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Sharlet - The Family (2008) - Synopsis

Sharlet - The Family (2008) - Synopsis

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Published by Mark K. Jensen
Synopsis of Jeff Sharlet, The Family: The Secret Fundamentalism at the Heart of American Power (New York: Harper/HarperCollins, May 2008; paperback June 2009). -- Discussed at Digging Deeper (www.ufppc.org) on September 21, 2009.
Synopsis of Jeff Sharlet, The Family: The Secret Fundamentalism at the Heart of American Power (New York: Harper/HarperCollins, May 2008; paperback June 2009). -- Discussed at Digging Deeper (www.ufppc.org) on September 21, 2009.

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Published by: Mark K. Jensen on Sep 21, 2009
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UFPPC (www.ufppc.org) — Digging Deeper XCVI: September 21, 2009, 7:00 p.m. 
 Jeff Sharlet,
The Family: The Secret Fundamentalism at the Heart of AmericanPower 
(New York: Harper/HarperCollins, May 2008; paperback June 2009).
[
Thesis.
 
The Family 
is “about two greatspheres of belief, religion and politics,and the ways in which they are boundtogether by the mythologies of America”(2) in a little-known and looselyorganized fundamentalist group knownby names like as “the Family” and “theFellowship” that has come to play animportant role in American and worldpolitics. The organization is “a secretive,undemocratic organization that aid[s]and abet[s] dictators” (243) whoseilliberalism has its greatest harmfuleffects outside U.S. borders, servingchiefly to maintain the socioeconomicstatus quo inside the U.S.][
Critique.
The Family 
is idiosyncraticallystructured; important statements of theme are placed in out-of-the wayplaces and important information isburied in the notes. The central partof the book (Introduction & Chapters 2-9)can be considered a first draft of thehistory of American fundamentalism’ssuccessful penetration of the halls of power in the U.S.; despite substantialresearch, Sharlet’s narrative is sketchy atmany key points. Chapters 12 and 13are set pieces on Americanfundamentalism’s “purity movement”and “Christian education” movement,respectively. The other chapters (10, 11,& 14) are based on interviews (not all of which pertain to the Family) that are partof the author’s ongoing exploration of American religious life, a quest that givesthe book its unity. Though a scholar,Sharlet is not always precise. He doesnot date his visit to Ivanwald, forexample, and his accounts of the life of  Jonathan Edwards and other significantfigures in the history of American religionare partial and impressionistic. As hesays in a note, he “mean[s] to simplysingle out the strand . . . that I believe ismost relevant to the genealogy of American fundamentalism as it hasappeared in recent times” (402 n.7). Unlike authors like Chris Hedges, whoargued in
 American Fascists
(2007) thatAmerican dominionist fundamentalistsare heretics who constitute a dangerousfascistic political movement, Sharletargues that American fundamentalismdoes not threaten fascism inside the U.S.,where it is chiefly devoted to maintainingthe status quo, and he criticizes scholarswho have do not acknowledge or whohave not understood thatfundamentalism is a constant strand inAmerican history. Sharlet writes withflair but not always correctly. Forexample, he writes “Edwards exalted”(65) when he means “Edwards exulted”and “If I was a believer” (371) instead of “If I were a believer.”
The Family 
wouldhave benefited from another thoroughrewrite.
Introduction: The Avant-Garde of American Fundamentalism.
Ivanwald is a group of “brothers” living inArlington, VA, with whom Sharlet lived fora month (1-3). They are part of an avant-garde, calling itself “the Family” or “theFellowship” (3), of “
 Americanfundamentalism
, a movement that,paradoxically given its origins, recaststheology in the language of empire” (3,emphasis in original; “The Family’sinterests have always tended towardforeign affairs” [381]) in which thefollowers of “the wild Christ” are “findingcommon cause” with “the old, upper-crust Jesus” (5).
I: AWAKENINGSCh. 1: Ivanwald.
Sharlet arrives atIvanwald, recommended by “Zeke” (13-18). The Family is “an ‘invisible’
 
association . . . organized around publicmen” (18). Two dozen prominent U.S.officials identified as members (18-19 &395-96n). It is a “private” associationthat avoids the label “Christian” (19).Meetings have been held in thePentagon; it has “strong ties withbusinessmen in the oil and aerospaceindustries” (19). It is organized, indeliberate imitation of Communistsubversives, in “cells” (19-21). Foundedby Abraham (Abram) Vereide; its leadersince 1969 has been Doug Coe [born1928] (21), who believes Jesus preferspower to piety. The Family is the contextof money flows but is not a financialentity (21-22). Its only publicizedgathering is the National PrayerBreakfast, an annual power networkingevent (22-27). The ethos at “theCedars,” which Ivanwald cares for (27-30). Doug Coe indoctrinating Todd Tiahrt(R-KS 4
th
) (30-31). Bible reading atIvanwald (31-33). Initiation (33-35).David Coe (Doug Coe’s fortysomethingson) on election and obedience (35-38).Portrait of Jeff C., house leader (38-42). The family consists of non-sectarian“neo-evangelicals” who are resistant to“any kind of ethics,” for whom humanbeings are “nothing,” good only forobedience to the Lord (42-44). Thefamily might be considered non-sectarian“neo-evangelicals” but at Ivanwald“appear closer to . . .
dominionism
” (44,emphasis in original). Family documents(44-47). Revising an essay by Bengt,Sharlet concludes that “Not foraesthetics alone . . . did Bengt and theFamily reject the label
Christian.
Theirfaith and their practice seemed closer toa perverted sort of Buddhism, their Christeverywhere and nowhere at once. . . .And what the Family desired, fromAbraham Vereide to Doug Coe to Bengt,was power, worldly power, with whichChrist’s kingdom could be built, cell bycell” (51; 47-51). Doug Coe visitsIvanwald, speaks on
 prayer 
and
covenant 
(51-55).
Ch. 2: Experimental Religion.
Havingstumbled into it by chance, Sharlet hasbeen “chasing the story” of the Familyever since (56). “The Family’s long-termproject of a worldwide government underGod is more ambitious than Al Qaeda’sdream of a Sunni empire” (57). Americanpiety’s most important roots are in Jonathan Edwards [1703-1758], “theauthor of the Great Awakening,” in whichChrist is “a feeling, a conviction, asentimental commitment to manifestdestiny on a personal level, with nationalimplications” (59; 60; 58-61). “[T]heFamily began [in 1935] as abusinessmen’s antilabor alliance inSeattle,” but its origins ultimately lie in“the dream of a Christian nation” (61). Jonathan Edwards’s notion of religion (61-63). Edwards and the conversion of Abigail Hutchinson, discussed in his
 AFaithful Narrative…
(1737) (63-68).Edwards’s later life (68-72).
Ch. 3: The Revival Machine.
CharlesGrandison Finney [1792-1875], founderof the Broadway Tabernacle in New YorkCity and of modern public revivalism (73-83).
II: JESUS PLUS NOTHINGCh. 4: Unit Number One.
Abraham(Abram) Vereide [1886-1969], born 60miles north of Bergen, Norway, was apreacher and immigrant in Seattle who in1935 felt a call to minister to the “topmen” of society and pursued “an elitefundamentalism” (91; 87-92; throughoutthis book Sharlet refers to him asAbram”). Vereide’s early life (92-96).Director in the 1920s of Seattle’s divisionof Goodwill Industries (96). In 1932, headvised Gov. Franklin D. Roosevelt onNew York about organization and met James A. Farrell, president of U.S. Steel,who spoke of America’s need for religiousrevival (96-97). He focused on the RedMenace and identified the enemy as “B,”apparently an amalgam of Seattle Teamster leader Dave Beck and Wobbly-
 
influenced longshoreman leader HarryBridges (98-103). The 1934 SanFrancisco waterfront strike (104-08).After the strike, Vereide conceived amanly Christianity that rejected theSocial Gospel and eschewed formalchurch organization but preachedobedience to God among “top men”(108-13).
Ch. 5: The
F
Word.
Arthur B. Langlie,representing a group of youngbusinessmen called the New Order of Cincinnatus with soft-fascistic and anti-Semitic leanings, became mayor of Seattle and then governor of WashingtonState (114-24). But through figures likeFrank Buchman [1878-1961], promoter of “Moral Re-Armament” in the 1930s, using“Quiet Time” in which the believer sought“Guidance” from God (124-30),Christianity proved a barrier to thepersonality-centered fascism that arosein Europe (130-33). Inspired by HarryEmerson Fosdick’s call for a modernizedChristianity, Bruce Barton, the author of 
The Man Nobody Knows
(1925),promoted an idea of Jesus as a successfulorganization man (133-37). A sort of “Babbitt cult” developed of manlyAmerican businessmen, which AbramVereide promoted in Washington, D.C.; inpractice this encouraged violent hostilityto progressive causes like labor rightsand racial equality that effected thebeginning of the dismantling of the NewDeal (137-43 ).
Ch. 6: The Ministry of ProperEnlightenment.
Manfred Zapp, aGestapo agent in the U.S. in the late1930s, became an anti-Communist zealotafter the war who advised Abram Vereide(144-52). American fundamentalistsafter the war worked to infuse their visioninto the American Cold War agenda (152-55). With the help of heiress MarianAymar Johnson, Vereide bought a four-story mansion at 2324 Mass. Ave. onEmbassy Row in Washington, D.C. (156).In 1946 Vereide went to Germany to findex-Nazis ready to embrace Christ and“help forge the new West German state”(165; 157-68). Vereide’s efforts to helpelite Germans after the war (168-77).But Konrad Adenauer was suspicious of American fundamentalism and Vereide’sinfluence in Germany was limited (177-80).
Ch. 7: The Blob.
“The Blob” (a 1958film) grew out of one of Abram’s prayerbreakfasts as an allegory for creepingCommunism (181-82). The Cold War hasdistorted political and religiousterminology (“liberal,” “conservative,”“fundamentalist”) in the U.S. (182-83).Vereide cultivated J. Edgar Hoover andexerted an influence on Billy Graham andU.S. Cuba policy (183-86). Vereide’sclosest ally in the Senate was FrankCarlson (R-KS), who advocated a“Worldwide Spiritual Offensive,”promoted Eisenhower’s presidentialcandidacy, and then promoted Vereide’snotion of a divinely infused big-tentconservativism (186-95). The foundingof the Presidential Prayer Breakfast in1953 (195-98). McCarthyism drove evenits opponents to adopt fundamentalistthemes, as I.F. Stone perceived (198-201). Secretary of Defense Charles E.Wilson “allowed prayer cells to proliferatewithin the Pentagon” and embraced aFellowship propaganda project developedby John C. Broger (on Vereide’s payroll)called “Militant Liberty” (201-04).
Ch. 8: Vietnamization.
Clifton J.Robinson, active for the Fellowship inVietnam, was a contender to succeedVereide (205-08). So was RichardHalverson (209-10). But Doug Coe, fromOregon, a physics major at Willamette,was his successor in 1969 (208-12).Coe’s charismatic personality (212). Hisministry addressed issues more personal(e.g. feminism’s challenge to genderroles and homosexuality) than Vereide’s(213-14). Coe took an interest in Haitiand other foreign countries (215-16). Herecommended that protégés study

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