to the surface, except at the annual National Prayer Breakfast, which they have sponsored since 1953.

Doug Coe took over leadership of The Family in the 1960s, and has only gone into semiretirement recently. Dick Foth, an advisor of John Ashcroft, now leads the Family. Coe is clearly one of the most powerful men in America. He is not into having people attend churches or subscribing to creeds. For him, it is all about submitting to Christ. Another reason to stay away from the Protestant churches was that the brothers thought women ran them.

Vereide and Coe both thought they were conducting spiritual warfare, but their approaches were different. Vereide would openly fight against unions and strikers. Coe is much more subtle, with his followers quietly working in cloakrooms, over dinner, through marriages, and even in bedrooms.

Coe would not change our institutions, but he thinks they should be run by men who submit to Christ. It is a sort of mild dominionism, the idea that the United States must be ruled by followers of Christ. One of their successes was obtaining federal funding of religious outreach programs and charities, and they aim to privatize welfare.

Reverend Vereide was strongly anti-union, pro-laissez faire capitalism, and fiercely anti-Communist. Coe has less to say against unions and cultivates conservative union leaders. He identifies empire and free enterprise with America’s core role in the world. Hence, they are somehow Christ’s program.

Sometimes members talk about helping the poor, but they make it clear that poverty is God’s disobedience. Some members, like Ed Meese, say it is hard to believe there are any starving children in the United States. They seem far more concerned about the welfare of big oil.

President George H.W. Bush, left, with the The Family’s Douglas Coe, center. Photo from the George Bush Presidential Library.

They are about power

The brothers of The Family are about wielding power and influencing people who have it, the “big men.” They patiently spend years cultivating these big men. They see Christ as the ultimate strong, forceful male and frequently quote his words about bringing the sword and division.

These people are what some would call “social dominance oriented.” Studies suggest that such people view equality negatively and would strongly agree that some people are more worthy than others.

Theirs is not the gentle Christ of the beatitudes and Sermon on the Mount. Sharlet does not explain why the cult of the personality is so important to them, but he quotes Theodore Adorno: “The more impersonal our order becomes, the more important personality becomes as an ideology.”

Maybe that explains the Sarah Palin phenomenon. Doug Coe emphasizes the person of Jesus rather than his teachings and sees The Master as a powerful Alpha male. Coe repeatedly talked about “Jesus + nothing,” and it seems to be a completely malleable formula. Any policy can be plugged in and be made a policy Christ demands the United States follow.

These people have an unhealthy interest in Hitler, Stalin, Mao Tsedung, and Ghengis Khan. They are particularly interested in Hitler, whom they admit was an evil man. But they admire his organizational skill, his understanding of human nature, his genius, and particularly his ability to sway others. Some of the brothers study and practice Hitler’s oratorical techniques. The Family of Coe’s generation are not fascists, but they have no warm feelings about democracy. They are authoritarians by any measure.

The Brothers are mainly cultivating potential leaders and “big men” so that they can use them. But they also want to save the souls of ordinary people so that those folks can be controlled and social order will be preserved. Their bottom line is that salvation comes to nations and not to persons on an individual by individual process — a very unfundamentalist bit of theology.

These people take very seriously the medieval idea that God anoints rulers. That explains, in part, the support they have given a number of bloody dictators, including some non-Christians like General Shuarto. There is a long list of similar monsters that they befriended, in return for their help in extending American economic and political power. Among these foreign friends are Papa Doc Duvalier, Emperor Heili Selassie, Korea’s General Park, and Brazil’s General Medici.

By all accounts, they have great power. It is difficult to measure their power because they keep a low profile. This book provides many examples of ways in which they have influenced other governments and their ability to access anyone in government. Their power rests upon their personalities, their connections, the importance of the people within the Fellowship, and their influence over conservative Christianity.

Sharlet demonstrates that the Family has strong ties to leaders of the Religious Right, which includes fundamentalists, evangelicals, Pentecostals, and others. Bill Bright of the Campus Crusade for Christ is tied to the brothers. Though claiming his movement is non-political, he occasionally has revealed an intense partisanship and strong opposition to the doctrine of the separation of church and state.

Chuck Colson, another close ally, writes about a “veritable underground of Christ’s men all through government.” Billy Graham had early ties with the movement and learned lessons he applied to his overseas operations. Family members also extended various services to the young Pat Robertson. The Fellowship has extensive overseas networks.

Some have written that Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is a member and that Coe is her spiritual mentor. It appears that she has prayed with Senator Sam Brownback’s group, has met Coe, and was grateful for Fellowship people’s prayers during the Lewinsky affair. However, she is a female so she cannot be a member. There is no evidence Coe is her spiritual mentor.

Religious fundamentalism

So much is secret about the Family that Sharlet thought it necessary to do extensive research on the thought of various Christian fundamentalists and evangelicals. What was striking to this writer was that so many of the fundamentalists and evangelicals he discussed felt left out and powerless, and that they sought to reverse these feelings by finding absolute TRUTH in scripture and doctrine. This kind of belief seemed to greatly empower them.

On the other hand, the people in the Fellowship are powerful and know it. Indeed, their sense of being empowered makes it possible to override and reinterpret many of Christ’s clear teachings.

Sharlet calls Family members “fundamentalists.” That term, when defined strictly in religious terms, probably fit their founder, Abram Vereide, in some ways and in his early years. Fundamentalists are biblical literalists, and “fundamentalism” has a very precise religious meaning, and does not really fit today’s Family.

Religious fundamentalists have very clearly defined beliefs, and the Family is not in favor of creedalism. The Family speaks the language of religious fundamentalists and aspires to speak for the religious Right, which includes the more numerous evangelicals and Pentecostals.

Author Jeff Sharlet. Photo by Greg Martin.

Social fundamentalism

If the term “fundamentalism” is applied to the Family to measure a fundamentalism in economic, cultural, and social matters, it is apt. Some, like Jimmy Carter, have used the word “fundamentalism” in the broader sociological context suggested here, and Martin Marty has sometimes done the same He believes that Adorno’s study of the roots of authoritarianism is really an examination of societal fundamentalism.

Luigi Tomasi of the University of Trento, who works in sociological theory, development, and religion, speaks of a “social fundamentalism” that best describes the kind of fundamentalism Jeff Sharlet is discussing.

Like the religious fundamentalists, the social fundamentalists think that their principles must be practiced in full, and without compromises. Social fundamentalists, like religious fundamentalists, adhere to what they think are some simple but noble principles that they think are overlooked.

Both sorts of Fundamentalists are absolutists in the sense that they can explain all relevant phenomenons in terms of their basic ideas. Alternative interpretations must be demonized. Whatever they believe is sanctioned by a higher authority. In the case of the Fellowship, it is God the processes of history.

Literalism is another characteristic, but it only seems to apply some of the time in the case of the Family.

They are also exclusivist in that they believe there is only one way to interpret their basic ideas. Fundamentalists or both the religious and social sorts are inclined to be true believers. They boost their self esteem by seeing themselves as an “in” group that opposes an “out” group that, for the moment, dominates society.

The desire to be part of an important “in” group seems to be related to creating for themselves a collective identity as religious fundamentalists or as members of the Fellowship.

Religious and social fundamentalists want to reconstruct the world by applying principles drawn from the past. They can be viewed as radical traditionalists. As traditionalists, they think time honored social distinctions are just part of the nature of how things are and should be.

They are atavistic in that they want to return to elements of a mythic past, especially one in which women were kept in their place. Atavistic movements find salvation in elements of the past and create myths about them. Frequently, they target neighbors as the dreaded “Other.” Feminism is the scapegoat for many problems, partly because it is totally secular.

This anti-feminism is rooted in the fact that males are losing power, and, in a larger sense, fundamentalisms represent efforts of individuals and groups to regain power and control over their situations. In the case of the Family, social fundamentalists, we have an extreme effort of males to acquire great power as a group and individually, as Alpha males.

In some ways they are anti-modern, although religious fundamentalists have pioneered in exploiting new developments in communications technology. Fundamentalists generally are troubled by diversity and pluralism, and some resent the modern tendency toward economic globalization.

However, the Family has a record of working to promote economic globalism, and here it differs sharply from many of the religious fundamentalists they would lead and speak for. In other cultures, religious fundamentalists have often taken positions in defense of the poor, but in the United States they often resent money spent alleviating poverty, and they embrace economic doctrines that serve the rich and corporate power.

There was a time when religious fundamentalists refused to engage the culture and broader society. Now many of them seek to use their votes to take over the political polity. The Family, religious conservatives and social fundamentalists, work day and night to accomplish this and are experts at engaging the culture and mixing with people who do not agree with them.

The Fellowship consistently champions bare-knuckled, unfettered capitalism as Christ’s doctrine. They are what the British call “market radicals” or what Americans call “market fundamentalists.” High on their agenda is extending U.S. influence in the world, and they subscribe to what scholars have called “foreign policy fundamentalism,” the outlook that more force is always appropriate.

They subscribe to the notion that the United States is God’s favored nation and they back interventionism and U.S. imperialism. Vereide had a fetish about conforming to traditional social norms. The Family, as social fundamentalists, join religious fundamentalists, are upset or worse by the onset of modernization and the ascendancy of secular values. Both are at odds with what they think is a depraved culture.

Political wolves in sheep’s clothing

There are many serious and able Protestant theologians. As a volunteer for an historical agency, I read and analyzed their works for many years. On the other hand, there is much that passes as theology that is little more than political commentary or weak social science.

Some years ago, I acquired a multi-volume set by an eminent conservative Protestant theologian. As I studied the volumes, I kept wondering if I was reading a mix of politics and sociology rather than theology. Most of it was like what we often find on Sunday morning TV, mostly politics and maybe a little religion. What I knew as theology was largely absent. The religious comments that were there were thin gruel, and not the careful argumentation of a theologian.

The same is true of The Family. They have all the cultural concerns of the old evangelical America that has been slowly fading since the 1920s. But their real passion is for market capitalism and the American empire. There are some positive accomplishments to attribute to them. Coe worked with Bono in his humanitarian work, and some members have helped build hospitals.

When I set aside the last volume, I was unable to identify where the theology was. Sharlet tried to trace The Family back through the Second Great Awakening and all the way back to Jonathan Edwards. Those links are not that solid.

The Family members pray, but it is hard to find any serious religious thought or theological literacy here. What we have is social and political movement taking on religious clothing. That, of course is natural. Even medieval weavers did a better job presenting their discontent over wages as a religious movement.

Post-Civil War southern frustrations presented themselves as the religion of the lost cause, and had a certain degree of theological substance. Too many on the Religious Right have taken the road of Doug Coe — perhaps beginning with some genuine religious concerns but soon practicing politics falsely presented as religious work.

Next: Part II: Right Wing Populism.

[Sherman DeBrosse is a retired history teacher. Sherm spent seven years writing an analytical chronicle of what the Republicans have been up to since the 1970s. The New Republican Coalition : Its Rise and Impact, The Seventies to Present (Publish America) can be acquired by calling 301-695-1707. On line, go here.]

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1 Response to BOOKS / The Secret Fundamentalism of ‘The Family’

  1. Very interesting, as always. Hits the nail on the head….

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