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Worse Than Fascists: Christian Political Group 'The Family' Openly Reveres Hitler

In his new book, The Family, author Jeff Sharlet reveals sordid details about this power-hungry, inside-the-Beltway fundamentalist group.
 
 
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Did you know that the National Prayer Breakfast is sponsored by a shadowy cabal of elite Christian fundamentalists? Jeff Sharlet's new book, "The Family: The Secret Fundamentalism at the Heart of American Power," offers a rare glimpse of this remarkable network, which is known variously as the Family, the Fellowship and the International Foundation.

The Family was founded 70 years ago by Abraham Vereide, a Norwegian immigrant evangelist based in Seattle. In 1935, Vereide said, God appeared to him in a vision and revealed where Christianity had gone wrong: preoccupation with the poor, the weak and the suffering.

The down-and-out were in no position to bring about the Kingdom of God, Vereide realized. Some Christians believe that the rapture is imminent, but not the Family. They're convinced that Jesus won't return until we get our collective house in order. If they were to wait for the down-and-out to remake the world in God's image, we could be here forever.

Besides, in Seattle in the 1930s, union agitators were making a play for the down-and-out. Christianity promised rewards in the hereafter, but workers in the Pacific Northwest were starting to wonder why they had to wait so long. Instead of competing for market share with the Industrial Workers of the World, Vereide sought a different niche.

His new plan was to target men who were already powerful and turn them to God -- and wouldn't you know it, God hated unions, too.

Through personal relationships and small group encounters, Vereide united captains of industry and politicians as a Biblical bulwark against the increasing power of organized labor.

In the late 1940s, the Family helped roll back key pro-labor provisions of the New Deal. Later, the Family did its part for the Cold War by cultivating anti-communist strongmen around the world, including repressive leaders like Suharto of Indonesia and Jonas Savimbi of Angola.

The roster of current and former Family members includes senators, congressmen, Fortune 500 CEOs, generals and at least one Supreme Court justice. The Family does not publish membership lists, and its members are sworn to secrecy, so a full accounting is impossible.

Sen. Hillary Clinton has been involved with the Family since 1993 when, as first lady, she joined a White House prayer circle for political wives. Clinton has also sought spiritual counseling from the current head of the Family, Doug Coe. Sharlet argues that Clinton's longtime association with the Family has helped her forge working relationships with powerful religious conservatives such as Family member and anti-abortion crusader Sen. Sam Brownback of Kansas.

The Family nurtures the next generation of prayer warriors in suburban dormitories. Sharlet spent nearly a month living at Ivanwald, a dormitory in Virginia where sons of the Family are sent to immerse themselves in Jesus and clean the toilets of congressmen and senators.

The Family also runs a house on C Street in Washington, D.C. The C Street Center has housed a number of federal legislators, including Sen. John Ensign of Nevada. Residents allege that the center is just a cheap place to live, but as an Ivanwald brother, Sharlet saw firsthand that the center is a religious community. As far as the IRS is concerned, the C Street Center is a church.

Members will tell you that the Family is just a group of friends. As Sharlet discovered, 600 boxes of documents at the Billy Graham Center Archives tell a different story.

AlterNet writer Lindsay Beyerstein recently sat down with Jeff Sharlet at a Brooklyn coffee shop to discuss the Family.

Lindsay Beyerstein What is the Family?

Jeff Sharlet: It's an international network of evangelical activists in government, military and business. The Family is dedicated to this idea that Christianity has gotten it all wrong for two thousand years by focusing on the poor, the suffering and the weak.

The Family says that instead, what Christians should do is minister to the up-and-out -- as opposed to the down-and-out -- to those that are already powerful. Because if they can win those people for Christ, they win the whole deal. That's what this network is dedicated to. It includes nonprofit organizations, it includes think tanks, it includes various ministries.

Lindsay Beyerstein: Where did they get the idea that they should be ministering to the up-and-out? There doesn't seem to be a lot basis in Christianity for that view.

Jeff Sharlet: Two places. The founder of the Family, Abraham Vereide, would describe it as his "new revelation" that came to him in the middle of the night, very literally: in a vision from God in 1935 in response to the Great Depression and, more particularly, to a series of very successful labor strikes that he saw as challenging God's sovereignty. So, God comes and gives him this new revelation to say, "This is what I really meant …"

Early on, Vereide and the Family weren't actually talking about scripture, but as time went on they began invoking more and more a particular verse of Paul's Letter to the Romans, which is popular among fundamentalists, Romans:13: "The Powers that Be are Ordained of God." And it goes on to say that if you resist those powers, you're in a lot of trouble. Interpreted literally, this is the key text in authoritarian Christianity. So, that's where they're getting it.

Lindsay Beyerstein: In "The Family," a lot of subjects explicitly state their admiration for Hitler and other authoritarian political figures. How much of that is admiring their style, and how much is admiring their substance?

Jeff Sharlet: I'd argue that there isn't a hell of a lot of difference. I spent a lot of time living with these guys, and I remember at one point asking them, "What's the deal with all this Hitler talk?" And they'd say, "Oh, it's not the ends, it's the means." But to most of us, the means seem pretty bad, too. The means are authoritarianism.

It's pretty close to the substance because it grows out of this very broad movement in the 1930s of elites concluding that democracy has run its course, that democracy was a temporary phase in world history. And so, these people were experimenting with all sorts of different alternatives. And remember, before World War II it was considered a perfectly legitimate and acceptable position to endorse fascism.

Lindsay Beyerstein: When I read the book, I found myself thinking about Umberto Eco's essay, "Eternal Fascism," which provides a kind of checklist of the essential characteristics of fascism. How many of those criteria does the Family meet?

Jeff Sharlet:The book I find helpful as a succinct guide to fascism is a book by historian Robert Paxton. He'll boil it down into five principles or ten principles. The Family's always hovering around 80 percent, but never all the way.

And that's an important distinction to make. I think many progressives want to reduce everything bad to fascism. There's more than one kind of bad under the sun. One of the arguments in this book is that these guys aren't fascists; they're ultimately something worse. They're not fascists because they don't explicitly revere violence. Lots of violence occurs through various dimensions, but in fascism, violence is thought to have redemptive power.

Lindsay Beyerstein: So, they don't literally believe in physical conflict when they describe themselves as warriors for Christ?

Jeff Sharlet: Oh, no. (They think) that's fine, but they don't love violence the way that fascism did. Their leader, Doug Coe, says that the Bible is filled with mass murderers. And it is. The difference is that European fascism was based on this idea that you can only become truly human through violence. The Family will say, oh no, we're pursuing peace. Hitler wasn't pursuing peace. The goal was this constant redemptive violence.

The other thing is they differ in the strictness of their nationalism. The Family is an American ideology, and it has a lot of American ideology involved, but still it was founded by a Norwegian immigrant. It's more pluralist than European fascism that was about cleansing the blood. The Family is an imperial ideology, which is why I think it's ultimately worse than fascism. Since the Second World War, fascism hasn't been a very powerful ideology, but imperialism has.

Lindsay Beyerstein: What kind of empire do they envision?

Jeff Sharlet: They envision the empire that we have. Doug Coe says, "We work with power where we can and build new power where we can't." Usually they can work within power. Rob Shank, another Christian right activist in Washington, says, "The Family is into living with what is."

In the immediate postwar era, they were talking about Christian D-Day and Washington as the world's Christian capital. And World War Three, they were very excited about that, all full-steam ahead. But they sort of subsided and were subsumed into the American Cold War project, which ended up becoming an imperial project.

Lindsay Beyerstein: What did the Family have to do with a B-movie called "The Blob"?

Jeff Sharlet: The best illustration of the Family's involvement in the Cold War was something that I stumbled on by accident: The 1958 film "The Blob." It began at the 1957 National Prayer Breakfast. "The Blob" was a famous horror movie that was a metaphor for Communism. This is their imagination of how Communism spread. At the time, the American imagination couldn't grasp ideology, so it had to be an actual goo that globs more and more people and grows and becomes expansive. As I recall, they have to blow up the town at the end. The logic of "The Blob" is that we must destroy the village in order to save it. That's the logic of Vietnam.

The project actually began at the National Prayer Breakfast. This filmmaker who had been making fundamentalist films, Irvin "Shorty" Yeaworth, was on the lookout for someone to make this film. (The writer) Kate Phillips was a B-movie sci-fi actress. Not a Christian Right person; (she was) there as a guest of a friend of hers. She's there at the breakfast and they become friends. They end up making this movie.

"The Blob" was paralleled with this other movie. This other movie that comes out of the Prayer Breakfast is "Militant Liberty." John Groger, on Family payroll and on the Pentagon payroll, he was obsessed with making these kooky films that were almost too weird for the Pentagon, like "Operation Abolition," because it was so trippy and so bent on blaming the spread of Communism on Japanese youth culture.

Lindsay Beyerstein: On Japanese youth culture?

Jeff Sharlet: Don't forget, there was a pretty powerful Japanese communist movement after the Second World War. Japan would have been a communist country had it not been for us buying their political system wholesale.

So, that's "The Blob." The whole approach represents their understanding of Communism and the way America responded. Tim Weiner, in "Legacy of Ashes," has a devastating critique. The real issue is incompetence -- they never understood who they were fighting. You might say, "Hey, I'm down with anti-communism" -- but they were always bent on fighting with these crazy schemes and networks. That's not the way to combat Stalinism, which is an evil ideology.

It's just as true now, when I look at what the Family does today in the Central Asian Republic. The 1999 Silk Road Strategy Act, sponsored by Sam Brownback, and Rep. Joe Pitts renewed it in 2006. Combat militant Islam in Central Asia by pouring American aid into dictatorial regimes. This same kind of top-down aid.

Thugs have always understood that they could use the Family. … When you see Suharto getting down on his knees and praying to Jesus with members of the Family -- he's Muslim, technically, but he's not even really that; he's a dictator.

Lindsay Beyerstein: Sort of like Daniel Plainview in the movie "There Will Be Blood"? (Plainview is the cynical oil man who makes a big show of converting to Christianity at a revival meeting to consolidate his power in town.)

Jeff Sharlet: Daniel Plainview had more integrity. That's a nice comparison, I hadn't thought of that. Some of these central Asian dictators are not drinking the Kool-Aid.

(At some level, the Family understands.) One member says that he'd rather let in a few wolves then keep out one sheep. I just want to know: When is the sheep getting here? Because all they've got are wolves.

The more interesting analysis is to view it not as cynicism but as a logical outcome of a theology that reveres power. This is not their system not working; it's their system working.

Lindsay Beyerstein: Does this attitude have to do with the Family's unusual theology? In the book you say that they teach a kind of ultrasubjectivism, stripping away all history, doctrine, institutions and all rituals until "religion" is just what pops into your head.

Jeff Sharlet: This is very important. It's a seductive idea for many on the left as well. These attitudes go back to 1930s. It was part of the feeling that democracy had run its course.

Whenever you strip away history, you are stripping away accountability. The irony is that sometimes people on the left make the same kind of noises, like, "We're not going to get all caught up in institutions and religions" -- leaving aside the history of that rhetoric in anti-Catholicism and anti-Semitism.

Whenever you strip away history, you are stripping away things you wish you hadn't done, and accountability for that. When people say that "we're not going to get all caught up in the law and the rules," they mean anti-Semitism. They may not know they mean that that's the history of it.

Lindsay Beyerstein: They think it's bad even to know about history?

Jeff Sharlet: They just don't care. One of the ironies of this book is that now they're in my debt. I know more about the history of their movement than they do. (That's why they were so casual about what ended up in the Family's records at the Billy Graham archives.) It didn't even occur to them that anyone would find anything wrong there, including various government documents that shouldn't have been there.

Lindsay Beyerstein: There's a story in the book that says a lot about how the Family operates, the one about the South African secrecy memo …

Jeff Sharlet: My favorite document in the entire archives. This was, I think, sometime in the '80s, the Family was very involved in South Africa supporting a right-wing black movement lead by Mangosuthu Buthelezi. They were part of a group of white South Africans cultivating him. A Family operative wrote a letter to a colleague saying, "You've got to be very careful, those outside we don't understand. That's why we do things through networks and friendships and travel around. Never put anything too specific on paper." The guy wrote back: "I understand, I've made copies of this for all my co-workers." I don't know whether he was passive aggressive, or just dumb as a brick.

Lindsay Beyerstein: In the book you say that the Family treats powerful women like Hillary Clinton as if they belonged to a kind of "third gender" that's female but not subordinate like ordinary women …

Jeff Sharlet: When I was at Ivanwald, I'd see these young women as servants. They came from wealthy families. They were women who have a lot of privileges in life. You'd have expected to have gone on to great things because they started with a big push [ LB Note: But the Family had them scrubbing floors and serving coffee. ] Then a woman political leader would come around and it would be a whole different story.

There are wives like Grace Nelson, wife of conservative Democrat Bill Nelson. Bill was an astronaut -- still has a spacesuit. He still wears it for occasions.

Lindsay Beyerstein: The suit still fits?

Jeff Sharlet: He's quite trim, I'll give him that. But Grace is obviously the political mover and shaker in that couple. She served on board of the Fellowship Foundation. Still, she's just the wife, secondary. Same with Joanne Kemp. Jack Kemp is a pretty aggressive leader, but it was Joanne who brought Christian ideas to Washington to start the Schaeffer Foundation nonprofit for the study of these ideas.

Two ways third gender works in the Family: There are these very strong wives who oftentimes are very strong-willed people. I'm just reading Katherine Joyce's book on Quiverfull … And the other are women like Hillary Clinton, who's just a man as far as they're concerned.

Lindsay Beyerstein: What's Hillary's involvement with the Family? What is she getting out of it?

Jeff Sharlet: As I was researching the book, I knew Hillary had this strange connection. I didn't think much of it until I was reporting on Sen. Sam Brownback. Everyone knew I was a reporter from "Rolling Stone," probably more liberal than they were. So, a way that a lot of Family people would reach out to be friendly was to tell me that Hillary Clinton was OK with them. They'd tell me that HRC was going for regular spiritual counseling with Doug Coe.

Lindsay Beyerstein: Is she still getting counseling from him?

Jeff Sharlet: This was in 2005, and she refused to say anything about this. When NBC questioned her about this, her only answer was that (she's) not a member and (she) has never given Doug Coe money -- which was a strangely parsed kind of answer.

Lindsay Beyerstein: The Family has some strange ideas about what it means to be chosen by God. Tell me about the incident in the book when Doug Coe's son, David Coe, dropped by Ivanwald to give the brothers instruction on chosenness.

Jeff Sharlet: David Coe used to be the heir apparent in the Family. He's still involved in ministry to congressmen, and at the time he was also meeting with Hillary. He'd come around to talk to the young guys at Ivanwald to talk about his vision of Biblical leadership. One day he says to brother Beau: "Suppose I heard you'd raped three little girls, what would I think of you?" Beau, being a human being, says, "That I'm pretty bad?" But David Coe says: "No, no, I wouldn't. Because you're chosen … like King David."

Lindsay Beyerstein: Does the Family have a different perspective on sexual morality than mainstream fundamentalism?

Jeff Sharlet: In one sense, their sexual morality is a very restrictive, traditional, fundamentalist morality. Yet one of their major influences was Frank Buchman of Moral Re-Armament in the 1930s. He was all but "out" as gay. But he was also one of the early architects of anti-gay invective on the Christian right. He even wrote a pamphlet on how to spot gay men: their green shoes and their affection for suede.

Lindsay Beyerstein: Explicit sexual confession in small groups is a big deal in the Family, right?

Jeff Sharlet: Yes. I started paying attention when I visited Westmont College, a major recruiting base for the Family. Some of the professors are very concerned about the focus on small group sex confessions: Parents are spending $80,000 to send their kids to college, and they go off to become a driver for Doug Coe. Then they tell their parents that they sat in a circle and talked about masturbation. Of course, they don't do that sort of thing at the weekly prayer meeting in the Senate.

Sam Brownback told me, there are two functions of sexual confession: You confess, and they help you. You say, "My girlfriend and I almost held hands the other day." And they say "Don't do it, brother!" It's also a way of creating a bond in the group: If I have had gay thoughts and I tell the group, then they have something on me. And if you say you've cheated on your wife, they have something on you.

Lindsay Beyerstein: Kind of a mutually assured destruction?

Jeff Sharlet: Yeah.

Lindsay Beyerstein: An interesting paradox comes through in the book. The Family is both revolutionary and elitist. They see themselves as warriors fighting to remake the world, but really they are the establishment.

Jeff Sharlet: All that revolutionary rhetoric serves a very status quo version of the world. The real threat of the right is not what they're going to do, but what they've done. You have to consider what happens in America, which is part of the empire, versus what happens in the rest of the world. Here, they think things should stay as they are. Like rolling back FDR's New Deal. FDR came along and said, "Let's change things." The Family said no.

Lindsay Beyerstein: So, you have to consider what happens in America, which is part of the empire, versus what happens in the rest of the world.

Jeff Sharlet: All that revolutionary rhetoric serves a very status quo version of the world. The real threat of the right is not what they're going to do, but what they've done. You have to consider what happens in America, which is part of the empire, versus what happens in the rest of the world. Here, they think things should stay as they are. Like rolling back FDR's New Deal. FDR came along and said, "Let's change things." The Family said no.

Abroad, Suharto was supporting very violent revolution that reasserted hierarchical control. People had gotten out from under colonial yoke; if they go democratic, they might choose socialism or whatever. But Suharto came along and reasserted the hierarchy.

Lindsay Beyerstein: So, the Family loves the revolutionary rhetoric, but they're really about keeping things the way they are?

Jeff Sharlet: It's about the co-optation of cool by Madison Avenue. Counterculture is cool, and it's the bestselling tool ever. Capitalism has always had this understanding that we could use this counterculture rhetoric (as an alternative to communist rhetoric). In the 1950s, Eisenhower recognized that the rhetoric of communism was much more appealing to the average person than rhetoric of capitalism. "Everyone's going to share" is more appealing than "If you're lucky, you'll make a living, and if you're not lucky, it's your own damned fault and you'll suffer."

So, the government in a big way turns toward the Religious Right to market capitalism. It flopped. So, they tried spreading people's capitalism by focusing on the love part.

The right understood that in a way that the left doesn't. A left that organizes itself solely in a reactionary way is missing something. You can't just say: "Look, another corrupt Bush official!" No. What's needed is a much more joyful politics.

Lindsay Beyerstein is a New York writer blogging at majikthise.typepad.com