'Family': Fundamentalism, Friends In High Places

Jeff Sharlet i i

hide captionIn The Family, Jeff Sharlet writes about his foray into Ivanwald, the communal-living stronghold of the fundamentalist group also known as the Fellowship.

Greg Martin/Courtesy of Harper Collins
Jeff Sharlet

In The Family, Jeff Sharlet writes about his foray into Ivanwald, the communal-living stronghold of the fundamentalist group also known as the Fellowship.

Greg Martin/Courtesy of Harper Collins
Hillary Clinton i i

hide captionIn the September 2007 Mother Jones, Sharlet and Kathryn Joyce reported that Hillary Clinton (pictured at the 2009 National Prayer Breakfast) has been active in Bible-study and prayer circles affilated with the Family. Writing in The Nation, Barbara Ehrenreich reported that Clinton described Family leader Doug Coe as "a unique presence in Washington: a genuinely loving spiritual mentor and guide to anyone, regardless of party or faith, who wants to deepen his or her relationship with God."

Saul Loeb/AFP / Getty Images
Hillary Clinton

In the September 2007 Mother Jones, Sharlet and Kathryn Joyce reported that Hillary Clinton (pictured at the 2009 National Prayer Breakfast) has been active in Bible-study and prayer circles affilated with the Family. Writing in The Nation, Barbara Ehrenreich reported that Clinton described Family leader Doug Coe as "a unique presence in Washington: a genuinely loving spiritual mentor and guide to anyone, regardless of party or faith, who wants to deepen his or her relationship with God."

Saul Loeb/AFP / Getty Images

In the book The Family: The Secret Fundamentalism at the Heart of American Power, author Jeff Sharlet examines the power wielded by a secretive Christian group known as the Family, or the Fellowship.

Founded in 1935 in opposition to FDR's New Deal, the evangelical group's views on religion and politics are so singular that some other Christian-right organizations consider them heretical

The group also has a connection to a house in Washington, D.C., known as C Street. Owned by a foundation affiliated with the Family, C Street is officially registered as a church; in practice, it serves as a meeting place and residence for politicians like South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford, Nevada Sen. John Ensign and Oklahoma Sen. Tom Coburn.

The Family, Sharlet writes, is responsible for founding the annual National Prayer Breakfast, a supposedly ecumenical — but implicitly Christian — event attended by the president, members of Congress and dignitaries from around the world. These foreign delegations are often led by top defense personnel, who use it as an opportunity to lobby the most influential people in Washington — and who repay the Family with access to their governments.

The group's approach to religion, Sharlet says, is based on "a sort of trickle-down fundamentalism," which holds that the wealthy and powerful, if they "can get their hearts right with God ... will dispense blessings to those underneath them."

Members of the group ardently support free markets, in which, they believe, God's will operates directly through Adam Smith's "invisible hand."

The Family was founded in 1935 by a minister named Abraham Vereide after, he claimed, he had a vision in which God came to him in the person of the head of the United States Steel Corporation.

The current leader, Doug Coe, shuns publicity but wields considerable political influence as a spiritual adviser. Sharlet says that when Sanford recently compared his struggles to those of the biblical King David — a central figure in Family theology — the author "could almost hear Doug Coe's voice" coming out of the South Carolina governor.

A religion expert and a journalist, Sharlet is a contributing editor for Harper's and Rolling Stone. He is editor of The Revealer, a review of religion and the press.

Excerpt: 'The Family'

Cover: 'The Family'
Courtesy of HarperCollins
The Family
By Jeff Sharlet
Hardcover, 464 pages
HarperCollins
List Price: $25.95

A few weeks into my stay, David Coe, Doug's son, dropped by Ivanwald. My brothers and I assembled in the living room, where David had draped his tall frame over a burgundy leather recliner like a frat boy, one leg hanging over a padded arm.

"You guys," David said, "are here to learn how to rule the world." He was in his late forties, with dark, gray-flecked hair, an olive complexion, teeth like a slab of white marble, dark eyes so big they didn't need to move to take in the room. We sat around him in a rough circle, on couches and chairs, as the afternoon light slanted through the wooden blinds onto a wall adorned with a giant tapestry of the Last Supper. Rafael, a wealthy Ecuadoran, had a hard time with English, and he didn't understand what David had said. He stared, lips parted in puzzlement. David seemed to like that. He stared back, holding Raf's gaze like it was a pretty thing he'd found on the ground. "You have very intense eyes," David said.

"Thank you," Raf mumbled.

"Hey," David said, "let's talk about the Old Testament." His voice was like a river that's smooth on the surface but swirling beneath. "Who" — he paused — "would you say are its good guys?"

"Noah," suggested Ruggi, a shaggy-haired guy from Kentucky with a silver loop on the upper ridge of his right ear.

"Moses," offered Josh, a lean man from Atlanta more interested in serving Jesus than his father's small empire of shower door manufacturing.

"David," Beau volunteered.

"King David," David Coe said. "That's a good one. David. Hey. What would you say made King David a good guy?" He giggled, not from nervousness but from barely containable delight.

"Faith?" Beau said. "His faith was so strong?"

"Yeah." David nodded as if he hadn't heard that before. "Hey, you know what's interesting about King David?" From the blank stares of the others, I could see that they did not. Many didn't even carry a full Bible, preferring a slim volume of New Testament Gospels and Epistles and Old Testament Psalms, respected but seldom read. Others had the whole book, but the gold gilt on the pages of the first two-thirds remained undisturbed. "King David," David Coe went on, "liked to do really, really bad things." He chuckled. "Here's this guy who slept with another man's wife — Bathsheba, right? — and then basically murdered her husband. And this guy is one of our heroes." David shook his head. "I mean, Jiminy Christmas, God likes this guy! What," he said, "is that all about?"

"Is it because he tried?" asked Bengt. "He wanted to do the right thing?" Bengt knew the Bible, Old Testament and New, better than any of the others, but he offered his answer with a question mark on the end. Bengt was dutiful in checking his worst sin, his fierce pride, and he frequently turned his certainties into questions.

"That's nice, Bengt," David said. "But it isn't the answer. Anyone else?"

"Because he was chosen," I said. For the first time David looked my way.

"Yes," he said, smiling. "Chosen. Interesting set of rules, isn't it?" He turned to Beau. "Beau, let's say I hear you raped three little girls. And now here you are at Ivanwald. What would I think of you, Beau?"

Beau, given to bellowing Ivanwald's daily call to sports like a bull elephant, shrank into the cushions. "Probably that I'm pretty bad?"

"No, Beau." David's voice was kind. "I wouldn't." He drew Beau back into the circle with a stare that seemed to have its own gravitational pull. Beau nodded, brow furrowed, as if in the presence of something profound. "Because," David continued, "I'm not here to judge you. That's not my job. I'm here for only one thing. Do you know what that is?"

Understanding blossomed in Beau's eyes. "Jesus?" he said. David smiled and winked. "Hey," he said. "Did you guys see Toy Story?" Half the room had. "Remember how there was a toy cowboy, Woody? And then the boy who owns Woody gets a new toy, a spaceman? Only the toy spaceman thinks he's real. Thinks he's a real spaceman, and he's got to figure out what he's doing on this strange planet. So what does Woody say to him? He says, 'You're just a toy.' " David sat quietly, waiting for us to absorb this. "Just a toy. We're not really spacemen. We're just toys. Created for God. For His plea sure, nothing else. Just a toy. Period."

He walked to the National Geographic map of the world mounted on the wall. "You guys know about Genghis Khan?" he asked. "Genghis was a man with a vision. He conquered" — David stood on the couch under the map, tracing, with his hand, half the northern hemisphere — "nearly everything. He devastated nearly everything. His enemies? He beheaded them." David swiped a finger across his throat. "Dop, dop, dop, dop."

Genghis Khan's genius, David went on, lay in his understanding that there could be only one king. When Genghis entered a defeated city, he would call in the local headman. Conversion to the Khan's cause was not an option, as Genghis was uninterested in halfhearted deputies. Instead, said David, Genghis would have the man stuffed into a crate, and over the crate's surface would be spread a tablecloth, on which a wonderful meal would be arrayed.

"And then, while the man suffocated, Genghis ate, and he didn't even hear the man's screams." David stood on the couch, a finger in the air. "Do you know what that means?"

To their credit, my brothers did not. Perhaps on account of my earlier insight, David turned to me. "I think so," I said. "Out with the old, in with the new."

Yes, he nodded. "Christ's parable of the wineskins. You can't pour new into old." One day, he continued, some monks from Europe show up in Genghis Khan's court. Genghis welcomes them in the name of God. Says that in truth, they worship the same great Lord. Then why, the monks ask, must he conquer the world? "I don't ask," says Genghis. "I submit."

David returned to his chair. "We elect our leaders," he said. "Jesus elects his."

He reached over and squeezed the arm of Pavel. "Isn't that great?" David said. "That's the way everything in life happens. If you're a person known to be around Jesus, you can go and do anything. And that's who you guys are. When you leave here, you're not only going to know the value of Jesus, you're going to know the people who rule the world. It's about vision. Get your vision straight, then relate. Talk to the people who rule the world, and help them obey. Obey Him. If I obey Him myself, I help others do the same. You know why? Because I become a warning. We become a warning. We warn everybody that the future king is coming. Not just of this country or that but of the world." Then he pointed at the map, toward the Khan's vast, reclaimable empire.

Excerpted from The Family by Jeff Sharlet. Reprinting by arrangement with HarperCollins. Copyright © 2008 by Jeff Sharlet.

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