Jeff Sharlet’s new book The Family: the Secret Fundamentalism at the Heart of American Power, is in the best tradition of American investigative journalism. Sharlet, a scholar of religion based at New York University, writes with insight, verve and, thankfully, none of the bogus punditry and bad sociology that often passes for informed discourse about the contemporary role of religion in public life. His refreshing narrative style is as engaging as his groundbreaking information.
The story begins when Sharlet is invited to join a Christian community in Virginia, (suburban Washington D.C., really), called Ivanwald. It turns out to be an entry level training facility for a network of what Sharlet calls “elite fundamentalists” that operates partly in the open, but mostly behind the scenes of power for much of the American Century —and into the present day.
The Family takes us down some familiar roads of American history, bringing fresh perspectives on such influential evangelists as Jonathan Edwards, Charles Finney, and Billy Graham. We also gain significant new understandings of contemporary political leaders including Senators Sam Brownback and Hillary Clinton as well as former Senator Dan Coats, (Republican of Indiana), John Ashcroft, and Jack Kemp; and religious right leaders Bill Bright, Ted Haggard, and Chuck Colson.
Sharlet explores the role of a distinct “elite fundamentalism” through our history and culture, and illustrates how it currently operates at top levels of American business, government, and the military. This may come as a shock to those for whom overt fundamentalism in the federal government was not apparent before the administration of George W. Bush. But Sharlet demonstrates its role during the Cold War and since. We learn for example, of how “charitable choice,” the legislative precedent for George W. Bush’s “faith-based initiative,” stemmed from ideas incubated by The Family, and was sponsored by Family members, Republican Senators John Ashcroft and Dan Coats—with an assist from Family associate Senator Hillary Clinton.
Originally called The Fellowship, now The Family, the organizational roots of this elite fundamentalism was a powerful corporate clique, founded in Seattle in the 1930s as a virulently anti-labor group backed by local big business leaders. Now The Family is headquartered on Washington, D.C.’s Embassy Row.
The Family rarely steps out of the shadows. One very public event is an annual breakfast designed to appear as benign as one of the thousands of other staged photo opportunities with presidents and their White House guests. This is the National Prayer Breakfast that The Family has hosted at the White House since the Eisenhower Administration.
Prepublication publicity about Sharlet’s book has focused on the peculiar role of Senator Hillary Clinton in the group. But true to the Family’s culture of secrecy, she has yet to explain her involvement, the current political fashion of discussing one’s faith journey, notwithstanding. Sharlet reports that she is not a “member,” but is a longtime participant in a Family-sponsored prayer cell, with the wives of other leaders such as Susan Baker, wife of former Secretary of State, James. Sharlet names other “associates,” including former Republican Senators Don Nickels of Oklahoma and Strom Thurmond, of South Carolina.
The roles of secret societies in shaping political pressure blocs, from the Masons to Opus Dei, may or may not be benign, but due to their secretive nature (and especially when they have powerful and ambitious members), they are naturally the subject of speculation and unfortunately, conspiracy theory. Sharlet’s book, however, is based on unique first-hand experience that led him to seek out and access the archives of the The Family stored at Wheaton College. When the Family realized what Sharlet was up to, they slammed the door shut. But Sharlet made the most of the opportunity to detail and document the history and inner workings of the group, its role at top levels of American society, and its extraordinary global reach. Sharlet mines the boxes of files to tell the story, for example, of how soft outreach by Family members opened a remarkable series of doors for the Somali dictator General Said Barre during an American proxy war with the Soviet Union.
“In 1981, Family members made contact with Said on behalf of his then-enemy, Kenyan dictator Daniel arap Moi—a brutal American ally—whom Siad agreed to meet.” The end result: “The United States nearly doubled military aid to the regime, pouring guns into a country that before the decade was out would achieve a unity not seen since, when nearly everyone— politicians, warlords, children—united in opposition to Siad.” He fled in 1991, but as Sharlet observes, not before he “scorched as much of his enemy’s land as he could… three hundred thousand died in the famine that followed. It is considered Siad’s legacy. It was also the Family’s gift to Somalia.”
Sharlet shows how The Family’s highly elastic fundamentalist theology boils down to one idea, which members describe as “Jesus plus nothing.” Which is to say that the person of Jesus is all that matters. Not coincidentally, the leader of The Family, Doug Coe, is said to have the closest relationship to Jesus of all of its members, whose respective closeness to Jesus may be measured in concentric circles of closeness to Coe. It could be that Coe is the most important Religious Right leader you have never heard of, but his influence is often acknowledged, if not always noticed. Time magazine in 2005 named him one of the 25 most influential evangelicals in the country.
Coe and his emissaries introduce a particular persona of Jesus to “key men” with whom they may open various business relationships, sometimes backdoor diplomatic or military channels. Even barbaric military dictators are introduced to Jesus and invited to pray with a designated Family liaison, as in the case of Gen. Siad. They don’t really care about whether he is a Christian or ever becomes one; because it is all about power and power relationships of a kind that are greased by amoral rationalization and turning blind eyes to horrendous crimes —such as the Indonesian genocide on East Timor, which was conducted even as the Family developed relationships with General Suharto, and played an intermediary role with the U.S. government similar to that in the case of General Siad.
Sharlet views the considerable behind-the-scenes clout of Chuck Colson as epitomizing the underestimated power of The Family. Colson’s work, Sharlet writes, “is shot through with a cagey regard for Plato’s ‘noble lie,’ by which the elite must govern masses who don’t know what’s good for them, and a reverence for ‘leadership’ as a semimystical quality bequeathed to a small elect who already posses the kind of confidence others might call arrogance.”
Their form of fundamentalism, Sharlet says, has promoted “foreign policy on a near constant footing of Manichean urgency for the last hundred years; ‘free markets’ imprinted on the American mind as some sort of natural law; a manic-depressive sexuality that puzzles both prudes and libertines throughout the rest of the world; and a schizophrenic sense of democracy as founded on individual rights and yet indebted to a higher authority that trumps personal liberties.”
Elite fundamentalism, he concludes, is “certain in its entitlement, responds in this world with a politics of noblesse oblige, the missionary impulse married to military and economic power. The result, he writes, is “the soft empire of America that…recruited fundamentalism to its cause even as it seduced liberalism to its service….”
Sharlet warns that “Secular democracy, such as it is, faces no serious challenge. Nor, for that matter, does the elite fundamentalism that has coexisted alongside it for the last seventy years, ensuring that the United States was never fully secular, nor democratic.”
The effect, Sharlet summarizes, is the “center slouches rightward, and the faithful forget that anyone ever dreamed otherwise.”