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Jeff Sharlet, The Family: The Secret Fundamentalism at the Heart of American Power (New York: Harper/HarperCollins, May 2008; paperback June 2009). [Thesis. The Family is “about two great spheres of belief, religion and politics, and the ways in which they are bound together by the mythologies of America” (2) in a little-known and loosely organized fundamentalist group known by names like as “the Family” and “the Fellowship” that has come to play an important role in American and world politics. The organization is “a secretive, undemocratic organization that aid[s] and abet[s] dictators” (243) whose illiberalism has its greatest harmful effects outside U.S. borders, serving chiefly to maintain the socioeconomic status quo inside the U.S.] [Critique. The Family is idiosyncratically structured; important statements of theme are placed in out-of-the way places and important information is buried in the notes. — The central part of the book (Introduction & Chapters 2-9) can be considered a first draft of the history of American fundamentalism’s successful penetration of the halls of power in the U.S.; despite substantial research, Sharlet’s narrative is sketchy at many key points. Chapters 12 and 13 are set pieces on American fundamentalism’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 part of the author’s ongoing exploration of American religious life, a quest that gives the book its unity. — Though a scholar, Sharlet is not always precise. He does not date his visit to Ivanwald, for example, and his accounts of the life of Jonathan Edwards and other significant figures in the history of American religion are partial and impressionistic. As he says in a note, he “mean[s] to simply single out the strand . . . that I believe is most relevant to the genealogy of American fundamentalism as it has appeared in recent times” (402 n.7). — Unlike authors like Chris Hedges, who argued in American Fascists (2007) that American dominionist fundamentalists are heretics who constitute a dangerous fascistic political movement, Sharlet argues that American fundamentalism does not threaten fascism inside the U.S., where it is chiefly devoted to maintaining the status quo, and he criticizes scholars who have do not acknowledge or who have not understood that fundamentalism is a constant strand in American history. — Sharlet writes with flair but not always correctly. For example, 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 would have benefited from another thorough rewrite. Introduction: The Avant-Garde of American Fundamentalism. Ivanwald is a group of “brothers” living in Arlington, VA, with whom Sharlet lived for a month (1-3). They are part of an avantgarde, calling itself “the Family” or “the Fellowship” (3), of “American fundamentalism, a movement that, paradoxically given its origins, recasts theology in the language of empire” (3, emphasis in original; “The Family’s interests have always tended toward foreign affairs” ) in which the followers of “the wild Christ” are “finding common cause” with “the old, uppercrust Jesus” (5). I: AWAKENINGS Ch. 1: Ivanwald. Sharlet arrives at Ivanwald, recommended by “Zeke” (1318). The Family is “an ‘invisible’
association . . . organized around public men” (18). Two dozen prominent U.S. officials identified as members (18-19 & 395-96n). It is a “private” association that avoids the label “Christian” (19). Meetings have been held in the Pentagon; it has “strong ties with businessmen in the oil and aerospace industries” (19). It is organized, in deliberate imitation of Communist subversives, in “cells” (19-21). Founded by Abraham (Abram) Vereide; its leader since 1969 has been Doug Coe [born 1928] (21), who believes Jesus prefers power to piety. The Family is the context of money flows but is not a financial entity (21-22). Its only publicized gathering is the National Prayer Breakfast, an annual power networking event (22-27). The ethos at “the Cedars,” which Ivanwald cares for (2730). Doug Coe indoctrinating Todd Tiahrt (R-KS 4th) (30-31). Bible reading at Ivanwald (31-33). Initiation (33-35). David Coe (Doug Coe’s fortysomething son) 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 human beings are “nothing,” good only for obedience to the Lord (42-44). The family 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 for aesthetics alone . . . did Bengt and the Family reject the label Christian. Their faith and their practice seemed closer to a perverted sort of Buddhism, their Christ everywhere and nowhere at once. . . . And what the Family desired, from Abraham Vereide to Doug Coe to Bengt, was power, worldly power, with which Christ’s kingdom could be built, cell by cell” (51; 47-51). Doug Coe visits Ivanwald, speaks on prayer and covenant (51-55).
Ch. 2: Experimental Religion. Having stumbled into it by chance, Sharlet has been “chasing the story” of the Family ever since (56). “The Family’s long-term project of a worldwide government under God is more ambitious than Al Qaeda’s dream of a Sunni empire” (57). American piety’s most important roots are in Jonathan Edwards [1703-1758], “the author of the Great Awakening,” in which Christ is “a feeling, a conviction, a sentimental commitment to manifest destiny on a personal level, with national implications” (59; 60; 58-61). “[T]he Family began [in 1935] as a businessmen’s antilabor alliance in Seattle,” but its origins ultimately lie in “the dream of a Christian nation” (61). Jonathan Edwards’s notion of religion (6163). Edwards and the conversion of Abigail Hutchinson, discussed in his A Faithful Narrative… (1737) (63-68). Edwards’s later life (68-72). Ch. 3: The Revival Machine. Charles Grandison Finney [1792-1875], founder of the Broadway Tabernacle in New York City and of modern public revivalism (7383). II: JESUS PLUS NOTHING Ch. 4: Unit Number One. Abraham (Abram) Vereide [1886-1969], born 60 miles north of Bergen, Norway, was a preacher and immigrant in Seattle who in 1935 felt a call to minister to the “top men” of society and pursued “an elite fundamentalism” (91; 87-92; throughout this book Sharlet refers to him as “Abram”). Vereide’s early life (92-96). Director in the 1920s of Seattle’s division of Goodwill Industries (96). In 1932, he advised Gov. Franklin D. Roosevelt on New York about organization and met James A. Farrell, president of U.S. Steel, who spoke of America’s need for religious revival (96-97). He focused on the Red Menace and identified the enemy as “B,” apparently an amalgam of Seattle Teamster leader Dave Beck and Wobbly-
influenced longshoreman leader Harry Bridges (98-103). The 1934 San Francisco waterfront strike (104-08). After the strike, Vereide conceived a manly Christianity that rejected the Social Gospel and eschewed formal church organization but preached obedience to God among “top men” (108-13). Ch. 5: The F Word. Arthur B. Langlie, representing a group of young businessmen called the New Order of Cincinnatus with soft-fascistic and antiSemitic leanings, became mayor of Seattle and then governor of Washington State (114-24). But through figures like Frank 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 the personality-centered fascism that arose in Europe (130-33). Inspired by Harry Emerson Fosdick’s call for a modernized Christianity, Bruce Barton, the author of The Man Nobody Knows (1925), promoted an idea of Jesus as a successful organization man (133-37). A sort of “Babbitt cult” developed of manly American businessmen, which Abram Vereide promoted in Washington, D.C.; in practice this encouraged violent hostility to progressive causes like labor rights and racial equality that effected the beginning of the dismantling of the New Deal (137-43 ). Ch. 6: The Ministry of Proper Enlightenment. Manfred Zapp, a Gestapo agent in the U.S. in the late 1930s, became an anti-Communist zealot after the war who advised Abram Vereide (144-52). American fundamentalists after the war worked to infuse their vision into the American Cold War agenda (15255). With the help of heiress Marian Aymar Johnson, Vereide bought a fourstory mansion at 2324 Mass. Ave. on Embassy Row in Washington, D.C. (156). In 1946 Vereide went to Germany to find
ex-Nazis ready to embrace Christ and “help forge the new West German state” (165; 157-68). Vereide’s efforts to help elite Germans after the war (168-77). But Konrad Adenauer was suspicious of American fundamentalism and Vereide’s influence in Germany was limited (17780). Ch. 7: The Blob. “The Blob” (a 1958 film) grew out of one of Abram’s prayer breakfasts as an allegory for creeping Communism (181-82). The Cold War has distorted political and religious terminology (“liberal,” “conservative,” “fundamentalist”) in the U.S. (182-83). Vereide cultivated J. Edgar Hoover and exerted an influence on Billy Graham and U.S. Cuba policy (183-86). Vereide’s closest ally in the Senate was Frank Carlson (R-KS), who advocated a “Worldwide Spiritual Offensive,” promoted Eisenhower’s presidential candidacy, and then promoted Vereide’s notion of a divinely infused big-tent conservativism (186-95). The founding of the Presidential Prayer Breakfast in 1953 (195-98). McCarthyism drove even its opponents to adopt fundamentalist themes, as I.F. Stone perceived (198201). Secretary of Defense Charles E. Wilson “allowed prayer cells to proliferate within the Pentagon” and embraced a Fellowship propaganda project developed by John C. Broger (on Vereide’s payroll) called “Militant Liberty” (201-04). Ch. 8: Vietnamization. Clifton J. Robinson, active for the Fellowship in Vietnam, was a contender to succeed Vereide (205-08). So was Richard Halverson (209-10). But Doug Coe, from Oregon, a physics major at Willamette, was his successor in 1969 (208-12). Coe’s charismatic personality (212). His ministry addressed issues more personal (e.g. feminism’s challenge to gender roles and homosexuality) than Vereide’s (213-14). Coe took an interest in Haiti and other foreign countries (215-16). He recommended that protégés study
Hitler’s rise to power, centered in a person, not ideas (216-17). Coe’s vision is of “a decentralized web” reaching around the world; he is less nationalistic than Vereide was (218-24). Campus Crusade (224-27). Chuck Colson (22736). The Fellowship began recruiting African Americans after Martin Luther King’s assassination (236-40). Ch. 9: Jesus + 0 = X. Publication of parts of Ch. 1 in Harper’s in 2003 led to contact with former Family member Greg Unumb (241-45). The Family and Doug Coe closed its archives to Sharlet before he could explore its relation to Suharto’s atrocities in Indonesia (245-52). Summary of 1989 Coe lectures: “the vision is total loyalty,” as a means to power (252-56). Ch. 10: Interesting Blood. Rob Schenck considers the Family “off the charts” in terms of fundamentalist influence among those in power; like Marvin Olasky, Howard Phillips, and Jay Sekulow, Schenk is a fundamentalist ideologue who “came up in the deradicalized world of postwar American Jewry. It’s as if, casting about for the political passion of their immigrant fathers and mothers, they settled on Christian fundamentalism as the closest approximation of . . . its socialist unions and communist cells” (259; 258; 257-60). Sam Brownback, Methodist, then fundamentalist, then Catholic convert via Opus Dei (260-72). Hillary Clinton works with the Family and calls Doug Coe “a genuinely loving spiritual mentor and guide” in her memoir Living History (27277). American fundamentalism split after the Scopes trial of 1925 into a populist strand preoccupied with secularism and an elite branch preoccupied with the national power (277). Freedom inside the U.S. has not been undermined by the fundamentalist influence on U.S. government, but rather abroad: “It’s the rest of the world that pays for American fundamentalism’s sins, and for the failure
of American liberalism to even recognize the fundamentalist faith with which it has all too often—in Vietnam, in Indonesia, in Haiti—made common cause” (278). Coe and the Family cultivated dictator Siad Barre of Somalia as a “brother” and facilitated his murderous dealings in the 1980s, but admit no accountability (27784). III. THE POPULAR FRONT Interlude. The term “culture war” is misleading; American fundamentalism does not really propose to solve problems, only to maintain the status quo, which is “unthreatened” (289; 28790). Ch. 11: What Everybody Wants. Pastor Ted Haggard founded New Life megachurch in Colorado Springs, CO in 1984 (291-97). Jerusalem, CO (297-312). Sociologist Rodney Stark (A Theory of Religion ]1987]; The Churching of America, 1776-1990: Winners and Losers in Our Religious Economy ; The Victory of Reason: How Christianity Led to Freedom, Capitalism, and Western Success ) applied neoliberal market economics to church (312-15). Some New Life members (315-21). Ch. 12: The Romance of American Fundamentalism. The fundamentalist focus on chastity (the “purity movement”) (322-35). Ch. 13: Unschooling. American fundamentalists are not a new phenomenon, rather one that is returning to prominence (336-38). A prayer rally in Danbury, CT, at the church to which Thomas Jefferson was writing when he coined the phrase “wall of separation” between church and state; that phrase, Jefferson himself, and all of American history is being reinterpreted by fundamentalist ideologues, and students in Christian schools are being taught that “the United States of America has been a
thought in the mind of God from all eternity” (341; 338-45 & 356-66). Rousas John Rushdoony, promoted by Vision Forum founder Douglas W. Phillips, is prominent in fundamentalism’s intellectual revival, and his advocacy of Christian education through homeschooling and private Christian academies and his revival of American providential history have now been “assimilated into the mainstream of Christian conservative thinking” (349; 346-51 [N.B. This is the theology of dominionism, mentioned by Sharlet on page 44 but for some reason not in this chapter; Chris Hedges denounced it as a radical fascist movement that has already “seized control of the Republican Party” in Chapter One of his American Fascists (2007)]). A biography by Robert Lewis Dabney of the Confederate general Stonewall Jackson, whose birthday has been declared a homeschooling “fun day,” is now “a founding text of the nascent homeschooling movement,” celebrating humility and self-sacrifice (351; 351-53 & 355-56). Using these themes Christian Embassy evangelized inside the Pentagon (353-54 & 430-31 nn.7-10). Rather than treat them as “kooks and haters and losers and leftbehinds,” we should “recognize the theocratic strand running throughout American history” (367; 366-69). Ch. 14: This Is Not the End. A Portland, OR, couple that holds religious discussions at home (370-79). In the last 20 years use of the adverb “just” has spread in evangelical prayers as a sort of claim to innocence (373-74). David Kuo, Family apostate and author of Tempting Faith: The Inside Story of a Political Seduction (2006) (379-86). Coe is now in semi-retirement from leadership of the Family; Dick Foth is in the process of replacing him (385; cf. 21). We should challenge fundamentalism’s notion of salvation in favor of deliverance, “exodus, the act of stepping into the unknown” (387; 386-87).
Acknowledgments. Journalistic associates and advisers, including Lewis Lapham, as well as students of “Christian conservatism” and “[s]everal former members, associates, and neighbors of the Family, as well as a few current ones” (390; 389-91). Notes. 40 pp. Sharlet generally refrains from notes in Ch. 1 & 9-14 (394 n.2). He was not “undercover” when researching the book (394 n.2). The “main archive” of the Family is at the Billy Graham Center at Wheaton College (395 n.2; there are “more than 600 boxes of documents” there ). “In total I or my research assistants reviewed well over 60,000 pages of primary-source documents, and made copies of around 5,000 pages; I lack folder numbers for a very few pages, and those I have copies of” (395 n.2). “[M]embers of the Family are scrupulous about distinguishing between members, those who have joined a prayer cell or made some other commitment to the work, and friends, those with whom they’re comfortable working” (395 n.3). Ten names of those involved in financing $1,513,000 toward the purchase of the Cedars (398 n.17). “Spiritual abuse” in the Family (not referred to in the main chapter) (399 n.21). Jimmy Carter has said that Doug Coe was an important person in his life (400 n.24). — For Seattle history, “the incomparable and epic multivolume Seattle in the 20th Century, by Richard C. Berner” (403 n.4). Index. 22 pp. About the Author. Jeff Sharlet is a contributing editor of Harper’s and Rolling Stone. He has taught religious studies at NYU’s Center for Religion and Media, where he is an associate research scholar. He is the co-author of Killing the Buddha: A Heretic’s Bible (2004), a portrait of American religious subcultures.
[Additional information. Jeff Sharlet was born to a Pentecostal mother and a Jewish father in 1972. He is a graduate of Hampshire College in Massachusetts. The website about religion he co-created in 2000 with Peter Manseau and Jeremy Brothers, Killing the Buddha, became an
award-wining online literary magazine (http://killingthebuddha.com/). His uncle, Jeff Sharlet (1942-1969) was a leader of the GI resistance movement during the Vietnam War.]