The Secret Political Reach Of 'The Family'

Jeff Sharlet i i

Jeff Sharlet is also the author of Killing the Buddha: A Heretic's Bible, a travelogue based on a year he and Peter Manseau spent exploring the margins of faith in America. hide caption

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Jeff Sharlet

Jeff Sharlet is also the author of Killing the Buddha: A Heretic's Bible, a travelogue based on a year he and Peter Manseau spent exploring the margins of faith in America.

The Family: The Secret Fundamentalism at the Heart of American Power
By Jeff Sharlet
Hardcover, 464 pages
Harper
List price: $25.95

Read An Excerpt

You may recognize these names from recent headlines: Sen. John Ensign, Rep. Bart Stupak and Rep. Joe Pitts. Stupak and Pitts have become familiar names through the media's health care overhaul coverage; their abortion funding amendment introduced an 11th-hour twist as the House of Representatives approached a vote on a landmark health care bill.

Ensign was the focus of media attention over his affair with a campaign staffer. Just last night, a Nevada man disclosed that he found out about his wife's affair with the state's junior senator — his best friend — via a text message.

The common factor among these political players is their involvement with the Family, a secretive fellowship of powerful Christian politicians that centers on a Washington, D.C., townhouse. Investigative journalist Jeff Sharlet has written extensively about the influential group in his book The Family: The Secret Fundamentalism at the Heart of American Power.

Sharlet returns to Fresh Air to talk to host Terry Gross about Ensign, Stupak and Pitts, and about new developments concerning the Family.

Since 2003, Sharlet has been an associate research scholar at New York University's Center for Religion and Media, where he has taught graduate seminars in journalism and the history of American religion. He has also spoken on religion, politics and media at colleges and universities across the country. At NYU, Sharlet created TheRevealer.org, a review of religion and the media.

Excerpt: 'The Family'

'The Family'
The Family: The Secret Fundamentalism at the Heart of American Power
By Jeff Sharlet
Hardcover, 464 pages
Harper
List Price: $25.95

Chapter One

The Family, or the Fellowship, is in its own words an "invisible" association, though it has always been organized around public men. Senator Sam Brownback (R., Kansas), chair of a weekly, off -the-record meeting of religious right groups called the Values Action Team (VAT), is an active member, as is Representative Joe Pitts (R., Pennsylvania), an avuncular would-be theocrat who chairs the House version of the VAT. Others referred to as members include senators Jim DeMint of South Carolina, chairman of the Senate Steering Committee (the powerful conservative caucus co-founded back in 1974 by another Family associate, the late senator Carl Curtis of Nebraska); Chuck Grassley (R., Iowa); James Inhofe (R., Oklahoma); Tom Coburn (R., Oklahoma); John Thune (R., South Dakota); Mike Enzi (R., Wyoming); and John Ensign, the conservative casino heir elected to the Senate from Nevada, a brightly tanned, hapless figure who uses his Family connections to graft holiness to his gambling-fortune name. Some Democrats are involved: representatives Bart Stupak and Mike Doyle, leading anti-abortion Democrats, are longtime residents of the Family's C Street House, a former convent registered as a church and used to provide Family-subsidized housing for politicians supported by the Family. A centrist occasionally stumbles into the fold, but the Family is mostly conservative. Family stalwarts in the House include Representatives Frank Wolf (R., Virginia), Zach Wamp (R., Tennessee), and Mike McIntyre, a hard right North Carolina Democrat who believes that the Ten Commandments are "the fundamental legal code for the laws of the United States" and thus ought to be on display in schools and court houses.

The Family's historic roll call is even more striking: the late senator Strom Thurmond (R., South Carolina), who produced "confidential" reports on legislation for the Family's leadership, presided for a time over the Family's weekly Senate meeting, and the Dixie-crat senators Herman Talmadge of Georgia and Absalom Willis Robertson of Virginia — Pat Robertson's father — served on the behind-the-scenes board of the organization. In 1974, a Family prayer group of Republican congressmen and former secretary of defense Melvin Laird helped convince President Gerald Ford that Richard Nixon deserved not just Christian forgiveness but also a legal pardon. That same year, Supreme Court Justice William Rehnquist led the Family's first weekly Bible study for federal judges.

"I wish I could say more about it," Ronald Reagan publicly demurred back in 1985, "but it's working precisely because it is private."

"We desire to see a leadership led by God," reads a confidential mission statement. "Leaders of all levels of society who direct projects as they are led by the spirit." Another principle expanded upon is stealthiness; members are instructed to pursue political jujitsu by making use of secular leaders "in the work of advancing His kingdom," and to avoid whenever possible the label Christian itself, lest they alert enemies to that advance. Regular prayer groups, or "cells" as they're often called, have met in the Pentagon and at the Department of Defense, and the Family has traditionally fostered strong ties with businessmen in the oil and aerospace industries.

The Family's use of the term "cell" long predates the word's current association with terrorism. Its roots are in the Cold War, when leaders of the Family deliberately emulated the organizing techniques of communism. In 1948, a group of Senate staffers met to discuss ways that the Family's "cell and leadership groups" could recruit elites unwilling to participate in the "mass meeting approach" of populist fundamentalism. Two years later, the Family declared that with democracy inadequate to the fight against godlessness, such cells should function to produce political "atomic energy"; that is, deals and alliances that could not be achieved through the clumsy machinations of legislative debate would instead radiate quietly out of political cells. More recently, Senator Sam Brownback told me that the privacy of Family cells makes them safe spaces for men of power — an appropriation of another term borrowed from an enemy, feminism. "In this closer relationship," a document for members reads, "God will give you more insight into your own geographical area and your sphere of influence." One's cell should become "an invisible 'believing group'" out of which "agreements reached in faith and in prayer around the person of Jesus Christ" lead to action that will appear to the world to be unrelated to any centralized organization.

In 1979, the former Nixon aide and Watergate felon Charles W. Colson — born again through the guidance of the Family and the ministry of a CEO of arms manufacturer Raytheon — estimated the Family's strength at 20,000, although the number of dedicated "associates" around the globe is much smaller (around 350 as of 2006). The Family maintains a closely guarded database of associates, members, and "key men," but it issues no cards, collects no official dues. Members are asked not to speak about the group or its activities.

"The Movement," a member of the Family's inner circle once wrote to the group's chief South African operative, "is simply inexplicable to people who are not intimately acquainted with it." The Family's "political" initiatives, he continues, "have always been misunderstood by 'outsiders.' As a result of very bitter experiences, therefore, we have learned never to commit to paper any discussions or negotiations that are taking place. There is no such thing as a 'confidential' memorandum, and leakage always seems to occur. Thus, I would urge you not to put on paper anything relating to any of the work that you are doing ... [unless] you know the recipient well enough to put at the top of the page 'PLEASE DESTROY AFTER READING.'"

"If I told you who has participated and who participates until this day, you would not believe it," the Family's longtime leader, Doug Coe, said in a rare interview in 2001. "You'd say,'You mean that scoundrel? That despot?'"

A friendly, plainspoken Oregonian with dark, curly hair, a lazy smile, and the broad, thrown-back shoulders of a man who recognizes few superiors, Coe has worked for the Family since 1959 and been "First Brother" since founder Abraham Vereide was "promoted" to heaven in 1969. (Recently, a successor named Dick Foth, a longtime friend to John Ashcroft, assumed some of Coe's duties, but Coe remains the preeminent figure.) Coe denies possessing any authority, but Family members speak of him with a mixture of intimacy and awe. Doug Coe, they say — most people refer to him by his first and last name — is closer to Jesus than perhaps any other man alive, and thus privy to information the rest of us are too spiritually "immature" to understand. For instance, the necessity of secrecy. Doug Coe says it allows the scoundrels and the despots to turn their talents toward the service of Jesus — who, Doug Coe says, prefers power to piety — by shielding their work on His behalf from a hardhearted public, unwilling to believe in their good intentions. In a sermon posted online by a fundamentalist website, Coe compares this method to the mob's. "His Body" — the Body of Christ, that is, by which he means Christendom — "functions invisibly like the mafia. ... They keep their organization invisible. Everything visible is transitory. Everything invisible is permanent and lasts forever. The more you can make your organization invisible, the more influence it will have."

For that very reason, the Family has operated under many guises, some active, some defunct: National Committee for Christian Leadership, International Christian Leadership, National Leadership Council, the Fellowship Foundation, the International Foundation. The Fellowship Foundation alone has an annual budget of nearly $14 million. The bulk of it, $12 million, goes to "mentoring, counseling, and partnering with friends around the world," but that represents only a fraction of the network's finances. The Family does not pay big salaries; one man receives $121,000, while Doug Coe seems to live on almost nothing (his income fluctuates wildly according to the off-the-books support of "friends"), and none of the fourteen men on the board of directors (among them an oil executive, a defense contractor, and government officials past and present) receives a penny. But within the organization money moves in peculiar ways, "man-to-man" financial support that's off the books, a constant proliferation of new nonprofits big and small that submit to the Family's spiritual authority, money flowing up and down the quiet hierarchy. "I give or loan money to hundreds of people, or have my friends do so," says Coe.

The Family's only publicized gathering is the National Prayer Breakfast, which it established in 1953 and which, with congressional sponsorship, it continues to organize every February at the Washington, D.C., Hilton. Some 3,000 dignitaries, representing scores of nations and corporate interests, pay $425 each to attend. For most, the breakfast is just that, muffins and prayer, but some stay on for days of seminars organized around Christ's messages for particular industries. In years past, the Family organized such events for executives in oil, defense, insurance, and banking. The 2007 event drew, among others, a contingent of aid-hungry defense ministers from Eastern Europe, Pakistan's famously corrupt Benazir Bhutto, and a Sudanese general linked to genocide in Darfur.

Here's how it can work: Dennis Bakke, former CEO of AES, the largest independent power producer in the world, and a Family insider, took the occasion of the 1997 Prayer Breakfast to invite Ugandan president Yoweri Museveni, the Family's "key man" in Africa, to a private dinner at a mansion, just up the block from the Family's Arlington headquarters. Bakke, the author of a popular business book titled Joy at Work, has long preached an ethic of social responsibility inspired by his evangelical faith and his free-market convictions: "I am trying to sell a way of life," he has said. "I am a cultural imperialist." That's a phrase he uses to be provocative; he believes that his Jesus is so universal that everyone wants Him. And, apparently, His business opportunities: Bakke was one of the pioneer thinkers of energy deregulation, the laissez-faire fever dream that culminated in the meltdown of Enron. But there was other, less-noticed fallout, such as a no-bid deal Bakke made with Museveni, the result of a relationship that began at the 1997 Prayer Breakfast, for a $500-million dam close to the source of the White Nile — in waters considered sacred by Uganda's 2.5-million–strong Busoga minority. AES announced that the Busoga had agreed to "relocate" the spirits of their dead. They weren't the only ones opposed; first environmentalists (Museveni had one American arrested and deported) and then even other foreign investors revolted against a project that seemed like it might actually increase the price of power for the poor. Bakke didn't worry. "We don't go away," he declared. He dispatched a young man named Christian Wright, the son of one of the Prayer Breakfast's organizers, to be AES's in- country liaison to Museveni; Wright was later accused of authorizing at least $400,000 in bribes. He claimed his signature had been forged.

"I'm sure a lot of people use the Fellowship as a way to network, a way to gain entree to all sorts of people," says Michael Cromartie, an evangelical Washington think tanker who's critical of the Family's lack of transparency. "And entree they do get."

"Anything can happen," according to an internal planning document, "the Koran could even be read, but JESUS is there! He is infiltrating the world." Too bland most years to merit much press, the breakfast is regarded by the Family as merely a tool in a larger purpose: to recruit the powerful attendees into smaller, more frequent prayer meetings, where they can "meet Jesus man to man."

In the process of introducing powerful men to Jesus, the Family has managed to effect a number of behind-the-scenes acts of diplomacy. In 1978 it helped the Carter administration organize a worldwide call to prayer with Menachem Begin and Anwar Sadat. At the 1994 National Prayer Breakfast, Family leaders persuaded their South African client, the Zulu chief Mangosuthu Buthelezi, to stand down from the possibility of civil war with Nelson Mandela. But such benign acts appear to be the exception to the rule. During the 1960s, the Family forged relationships between the U.S. government and some of the most oppressive regimes in the world, arranging prayer networks in the U.S. Congress for the likes of General Costa e Silva, dictator of Brazil; General Suharto, dictator of Indonesia; and General Park Chung Hee, dictator of South Korea. "The Fellowship's reach into governments around the world," observes David Kuo, a former special assistant to the president in Bush's first term, "is almost impossible to overstate or even grasp."

From The Family: The Secret Fundamentalism at the Heart of American Power by Jeff Sharlet. Copyright 2009 by Jeff Sharlet. Published by Harper. Used by permission of the publisher. All rights reserved.

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