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The Family: The Secret Fundamentalism at the Heart of American Power
Jeff Sharlet
Harper Collins
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.

The upshot?

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.

Links relevant to Jeff Sharlet:
Killing the Buddha
The Revealer

Originally posted to JCHallman on Thu Jul 24, 2008 at 08:30 AM PDT.

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Comment Preferences

  •  "The result is empire." (5+ / 0-)

    That captures a lot of context.

  •  Hillary is a member and Doug Coe (0+ / 0-)

    is her Rev. Wright.

  •  Hiding in plain site.... (3+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    The Nose, FutureNow, jfromga

    and since it has the ultimate protection in a country with the official motto of "In God We Trust" what can we say against them, they believe in God too much?

    I have read a few previous diaries and read Jeff's Harper piece, and I agree this is something we should all be aware of.  But it is small potatoes compared to the general evangelical movement, that has affected all of our government, that our candidate only hopes to tame, not confront.

    And there is a larger group, a religion that has a central source of morality that translates into political directives.  This group has vast membership, and meets not once a year, but every week in thousands of venues.

    And this group has managed to place not a few congressmen, but five members on the highest court of the land.  And their message, their presence, is so accepted that at the confirmation not a single nominee was asked how he would reconcile the demands of his church with the dictates of the constitution.

    The evidence of the reality of this conflict of interest is overwhelming.  

    Jeff is able to confront The Family because it is small, and right now has little power.  Those religious forces with great power to control our country are immune from even discussion, much less criticism, and that is the far greater danger.

    •  I, for one, would really... (0+ / 0-) to see you get more specific about who you're talking about!

      •  It is the Catholic Church.... (0+ / 0-)

        A group that punishes presidential candidates, John Kerry, for being Pro choice, by denying him the sacraments.

        I don't think describing a religion that has five members on the Supreme Court is really being too subtle.

        And when the fear of being called a "religious bigot" squelches discussion of the values of a Justice who defines our societal norms, we see the pathology of the very concept of religious tolerance.

        •  You need to draw some distinctions (1+ / 0-)
          Recommended by:

          SOME bishops punished Kerry. Others supported him. Millions of Catholics voted for him. Some of the most consistently progressive voices in America are Catholic, as are some of the most conservative.

          Author of THE FAMILY: The Secret Fundamentalism at the Heart of American Power (HarperCollins, Spring 08)

          by Ishmael on Thu Jul 24, 2008 at 10:05:31 AM PDT

          [ Parent ]

    •  Catholic social justice (1+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:

      Arodb -- The Roman Catholic Church, to which you refer, has not "placed" any congressmen or any members of the Court. It has a long history in America of functioning smoothly with democracy -- indeed, many of American democracy's high points are rooted in the Catholic Church, such as the New Deal, much of which came out of Catholic social justice thinking. The Catholic Church recognizes the separation between church and state. Politicians who are Catholics are truly all over the map. As are the church's priests, nuns, and bishops. To suggest that it is some kind of monolithic threat to democracy borders on bigotry.

      You're right, though, that I'm able to confront The Family because it's a lot smaller. That's how we do careful research -- one step at a time, rather than with sweeping generalizations that indict an entire faith.

      Author of THE FAMILY: The Secret Fundamentalism at the Heart of American Power (HarperCollins, Spring 08)

      by Ishmael on Thu Jul 24, 2008 at 09:11:36 AM PDT

      [ Parent ]

      •  This is not indicting a faith... (0+ / 0-)

        and your use of the word "bigotry" to describe my comment is telling.  It is the power of this word, this concept, that squelched the reasonable challenging of members of the Catholic Church as to their decision making processes as Justices of the Court.

        I have done extensive research of Justice Scalia's claim that he gives priority to the Constitution over his church's edict, and in one case, Gonzolez. v. Oregon, he does not. A long essayexploring this issue is on the web site of this organization.  

        The accusation of bigotry stings, and quite honestly I resent it, since it is the ultimate negation of open discussion about the forces that shape our society.

        •  Again -- draw distinctions (1+ / 0-)
          Recommended by:

          Scalia is clearly a problem, and the other judges may be as well. But THEY'RE the problems, not Catholicism. And Scalia, as has been widely noted within Catholic circles, breaks with Catholicism whenever it's convenient to his conservatism.

          You want to talk about certain conservative factions within American Catholicism? Fine. That's not bigotry, that's a worthwhile subject. I've done it myself, writing about Opus Dei's K Street center. But be specific. Because if you're going to paint with a brush so broad it covers all of Catholicism, it's bigotry. That'd be the equivalent of saying Judaism is a war-mongering religion that controls all Jewish congressmen just because Lieberman is a war-monger and a Jew.

          Author of THE FAMILY: The Secret Fundamentalism at the Heart of American Power (HarperCollins, Spring 08)

          by Ishmael on Thu Jul 24, 2008 at 10:09:14 AM PDT

          [ Parent ]

          •  Jeff, come on now... (0+ / 0-)

            this is a comment in a blog.  Some of my language is inartful (see Safire's article this week on the term) and of course when I said the "Catholic Church Placed members on the court" that was poorly expressed.

            I am not positing a grand top down conspiracy by the Pope. However the placement (for lack of a better word) of a majority of conservative catholics on the United States Supreme court is a real issue.  And what makes it worse is that Political Correctness, has made this a subject that can not be breached by those responsible for considering this, those that confirm these justices.

            You might want to read the essay I referred to, along with some of the links at the bottom, although a key one of a major speech by Scalia in "First Things" a conservative catholic magazine may be broken.  

            •  I side with... (0+ / 0-)

              ...the author on this one.

              I don't think political correctness has anything to do with it.  And, anyway, I think your words betray say "I am not positing a grand top down conspiracy by the Pope."  Well, what do you call this, from your comment, above:

              And there is a larger group, a religion that has a central source of morality that translates into political directives.  This group has vast membership, and meets not once a year, but every week in thousands of venues.

              I'm glad you're changing your tune, but let's not pretend it hasn't changed.

              •  Are you suggesting I'm wrong.. (0+ / 0-)

                The Catholic Church opposes Abortion.  There are principles defined by the Pope in encyclicals that define this while speaking ex cathedra.  This means that it is Catholic Dogma.

                This is imposed on every member of the Church.  Certainly many nominal Catholics ignore this.  But this in no way negates my comment.

                Perhaps I should not have been cryptic in my original statement, which was a rhetorical error.

                But the substance of my original comment is accurate.

                •  You're understating it, aren't you? (0+ / 0-)

                  The Catholic Church is against more than just's basically all forms of birth control except the rhythm methodm isn't it.

                  But is that your one issue?  Do you just make the jump from there to five supreme court justices?  That's quite a leap of faith, if I can use the term.

                •  I'm very familiar with Scalia's position (0+ / 0-)

                  and I've spent time with Richard John Neuhaus, the editor of First Things. Both have been challenged most effectively by other Catholic theologians. I've also interviewed Austin Ruse, organizer of the badly-named National Catholic Prayer Breakfast, which is, in fact, solely a rightwing Catholic organization -- so rightwing that they consider Bush Catholic but not Ted Kennedy or Nancy Pelosi or Barbara Mikulski or any number of pro-choice Catholics. Kerry, of course, is a pro-choice Catholic, and much more than a nominal one -- he's quite devout.

                  In Latin America, liberation theology survives and continues to the best hope for the poor. The organized labor movement in America would hardly exist without Catholicism. Conservative Catholics in America have much to answer for -- so make THEM answer for it, not all of Catholicism.

                  Making political generalizations about a tradition as vast as Catholicism is impossible.

                  Author of THE FAMILY: The Secret Fundamentalism at the Heart of American Power (HarperCollins, Spring 08)

                  by Ishmael on Thu Jul 24, 2008 at 12:19:28 PM PDT

                  [ Parent ]

                  •  The danger is not my generalzations.. (0+ / 0-)

                    it is the taboo against discussing this among the political and MSM estates.  This was completely off the table in the confirmation hearings, as though the most deeply held religious beliefs would never impact their decisions.

                    This, I maintain, is toxic Political Correctness.  And yes, all discourse in this area can be construed as being over broad, but we can only communicate large issues using generalization.  It should not imply that these are universal.

                    As an Ashkenazi Jew with a certain heritage, there are generalizations that can be made. And making such generalizations about Atheists is so accepted that Bush I opined that he doubted that such people should hold public office.

                    I may in fact be the exception, but then again when deciding on key position, one's religion, and ones background is relevant.

                    If your thesis gains traction it will be depicted as a form of "Anti Christian Bigotry." and I would rip into that accusation as absurd.  

  •  My Sister has been to the prayer breakfast (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:

    I will read this book so I can understand more about what she is up to.
    Back in the seventies she was fairly progressive. Now she is filled with Fox news bs and really hostile to my progressive stance. Perhaps there are some answers here. She and her husband would fit into this type of circle very well.

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