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The Family: The Secret Fundamentalism at the Heart of American Powerby Jeff Sharlet
Synopses & Reviews
They are the Family—fundamentalism's avant-garde, waging spiritual war in the halls of American power and around the globe. They consider themselves the new chosen—congressmen, generals, and foreign dictators who meet in confidential cells, to pray and plan for a "leadership led by God," to be won not by force but through "quiet diplomacy." Their base is a leafy estate overlooking the Potomac in Arlington, Virginia, and Jeff Sharlet is the only journalist to have reported from inside its walls.
The Family is about the other half of American fundamentalist power—not its angry masses, but its sophisticated elites. Sharlet follows the story back to Abraham Vereide, an immigrant preacher who in 1935 organized a small group of businessmen sympathetic to European fascism, fusing the far right with his own polite but authoritarian faith. From that core, Vereide built an international network of fundamentalists who spoke the language of establishment power, a "family" that thrives to this day. In public, they host Prayer Breakfasts; in private, they preach a gospel of "biblical capitalism," military might, and American empire. Citing Hitler, Lenin, and Mao as leadership models, the Family's current leader, Doug Coe, declares, "We work with power where we can, build new power where we can't."
Sharlet's discoveries dramatically challenge conventional wisdom about American fundamentalism, revealing its crucial role in the unraveling of the New Deal, the waging of the cold war, and the no-holds-barred economics of globalization. The question Sharlet believes we must ask is not "What do fundamentalists want?" but "What have they already done?"
Part history, part investigative journalism, The Family is a compelling account of how fundamentalism came to be interwoven with American power, a story that stretches from the religious revivals that have shaken this nation from its beginning to fundamentalism's new frontiers. No other book about the right has exposed the Family or revealed its far-reaching impact on democracy, and no future reckoning of American fundamentalism will be able to ignore it.
"Checking in on a friend's brother at Ivenwald, a Washington-based fundamentalist group living communally in Arlington, Va., religion and journalism scholar Sharlet finds a sect whose members refer to Manhattan's Ground Zero as 'the ruins of secularism'; intrigued, Sharlet accepts on a whim an invitation to stay at Ivenwald. He's shocked to find himself in the stronghold of a widespread 'invisible' network, organized into cells much like Ivenwald, and populated by elite, politically ambitious fundamentalists; Sharlet is present when a leader tells a dozen men living there, 'You guys are here to learn how to rule the world.' As it turns out, the Family was established in 1935 to oppose FDR's New Deal and the spread of trade unions; since then, it has organized well-attended weekly prayer meetings for members of Congress and annual National Prayer Breakfasts attended by every president since Eisenhower. Further, the Family's international reach ('almost impossible to overstate') has 'forged relationships between the U.S. government and some of the most oppressive regimes in the world.' In the years since his first encounter, Sharlet has done extensive research, and his thorough account of the Family's life and times is a chilling expose." Publishers Weekly (Copyright Reed Business Information, Inc.)
In the film version of "All the President's Men," Deep Throat castigates Bob Woodward for his uncorroborated accusations against H.R. Haldeman. "You've done worse than let Haldeman slip away," Deep Throat says. "You've got people feeling sorry for him. I didn't think that was possible. ... If you shoot too high and miss, everybody feels more secure." The same might be said about... Washington Post Book Review (read the entire Washington Post review) Jeff Sharlet's book about a loose coalition of religiously conservative individuals and organizations that operates in and around the councils of power in Washington. This group, which goes by various names — Cornerstone, Fellowship Foundation or, more generically, "the Family" — is responsible for the National Prayer Breakfast, but it also functions as a religious, social and political network for generals and bureaucrats and politicians with surnames like Grassley, Inhofe, Colson, Brownback, Quayle, Pryor and Thune. Sharlet finagled a month-long residence at the Family's estate in Arlington, a combination seminary, boot camp and retreat center for the powerful and those who hope to join their ranks. "You guys," one of the Family's operatives told the residents, "are here to learn how to rule the world." Sharlet, an engaging writer with a keen eye, passed himself off as a religious seeker. (He indicates that he did not lie about his intentions since, at the time, he was working on a book about religious communities and "had no thought of investigative reporting.") In meetings at the estate and conversations with fellow aspirants, the author discovered a right-leaning political ideology informed by deference to capitalism, a weakness for foreign dictators and a fascination with the leadership techniques of Adolf Hitler; according to Sharlet, Fellowship members repeatedly cited Hitler's rise as an example of the power of a "covenant" between a leader and his followers. The book's second section attempts to trace the historical origins of the Family, how it has "taken root directly at the center of American democracy." Here, Sharlet points an accusatory finger at Jonathan Edwards and Charles Grandison Finney, the respective leaders of the First and Second Great Awakenings in the 18th and 19th centuries, whom he calls the "forebears" of American fundamentalism. But Edwards, arguably America's greatest theologian, was notoriously oblivious to social and political interactions; he would be befuddled by the Family's political machinations. Finney, who devoted his entire career to improving the lot of those at the margins of society, would be appalled by the kind of elitist, anti-union sentiments that Sharlet attributes to the Family. The author's sophomoric attempt to associate Religious Right politics with Edwards and Finney would be akin to linking John Kerry or Joseph Biden to the anti-Semitic radio priest Charles E. Coughlin simply because all three men were Roman Catholics. As he carries his narrative into the 20th century, Sharlet increasingly teeters on the edge of paranoia. He exaggerates the influence of the Family, first by conflating it with all fundamentalists, then by conflating fundamentalists with evangelicals, ignoring the divisions within and among those camps. He has an explanation for why few outsiders recognize the Family's power: Back in the mid-'60s, the core group behind the National Prayer Breakfast decided that its "business would be conducted on the letterhead of public men, who would testify that Fellowship initiatives were their own," he writes ominously. "The Fellowship was going underground." Adding to the air of mystery and intrigue, Sharlet claims that a "gorgeous blonde" unaccountably confessed at the end of a three-hour, wine-soaked lunch that "she'd been sent to spy on me" by the Family. But he directs most of his musings about secrecy and power at Doug Coe, the elusive — if not quite reclusive — head of the Family, whose aversion to publicity makes him, paradoxically, a target of speculation. (When I worked as an intern on Capitol Hill during the summer of 1975, I lodged with other interns at a sorority house on the University of Maryland campus that had been leased for that purpose by Coe's group; the tenants invoked the name "Doug Coe" in hushed, almost worshipful tones, but as I recall he never materialized at this outpost of his empire.) A generous reading of Coe's elusiveness might be that, as a minister, he prefers to encourage others from behind the scenes rather than push himself into the limelight. But Sharlet brooks no such generosity; he sees portents of theocracy everywhere and asserts, without foundation, that "the Family's long-term project of a worldwide government under God is more ambitious than Al Qaeda's dream of a Sunni empire." When he encounters evidence that contradicts his meticulously fabricated schematic, Sharlet glosses over or tries to ignore it. Take, for example, former senators Mark O. Hatfield of Oregon and Harold E. Hughes of Iowa, who had close ties with Coe; both were distinguished liberals with little patience for dictators. Sharlet isn't sure what to do with Hatfield, and he dismisses Hughes as "kooky." By the third section of the book, which appears to be a reworking of articles Sharlet has published in other venues, any vestige of coherence has dissipated. These essays — about Sen. Sam Brownback and the Rev. Ted Haggard, home schooling and the sexual abstinence movement — are interesting in their own right, but they add little to the book other than to serve as a reminder that Sharlet's true metier is the journalistic feature rather than a sustained argument. Are there reasons to be wary of an organization that seeks to insinuate its members into the highest echelons of government? Yes, perhaps so, although it's not clear that the Family is any different in that regard from, say, the Council on Foreign Relations or the Yale secret society Skull and Bones. If Sharlet had confined his critique to specific policies, such as the attempts to frustrate action on global warming by Family associates Chuck Colson and James Inhofe, for example, or if he had focused on this ostensibly religious group's fixation with temporal power, he might have produced a useful book. Instead, he shoots too high. And misses. Randall Balmer is professor of American religious history at Barnard College, Columbia University, and a visiting professor at Yale Divinity School. His latest book is "God in the White House: How Faith Shaped the Presidency from John F. Kennedy to George W. Bush." Reviewed by Randall Balmer, Washington Post Book World (Copyright 2006 Washington Post Book World Service/Washington Post Writers Group)
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About the Author
Jeff Sharlet is a visiting research scholar at New York University's Center for Religion and Media. He is a contributing editor for Harper's and Rolling Stone, the coauthor, with
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