Human Rights

The Family's Values: America's Most Influential (and Secretive) Religious Organization

Jeff Sharlet's <i>The Family</i> will leave you stunned by the religious motivations behind seemingly every political decision in the last 70 years.
Jeff Sharlet's The Family is a hair-raising account that will leave you stunned by the religious motivations behind seemingly every political decision in the last 70 years. As the title suggests, Sharlet's book focuses on the Family, a highly secretive, elite fundamentalist organization that wields political power behind the scenes. The Family, also known as the Fellowship, believes in God-driven government whose precepts are spread by top level, "key men" throughout the world. This is creepy religious imperialism at its most harrowing, which Sharlet delivers through fascinating historical accounts blended with personal anecdotes of the year he spent living with the Family in its picturesque estate along the Potomac River, Ivanwald.

Having covered all manner of religious sects for Rolling Stone and Harper's, Sharlet's intentions for living at Ivanwald were innocuous at first. What he encountered was so disturbing, however, that he felt compelled to investigate the Family's shadowy role in shaping elite American fundamentalism into a highly effective political tool. The Family is much more than its National Prayer Breakfasts, which have been presided over by every President for the last 50 years since Eisenhower helped launch them in 1953. As Sharlet writes, "the Family's long-term project of a worldwide government under God is more ambitious than Al Qaeda's dream of a Sunni empire."

Sharlet masterfully weaves through the underpinnings of elite fundamentalism, as he discusses Jonathan Edwards's Great Awakening and Charles Grandison Finney's populist evangelicalism. In doing so, he hits upon a love of power that is both "divine and worldly," which simultaneously explicates the Family's core principles and America's soft empire.

Since the Family is only as powerful as its leaders, it comes as no surprise that Sharlet devotes the majority of the book to the influence of Family founder Abraham "Abram" Vereide and his successor (the Family's current head) Doug Coe. It was Abram who thought up "the Idea" of trickle-down faith spread by "key men" to the elite leaders around the world -- the Family's prevailing ethos being "every Christian a leader, every leader a Christian." And it was Abram who decided that organized labor had no place in an elite fundamentalist worldview that catered to CEOs and dictatorial leaders. Of course, polite Christians couldn't very well attack or destroy labor unions, but they could force them into "cooperation."

It was also Abram who epitomized the Family's fascination with fascism. Early on, you get a sense that perhaps the Family's authoritarian interests derive from their warped desire to emulate such power structures within their own organization, sans bloodshed or genocide. "Doug Coe listed other men who had changed the world through the strength of the covenants they had forged with their 'brothers,'" writes Sharlets. "'Look at Hitler,' he said. 'Lenin, Ho Chi Minh, bin Laden.' The Family possessed a weapon those leaders lacked: the 'total Jesus' of a brotherhood in Christ."

When Sharlet explores Abram's past, however, you come to grim realization that the Family's fascist leanings are literal as well as metaphorical. Abram didn't merely form bonds with vicious anti-Semites like Henry Ford, Merwin Hart, Charles Lindbergh, or Frank Buchman, who once said, "I thank heaven for a man like Adolf Hitler." He also cavorted with Nazis in postwar Germany, ostensibly in an attempt to orchestrate the country's "moral rehabilitation."

Sharlet suggests that no one is beyond the Family's reach. First you have your usual suspects: Ed Meese, Reagan's anti-porn attorney general who once helped secure an oil pipeline for Saddam Hussein; Chuck Colson, the Watergate criminal who was "born again" and started his powerful faith-based Prison Fellowship initiative; and Rep. Joe Pitts and Sen. Sam Brownback, who united over their hatred of reproductive rights but also to push lucrative energy trade deals in Central Asian nations with awful human rights records (in part to stop the spread of Islam). Then you have your drop-in visitors like Clarence Thomas, who retreated to Ivanwald during the Anita Hill scandal, or President Ford, who prayed with his small prayer group (or "cell") before pardoning Nixon. Even both Bushes, who are technically not members of the Family themselves, are considered Family "relations" because they have surrounded themselves with Family members such as James Baker, Jack Kemp, Dan Quayle, and John Ashcroft.

And then there's Hillary Clinton, who as First Lady joined a Family prayer group with the wives of James Baker, Jack Kemp, Dennis Bakke, and Bill Nelson. Clinton praised Family leader Doug Coe in her memoir: "Doug Coe, the longtime National Prayer Breakfast organizer, is 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." Clinton's Family ties led to her collaboration with Brownback and Colson on anti-sex trafficking legislation, which gave money to faith-based groups preaching Christ and abstinence to foreign sex slaves, while stripping funds from federal organizations that provided health care to prostitutes. Clinton also pushed for the Religious Freedom Act, which put the monitoring of the world's religions in the hands on an evangelical agency. And her hawkish stance on Iran, Sharlet contends, is in keeping with the Family's elite fundamentalist views as well.

Even more startling than the Family's relationship with Clinton, however, is its support of brutal dictators. Not only did Family members in Congress push for the United States' proxy wars against the so-called threat of Communism, but they also reached out to some of the most ruthless mass murderers of the 20th century. Francois "Papa Doc" Duvalier impressed Senators on the Foreign Relations Committee (Family members) so much that they pushed an alliance that offered foreign aid and sugar tariffs exemptions. Gen. Park Chung Hee of South Korea used the Family to channel illegal funds to Nixon's congressional candidates.

Perhaps most disturbingly, Coe personally helped Gen. Suharto of Indonesia create his own Indonesian National Prayer Breakfast to commemorate the decree by which Suharto took power and slaughtered hundreds of thousands of Indonesians. The dictator list goes on and on: Somalia's Siad Barre, Angola's Jonas Savimbi; Brazil's Costa e Silva, Uganda's Yoweri Museveni. In defending his friendships with these dictators, Coe said in 1997, "They come to me. And I do what Jesus did: I don't turn my back to any one. You know, the Bible is full of mass murderers."

If these dictators did indeed approach Coe, as he suggested, it was because they understood the Family's political influence. It was Biarre's loyalty to Coe and the Family, for instance, that gained him access to Reagan, which subsequently doubled Somalia's military aid budget. And it was Suharto's Family connections that garnered him President Ford's blessing (and U.S. bullets) for seizing East Timor and slaughtering hundreds of thousands in 1975. More than anything else, the Family-forged backroom deals make The Family a head-spinning read. Just as it does for Sharlet, who, in a rare blowup in the book, wants to lash out at a Family member who asks him to consider joining the Family after reading Sharlet's excerpted piece in Harper's last year. These are the deals that benefit the dictators and CEOs of the world at the devastating expense of the general public, some of which left me wondering if these foreign dictators actually believed in Coe's version of Christianity, or were they merely usurping the Family's power?

But The Family is much more than a who's who of 20th century religio-politics. It's more like a fascinating family tree, which strips the bark to reveal a sturdy core belief in "Jesus plus nothing," and then takes you from branch to branch, each more dizzying than the last.

Note: Don't miss Lindsay Beyerstein's AlterNet interview with author Jeff Sharlet about "The Family."

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Zack Pelta-Heller is a regular contributor to AlterNet.