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

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'Family': Fundamentalism, Friends In High Places

'Family': Fundamentalism, Friends In High Places

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This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Senator John Ensign of Nevada and South Carolina Governor Mark Sanford have something in common, in addition to both being Republicans who confessed to out-of-wedlock affairs.

They're connected to a Christian group known as the Family, or the Fellowship. Ensign lives in a house on C Street in Washington, D.C. that's registered as a church and is owned by a foundation affiliated with the group. In Sanford's press conference about his affair, he said he'd worked with C Street, which he described as a Christian Bible-study group.

Usually between five and eight lawmakers live at the house on C Street. If you've never heard of C Street or the Family, it's perhaps because the Family prefers it that way. It's a pretty secretive group, but very powerful.

The long-time leader, Doug Coe, was included in Time magazine's 2004 list of the 25 most influential evangelicals in America. Coe was described as the stealth Billy Graham, specializing in the spiritual struggles of the powerful.

My guest, Jeff Sharlet, is the author of the book "The Family: The Secret Fundamentalism at the Heart of American Power." It just came out in paperback. Sharlet is a contributing editor for Harper's and Rolling Stone and an associate research scholar at NYU's Center for Religion and Media.

Jeff Sharlet, welcome to FRESH AIR. What is the Family or the Fellowship's idea of Christianity that it's trying to spread?

Mr. JEFF SHARLET (Author, "The Family: The Secret Fundamentalism and the Heart of American Power"): Well, it's a very unusual organization, so much so that some traditional Christian-right organizations consider it heretical.

It goes back to this vision that the founder, a Norwegian immigrant named Abraham Vereide, has in 1935 in the midst of the Great Depression, and he believes that God comes to him first in the person of James Farrell, who was then the head of U.S. Steel, and Vereide was sort of at that time already a prominent minister, so he was traveling in those circles, and reveals to him that the Great Depression, that all economic suffering is a punishment for disobedience of God's laws.

So any kind of New Deal is not the way to go, and then God gives him a second revelation, which is that Christianity's been getting it wrong for 2,000 years. At its best it talks about the poor, the weak, the suffering, the down and out, and he believes that God tells him very literally, using these words: Abraham, your mission is to serve the up and out, those who are already powerful, and if you can get their hearts right with God, then they in their positions of power that God has placed them in will dispense blessings to those underneath them.

One Senate staffer who had been affiliated with the group for a while said it - called it - described it, I think, very aptly as a sort of a trickle-down fundamentalism.

GROSS: So the Fellowship or the Family, that's why it ministers to powerful people like congressmen and senators.

Mr. SHARLET: Yeah, absolutely, and congressmen and senators, foreign leaders. What they want is - in one document, says we are trying to build a family of world leaders who are bound privately through our networks with this particular understanding of Christianity, and if we can just do that, we'll be able to, you know, bring peace to the world, free markets, which they equate with Christianity, and all these other blessings that they tend to also conflate with American power.

GROSS: Now, what's the connection in the philosophy of the Family between free markets, capitalism and Christianity?

Mr. SHARLET: You go back to this moment in the Great Depression that I describe, where they see this as a sort of punishment from God for what they see as sort of a sin of socialism. The attempts to regulate the market are prideful. In other words, the invisible hand, they take that very literally, you know, the invisible hand of capitalism.

They say what you have is an invisible hand through which God touches the hearts of corporate titans, leaders and so on, and they then run their companies, and the Family began primarily as a union-busting organization. That was their sort of first mission. They were terrified of organized labor in the 1930s, but they tapped into this older American tradition that really goes back to something in the 19th century called the businessman's revival, this idea that if you have Christian men of business and Christian politicians and so on, you don't need laws to protect the poor because they will protect the poor.

It's this very paternalistic and potentially very dangerous tradition, because of course it leads you away from accountability. If we say we don't have regulation, we don't have oversight, we don't have laws, we just have God operating in the heart of these powerful men, well, we're left without a lot of recourse when a powerful man like, say, Governor Sanford or Senator Ensign goes off the rails.

GROSS: So what about the values agenda that has been so important to the Republican Party in the past few years? Does the Family emphasize an anti-gay agenda, anti-abortion, pro-celibacy, pro - you know, pro - abstinence-only education, I should say - are they supporters of that values agenda, in addition to, you know, emphasizing the more capitalist approach?

Mr. SHARLET: Yes, but not rigidly and only secondarily. To them, the idea of free markets, working through elites, building these networks of elites, that's the top concern.

So Doug Coe, the long-time leader of the group, I sat in one time on a meeting between Doug Coe, the leader, and Congressman Todd Tiahrt of Kansas, and Todd Tiahrt was sort of there almost sort of auditioning to get involved in this thing, and he was trying to show off, you know, his dedication to those kinds of meat-and-potatoes Christian-right issues, and he was talking about the threat of Islam and talking about abortion, and Doug Coe, he doesn't necessarily disagree with this sort of line of thinking. He sort of nods his head and says, yeah, yeah, that's fine, but you know, you're really thinking very small.

He says, you know, this is just - these are hot-button issues. He says the real work of the kind of governance that we're after is what he calls Jesus plus nothing, and Jesus plus nothing means actually Jesus plus everything. It means everything gets filtered through Jesus, and the examples he gave, he says what does Jesus have to say about Social Security? In the Family's case, it's privatize, which is almost always their answer, is to privatize.

What does Jesus have to say about building roads? What does Jesus have to say about every single issue, including in your own life? And you organize men like Sanford and Ensign, and maybe Todd Tiahrt, into prayer cells so that they can ask, what does Jesus have to say about what's in my life? And they actually give veto power over their own lives to the other men in their prayer cells.

That's their language, by the way. Cells sounds like an inflammatory term, but it's actually got this old evangelical pedigree that long predates the current association.

GROSS: You compare the Family to, say, televangelist groups, and you say that in some ways they're at opposite poles. Like, the televangelists, they want to get on TV. They want to preach to a really large audience. They want a mega-church, whereas the Family, it's pretty secretive. They don't want any media attention. They don't want people to know their name. Why?

Mr. SHARLET: This man that I mentioned, the current leader, Doug Coe, this was really his insight, and it goes back to 1966. He's the second person to lead the Family. The long-time leader was the founder, Abraham Vereide, and he didn't mind public attention. He really liked it to be known that he was hobnobbing with, you know, senators and presidents and kings and that kind of thing.

He knew also that you had a media at that time that didn't look too closely into the religious lives of politicians. It wasn't considered that relevant, and then you get this moment in the late '60s where two things are happening.

The Family is really expanding its reach into governments around the world, sort of the developing world, and they're dealing with a lot more sort of unsavory characters, and at the same time you have a media that's suddenly moving into one of these great investigative periods, where the media is sort of saying, hey, we're going to ask tough questions, and if you're going to go and pray with General Suharto in Indonesia and then make an oil deal, we want to know about that.

Well, so Doug Coe sends out a memo to the various congressmen and politicians involved, and he says the time has come to submerge our public image.

They got rid of letterhead. He says from now on when you do something through the Family, don't say you're doing it through the family, just say you're doing it yourself, and that we're going to become invisible believing groups. This is their language.

It's important because when someone says invisible, it sounds kind of conspiratorial. This is their language and their documents. They thought that would make them more effective, and I always try to see it from their perspective. They do think that, look, we can do more good work for people, we can help these powerful people if we can give them a shield from the public eyes.

You know, and that's fine for a pastor and an individual, but when we're talking about political deals, it's a whole different story.

GROSS: Now, you mentioned that - I guess it was Doug Coe - prayed with General Suharto, who was a strongman in Indonesia and then made an oil deal. What are you referring to?

Mr. SHARLET: Yeah, that's one of the stories I really delved into, into these documents. The way I was able to tell this story, I should say, is for all its secretiveness, the Family dumps 600 boxes of documents and hundreds of tapes in the Billy Graham Center archives in Wheaton, Illinois.

So I spent years going through these papers and so on, and you would find this sort of whole alternative history of the Cold War. So we know about U.S. support for Suharto, who came to power with the murder - it's hard to know - anywhere between 600,000 and a million of his fellow countrymen, whom he described as communists.

Sometimes, you know, Suharto's forces would wipe out entire villages on the premise that everybody in them was a communist and had to die. I mean he's one of the really great killers of the 20th century, and Doug Coe and Abraham Vereide took a look at him and said that's a man of God. And keep in mind, Suharto's...

GROSS: Wait, wait, did they say that's a man of God or that's a man we'd like to make a man of God?

Mr. SHARLET: Good correction, actually. They - neither. They said that's a man God has chosen, and this is an issue that they always deal with. They know that the dictators they're dealing with are often, you know, pretty scary guys, but they'll say, look, God chooses who he wants to work with. So God wants to fight communism.

Suharto is a man who's fighting communism, and he's killing a million people, and, well, just look at the Bible, they'll say. The Bible is filled with, you know, blood and killing and so on. God works in mysterious ways.

At the same time they are reaching out to Suharto. They are bringing delegations of congressmen over there. They're bringing delegations of the oil executives who are financing their work over there. One oilman named Harold McClure wrote in a memo that was then circulated among core congressional members that he'd had an hour-long meeting with Suharto and some of the oil people around Suharto. Suharto, of course, controlled the eighth-largest oil company in the world at that time. And they had an hour of prayer, after which they'd moved on to business. And he said it had just been one of the most spiritual encounters of his life and also one of the most lucrative, which sounds deeply cynical, but when you understand the Family's perspective, it's not.

They see the wealth and influence and power in this kind of dumbed-down Calvinism way as a sign of their selection, or literally their election by God, that they've been chosen for this wealth, for this influence.

GROSS: So did this Christian-right group, the Family, make money on the Indonesia oil deal, or was it not about money for them? I mean, the oil deal wasn't in their name. It was for another party, but you know, what did they get out of it?

Mr. SHARLET: The Family, it's never about money for the Family, and I think this is important for secular folks and liberal folks to understand about fundamentalism in general and this organization in particular. They really believe what they believe. They believe they're working for God. This is not a cynical exercise. What they got out of it was the sense that they were helping Suharto do his work as God's chosen man for this country.

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Jeff Sharlet. He's the author of the book "The Family: The Secret Fundamentalism at the Heart of American Power." It's just come out in paperback. Let's take a short break here, and then we'll talk some more. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: My guest, Jeff Sharlet, is the author of the book "The Family," about a secretive but powerful Christian group known as the Family. It's in the news now because Senator John Ensign and Governor Mark Sanford, who confessed to affairs, both have connections to the group. Ensign lives in a house on C Street that is owned by a foundation affiliated with the Family. Sanford turned to C Street to help him work through his marital problems.

What is the house on C Street?

Mr. SHARLET: The house on C Street is one of the ways the Family pursues its ministry of reaching out to powerful people and serving them. It's a former convent, registered as a church so it doesn't pay taxes, at which the Family provides housing for anywhere, at any given time, you know, five to eight congressmen, usually at below-market rates, so there's a bit of an ethical question there, and they also play host to many other congressmen who want to come by for lunch of just to hang out.

Christian-right leaders can use the house on C Street as a place where they can sit down in private with politicians and talk to them. They'll have prayer sessions. When I spent some time there, they had a calendar prominently displayed on the wall with instructions for daily spiritual war. So on Tuesday, for instance, you are to pray against the demonic stronghold of Buddhism. Wednesday, it's Hinduism that's the problem.

Most of the guys who live there are a little more laid back than that, and the Family doesn't require any doctrinal, you know, statement of loyalty.

You want to live there and be in fellowship with these guys, that's fine. It's soft-sell evangelism, not that kind of hard Bible-thumping that you see on TV.

GROSS: When you said that the below-market rental rates posed ethical questions, did you mean that because the house is officially called a church, and it doesn't have to pay taxes, it can afford to charge cheaper rates, and it's questionable whether it's really a church or not? Is that what you meant?

Mr. SHARLET: The whole deal. I mean registering as a church so as to avoid taxes looks a little sketchy. You have these congressmen who are living in a church, but this is not a church by any recognizable standard. That seems like a tax dodge.

GROSS: I've read there's a chapel inside.

Mr. SHARLET: Well, it was a former convent. It's kind of an interesting building, but it doesn't function as a church, and not only doesn't it function as a church, but you have the leader of the organization, Doug Coe, who's going there, and Doug Coe will speak very openly against church.

Doug Coe doesn't like church. He doesn't like that whole idea of Christianity as something that you limit to Sunday mornings. He doesn't like the idea of a church where - churches are - historically they are about sort of a bottom-up faith where everybody has equal access, right?

But Doug Coe teaches this very different idea. He says when you read the New Testament, you discover that there are concentric rings of authority and that there's the masses, and Jesus speaks one way to them, and then there's disciples, and Jesus speaks one way to them. He says, well, that's true now as well.

He says Jesus reveals himself more fully to his chosen, and Coe believes when - he's not using the word chosen casually. They refer to themselves as the new chosen because they believe that the Jews broke their covenant with God.

So the Jews are no longer the chosen people. The Family are the new chosen, and they don't operate through churches. So it's a little bit of a dodge there, and then there's also - and I think this is a very minor question. I think it's easy to get distracted with the Family by ethical quibbles around the edges when there's this big, giant question of transparency and openness and democracy, but there's this ethical question of are these guys getting below-market housing, and is this - should this be registered as a gift, especially given that Christian-right leaders are going there to lobby for this cause or that cause and that there is unofficial lobbying going on in the house.

GROSS: Although the Family is a very secretive group, the thing that's best known about it, although I didn't know about until reading your book, is that the Family or the Foundation created the Annual National Prayer Breakfast, which is attended by the president, members of Congress and important people from around the world.

Can you give us the short version of how they created it, how and why they created it?

Mr. SHARLET: The why first was that they wanted an annual ritual of consecration of the United States to Jesus, and they thought if they could install this right at the heart of American civil religion, they would be sort of slowly moving America to becoming this godly nation they want it to be.

So in 1953, working with Billy Graham and Senator Frank Carlson, who was Eisenhower's right-hand man, they went to Ike, and they said we want to do this. They tried with Truman and FDR too, and it didn't get anywhere, and Ike immediately recognized it for what it was, which was a blatant violation of separation of church and state, didn't want to do it, but he owed Senator Frank Carlson, who was then one of the leaders of the Family, he owed him a big favor. He had helped organizing evangelical vote for Eisenhower, and Eisenhower agreed to do it.

And the Family knew that once they got it rolling, then it becomes a tradition, and so now I've talked to congressmen. You mention that you didn't know that the Family runs it. Almost nobody does. Your invitation comes on congressional letterhead. I've talked to congressmen who believe that it goes back to the beginning days of the republic.

You can imagine, you know, James Madison rolling over in his grave at the thought of this. It's a pretty bland event on the surface of it. You know, it's supposed ecumenical, though the planning documents say - one planning document describes it as anything can happen. Even the Koran can be read, but Jesus is there. He is infiltrating the world.

Well, this is the ecumenical event, supposedly, that has the sanction of U.S. government and the U.S. president and also becomes a sort of a week-long lobbying festival for foreign officials.

One of the things that bothered me is when I looked at who was coming, the delegations from around the world, almost more often than not it was led by the defense minister of small nations: Albania, Ecuador and so on. And they're coming there to lobby, and the Family's only too happy to help them do that in exchange for influence in their governments.

GROSS: Is there anything you'd like to tell us about the Mark Sanford story or the John Ensign story that you feel like you understand because you've studied the Family?

Mr. SHARLET: I was especially fascinated when Governor Sanford explained his decision not to resign by referring to King David and saying, look, here's King David, this guy who fell mightily but he went on. And by fell mightily he means that King David had an adulterous affair and then had the husband of the woman murdered. And that's actually one of the sort of core parables of the Family that I encountered and describe this experience with David Coe, the son of Doug Coe, the leader, came around and gave us this long lesson. He says, What made King David great? And the men I was with, they're all trying to say, well, he loves God, he - all this. He says no, no, that's not it. He says King David was a terrible man. You know, he was an adulterer and a murderer. So why is he a hero of the Bible? And the answer is because God chose him. King David is beyond morality in their limited understanding of Scripture, and that's a central parable in the Family's thinking, and I could almost hear Doug Coe's voice when Governor Sanford is saying I need to keep governing because I'm like King David.

GROSS: Well, Jeff Sharlet, thank you so much for talking with us.

Mr. SHARLET: Thank you, Terry.

GROSS: Jeff Sharlet is the author of the book "The Family," which was just published in paperback. He also co-edited the new book "Believer Beware: First-Person Dispatches from the Margins of Faith," a collection of articles from the Web site he co-founded, Killing the Buddha. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.

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