A Journalist's Archive

The Family
Jeff Sharlet
Reviewed by Kathy Hare

          Frightening is the best word to describe “The Family,” by Jeff Sharlet. Subtitled “The Secret Fundamentalism at the Heart of American Power,” this well-researched nonfiction unveils a network of “prayer groups” designed more to garner political power than divine intervention. Armed with the slogan “Jesus plus nothing,” the movement cares nothing for the constitutional separation between church and state. Sharlet invented the term “American fundamentalists” to describe an exclusive club of influential people whose spiritual and political activities are impossible to separate. Member and Watergate felon Charles Colson describes the Family as “a veritable underground of Christ’s men all through government.” But Sharlet said the Family is a “seventy-year-old movement of elite fundamentalism, bent not on salvation for all but on the cultivation of the powerful, ‘key men,’ chosen by God to direct the affairs of the nation.”

Generals, congressmen, senators, and corporate CEO’s forge relationships with “The Fellowship,” aka “The Family,” at the Cedars, a large mansion in Arlington, Virginia. Or in small prayer groups which gather in the halls of Congress or the Pentagon. But the Family’s political sway reaches far beyond the beltway; it even extends beyond America’s borders. And, unfortunately, that theocratic power has been used to support despots in the Caribbean, Europe, Africa, and Asia.

          But let’s begin with Sharlet’s use of the term “secret.” “The Fellowship,” founded in 1935 by Abram Vereide, has hosted the National Prayer Breakfast since 1953.The breakfast is held on the first Thursday in February and every president since Dwight D. Eisenhower has participated in the event. So how can Sharlet justify the use of the “secret” in his subtitle? Well in spite of the annual event, neither Vereide nor Douglass Coe, the Family’s spiritual leader since 1966, are household names.  Few voters know if their political representative is a member or a “friend” of the Family. Even less of us have any idea how much influence this private religious club wields in the formation of national and international policies.

Early in the formation of the Family, Vereide decided “God works through men who stay behind the scenes.” Sharlet said Vereide counseled more presidents, kings, senators and generals than Billy Graham. His was the moving force behind having the words “under God” placed in the pledge of allegiance in 1954. And when South Vietnam’s Ngo Dinh Diem “profoundly corrupt” régime sought military aid, it was Abram and his colleges who pushed for “a hard and fast military commitment.”

When Coe took over the reins, he made a conscious decision to take the group further underground. Sharlet asserts Coe’s plan allows the organization to remain shrouded in secrecy as it “hides in plain sight.” Under-the-radar political influence was what Coe wanted and got. When a reporter asked Ronald Reagan about the “Fellowship” in 1985 he quipped: “I wish I could say more about it, but it works precisely because it is private.”

          Sharlet, a journalism and religious studies scholar, got an insider’s view of the Family in 2001.  An acquaintance named Zeke invited him to Ivanwald, a house on the same grounds as the Cedars that is used to educate the next generation of “brothers.” When Sharlet asked if being a Jew might be an impediment to admission, Zeke answered, “We’re not even Christian, we just follow Christ.” That confusing statement sparked Sharlet’s interest. What he found at Ivanwald was an atmosphere designed to bond “brothers” together through prayer, work, and play. The brothers raked leaves, cleaned gutters, and did general maintenance on the grounds during the day, and played games in the evening. Sharlet didn’t go to Ivanwald with any intention to write about the experience. But the spell Ivanwald created among the brothers, along with insights to the Family presented by Charles Colson and Doug Coe, exposed him to the heart of American fundamentalism. He spent the next several years in “dusty archives” researching its history, extended networks, and political clout.

The extensive history of the fundamentalist movement in this country date back to the 1700’s, and Sharlet covers all the major players. But I think Vereide’s background is most significant because he is the creator of this pseudo-branch of fundamentalism. A Norwegian immigrant, Vereide was 18 years old when he arrived in the U.S. in 1905 wearing shoes made from the skin of a goat he had slaughtered himself.  His rags to riches journey took time, but by the 1920’s he “directed Seattle’s division of Goodwill Industries,” where he organized “49,000 housewives” to scout out household goods for the poor. His division was so successful that Franklin D. Roosevelt invited him to New York in 1932, so Roosevelt could learn more about Vereide’s organization system. There he met the president of the United States Steel Corporation, James Farrell. Enamored by powerful men, Vereide said his mission on earth was to counsel the mighty. He began with a businessmen’s prayer breakfast in Seattle. Only one of the 19 men invited to the first breakfast attended church. That didn’t bother Vereide; he believed Jesus “must be disentangled from church organization.” Facing union strikes during the Great Depression, businessmen found solace in Vereide’s prayer groups.

His network of influence grew after World War II, when the all-out battle against the Red Menace became a national priority. Yet Vereide had no problem befriending former Nazis – as long as they believed in Jesus. Sharlet reports Vereide’s followers believe in free enterprise, are anti-union and staunchly anti-communist. Membership is by invitation only and neither political nor church affiliations are a major consideration for admission. Those with political or economic power, or the connections to it, can be welcomed additions to the Family.  Thus, such strange political bedfellows as Hillary Clinton and Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas are both considered to be “friends” of the Family.

“Theological orthodoxy” isn’t a part of Doug Coe’s belief system either. He got to know Vereide through friend/mentor Dawson Trotman, “the founder of a worldwide ministry called the Navigators.”  Coe tells how Jesus spoke to him while he was on a retreat at Glen Eyrie Castle in Colorado Springs. He said Jesus’ message to him was to “Obey and teach.” And a statement by former Secretary of State James Baker shows how far Coe’s tutelage extends. Baker said when he landed in Albania after the fall of communism the first words the foreign minister said to him were, “I greet you in the name of Doug Coe.” Sharlet questions whether Coe’s calling included backing mass-murderers such as Papa Doc in Haiti and Suharto in Indonesia. But Coe explained his association with these less-than-Christian men by saying, “We work with power where we can,” and “build new power where we can’t.”

Sharlet covers all the big evangelical establishments in Colorado Springs. And I’m sure many readers may not like what he has to say. So read this book with a critical eye. Go ahead - dig into the notes and check Sharlet’s sources. But read the book! Once you’re finished “The Family,” ask yourself if their activities can be justified because all was done in the name of Jesus. If your answer is “yes,” then please substitute the name Mohammad for Jesus and see if you get the same answer.  

“The Family” is a frightening story because Sharlet exposes a theocratic power with a firm base in American politics. Thomas Jefferson first spoke about the need for a “wall of separation” between church and state in 1802. The theocratic governments existing in the world today offer very little personal freedom. “The Family” makes readers ask, “Will the one in our backyard be any different?”

First published in The New Falcon Herald
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