The Family: The Secret Fundamentalism at the Heart of American Power
454 pp. $25.95
It’s one thing to say that a particular wing of modern conservatism seems a little fascist; it’s another thing to prove it unequivocally.
Jeff Sharlet’s The Family is about what is undeniably the most powerful and bizarre quasi-religious movement you’ve never heard of. This is made evident near the beginning of the book, when Sharlet gives us a scene featuring Doug Coe, the group’s leader. Coe is chatting with (or rather, instructing) Congressman Todd Tiahrt (R, Kansas):
"We gotta take Jesus out of the religious wrapping," (Coe said.)
"All right, how do we do that?" Tiahrt asked.
"A covenant," Dog Coe answered. The congressman half smiled, as if caught between confessing his ignorance and pretending he knew what Doug Coe was talking about. "Like the Mafia," Coe clarified. "Look at the strength of their bonds." He made a fist and held it before Tiahrt’s face. Tiahrt nodded, squinting. "See, for them it’s honor," Coe said. "For us, it’s Jesus."
Doug Coe listed other men who had changed the world through the strength of the covenants they had forged with their "brothers": "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.
"That’s what you get with a covenant," said Doug Coe. (30)
Sharlet managed to listen in on this scene by infiltrating The Family under the cleverest of disguises: he told them he was a writer. The Family has a kind of frat house in Washington D.C. for bringing in new blood, Ivanwald, and Sharlet did a little time at the house a few years back as research for a piece in Harper's, where he’s a contributing editor. The Ivanwald residents were sometimes called upon to act as wait staff for what amounts to a dormitory for conservative congressmen. There’s a lot that’s scary about the dormitory – not to mention Ivanwald – but no part of it is so disturbing as the fact that Doug Coe seems to be regarded as an elder statesman and honored guest in both homes.
Indeed, Coe, and The Family in general, have an access to congressmen and senators that is far more disturbing than that of any megachurch megalomaniac.
The basic narrative of The Family details Sharlet’s initial contact with the group, and is followed by the reaction to the Harper’s piece (they dispatch a blonde to convert him). But the bulk of this comprehensive and entirely readable book is a history that puts it all in context. That history dives back to Jonathan Edwards (the old one, not the new one), Charles Grandison Finney, The Fundamentals, Frank Buchman, and eventually Family founder Abram Vereide, Coe’s predecessor. At every turn, Sharlet notes how The Family takes its inspiration from precisely that source now used only as hideous insult.
But Abram and the influence of his fellow fundamentalists would remain invisible for decades, their influence unmarked by media and academic establishments. The role played by fundamentalists in refashioning the world’s greatest fascist power into a democracy would go unnoticed. So, too, would the role of fascism – or, rather, that of fascism’s ghost – in shaping the newly internationalist ambition of evangelical conservatives in the postwar era. (152)
More flatly stated:
...former Nazis and fascist sympathizers were born again as Christian Cold Warriors...(160)
Actually, it’s probably inaccurate to say that you haven’t heard of The Family. Though Sharlet makes it clear that they cultivate a covert status, you’ve probably heard of the National Prayer Breakfast, which has been their domain for years. I won’t list all the legislators that Sharlet ties to the group – suffice it to say that he’s comprehensive. And The Family's ability to achieve power can be measured from the fact that not all the names come from the same side of the aisle.
Sharlet can’t be dismissed as one-sided either. His portrait of Sam Brownback is sufficiently wary but weirdly tender, too, and as co-author of Killing the Buddha: A Heretic's Bible he’s open-minded on the religious question. Even populist fundamentalism, he will allow, seeks to ease pain and fear – not a bad goal, at least in the abstract. The Family, however, is of another species:
...elite fundamentalism, certain in its entitlement, responds in this world with a politics of noblesse oblige, the missionary impulse married to military and economic power. The result is empire. (386)
Your education in American politics is incomplete without this book.