Friday, February 05, 2010

A Different Kind of Christian

A couple of months ago I heard a Terri Gross interview with a writer named Jeff Sharlet, who had just published a book entitled The Family: The Secret Fundamentalism at the Heart of American Power. The Family, sometimes called The Fellowship, is an elite group of fundamentalist Christians founded in the 1930s in Seattle by Abram Vereide, and headed for several decades by Doug Coe, now thought to be in semi-retirement. Sharlet’s book is long and difficult, his writing florid and often opaque. He spends several chapters on various founders of charismatic American fundamentalism such as Jonathan Edwards (whom Strauss and Howe described as Prophet of the Awakening Generation) and Charles Finney, from the Transcendental Generation that gave us the Civil War. He also, in my opinion, exaggerates the influence that Coe and others have had on various bloody episodes in American foreign policy, such as our support for the bloody Indonesian purges after the coup of 1965 and later on the island of East Timor. (While Doug Coe may have encouraged President Suharto on his path, the cooperation of the CIA in the first case and the encouragement of Henry Kissinger in the second were far more important.) But the book remains an extremely important eye-opener to those seeking to understand contemporary political Christianity from the outside, and to grasp exactly why it has emerged as such a formidable political force.

I should perhaps interrupt my narrative with a disclaimer. Believing as I do that religion should be private manner, I always hesitate to criticize religious beliefs in print. Like many other devout agnostics tending towards atheism, I instinctively give religious people the benefit of the doubt as regards their motivation, and certainly do not begrudge them what comfort their religion offers them. I also see Christianity as one of the foundations of western civilization as it has evolved (although I have no truck with the patently false idea that it was a primary inspiration for the Declaration of Independence or the Constitution, an idea which Sharlet himself does not completely reject.) What this book showed me is that my view of Christianity is too narrow. The kind of fundamentalism preached by Doug Coe has become politically powerful precisely because it is so free of doctrinal subtlety and so focused upon this world rather than the next. It is—avowedly—a political strategy patterned after the great revolutionary movements of our time. While its divine hero is Jesus, Stalin, Mao and Hitler stand high in its Pantheon of earthly exemplars because of their “commitment” and clever political strategy. This kind of Christianity has nothing to do with humility, with rendering unto Caesar that which is Caesar’s, or which enduring the pain of this world in hopes of joy in the next. It is focused above all—like Orwell’s Party in 1984—on earthly power, and it has achieved a great deal of that.

Sharlet—who seems, like myself, to be an unreligious product of a Jewish-Christian marriage—did his original research by infiltrating the Family, specifically Ivanwald, a training camp for young men in Arlington, Virginia. (Another Family institution is C Street, the Capitol Hill townhouse that is home to various conservative Congressmen.) There he was introduced to a doctrine often summarized in half an equation: “Jesus plus nothing.” (The book spends a lot of time trying to figure out exactly what that sum is supposed to equal.) The young acolytes at Ivanwald are encouraged to engage Jesus directly, to become an extension of his will. Coe and others have delivered the same message to many prominent businessmen, to dozens of legislators on Capitol Hill (from Strom Thurmond, Frank Carlson of Kansas, Homer Capehart of Indiana, Charles Colson of Watergate fame, and other notables of my youth to Sam Brownback of Kansas, Mike Stupak of Pennsylvania, and many others today. Hillary Clinton, though not actually a member, is a kind of comet passing in and out of the Family’s orbit, and cooperated with it on one or two pieces of legislation. Just two days ago, however, at The Family's National Prayer Breakfast, both she and Barack Obama attacked Family-sponsored legislaton in Uganda that would make homosexuality a crime.)

The Family, following a Communist model, works through cells—prayer cells in its case—one of which approached Gerald Ford in 1975 to urge him to forgive the sins of Richard Nixon. (I do not doubt that this story is true, but once again I question whether it had the critical role in Nixon's pardon that Sharlet seems to give it.) It is a true fellowship, a cadre of men working to recreate the world in their own image—which they have decided, without very little scriptural foundation so far as I can see, is Jesus’s image as well. It prefers to work in secret, and no less a figure than Ronald Reagan, during his Presidency, remarked that that was why it had been so influential. (Ed Meese is another important acolyte.)

What is equally striking is what Sharlet did not find in his sojourn among these particular faithful. Although they did some daily Bible reading, it was neither thorough nor particularly penetrating. They liked sound bites, not subtlety. Nor is the family directly interested in organized Churches or in direct appeals to millions of Americans. Its power certainly has advanced in parallel with that of various megachurhes and organizations like James Dobson’s Focus on the Family, but its gaze fixes intently upon the rich and powerful. The brightest light that burst upon me as I read this book solved a mystery that had profoundly shocked me when I first learned of it a few years ago: how was it possible that George W. Bush had never regularly attended a church, not even when he was in the White House? The answer, evidently, is that he was recruited in the 1980s by a similar movement (though not, as far as Sharlet ever found out, by the Family itself), which persuaded him that a personal relationship with Jesus could make all his earthly works serve the divine order. (In a rare lapse, my favorite TV show, Jeopardy, recently repeated the myth that Billy Graham converted Bush to evangelical Christianity. In fact Bush was converted by a more eccentric figure, Arthur Blessit, who began his career in the 1960s as what was then called a "Jesus freak.") And Bush, like so many others, henceforward felt no need for data, analysis, or consensus when reaching decisions. Revelation now governed his life and his thought, elevating him far above all the professors and fellow students he could never equal at Yale. The war in Iraq was one result.

The Family’s theology, therefore, flatters the ego of various political leaders around the world—and rare is the leader whose ego suffers from an excess of humility in the first place. Because it is concerned above all with power, the Family is ecumenical, and has included Protestants, Catholics, Jews and even Muslims in its prayer cells. (Sharlet has very little to say about Israel or Zionism, but it is not surprising that political Evangelicalism has seized upon the book of Revelation as a reason to embrace Zionism as a necessary step towards the end times and Christ’s return to earth. The Family is still centered in the United States, where the Zionist lobby is a formidable ally or opponent. The same logic probably has a lot to do with its numerous alliances with big business and its “free market” theology.)

The rise of faith-based politics represents a new stage both in the development of American politics and of western civilization itself. Few Americans—and least of all fundamentalist Americans—realize that the United States came into being at one of the least religious moments in modern history. Skepticism and deism were rampant all over the North Atlantic world in the late eighteenth century, the age of Enlightenment. My own reverence for the Constitution goes to its attempt to create a lasting, free government, based not only on the principles of the British Constitution as it had evolved over the centuries, but also on their observations of human frailty and the difficulty of restraining authority, especially legitimate authority. It was no accident that the word “god” appeared nowhere in the Constitution’s text. Religion has played an important role in American politics in various times and places since the founding, of course. Both sides of the slavery controversy cited it (leading to the formation of the Southern Baptist and Southern Methodist denominations), and Protestants gave us the Prohibition movement and all its consequences. Catholicism both helped unify big-city voters and alarm many Protestants, Jews and secularists who thought Catholics wanted to exploit governmental power to further their own religious agenda (which, before Vatican II at least, was indeed sometimes the case.) But the extent to which a particular kind of fundamentalism dedicated to free markets, homophobia, opposition to birth control and a forthright foreign policy has come to dominate one of our two political parties is quite unprecedented. Should it return to power it will, I think, definitely alienate the more secular parts of the world—including most of Europe and East Asia—for a long time to come. It will also make it impossible rationally to address our domestic problems, as we managed to do 80 years ago. I am glad to have been born in the midst of another great age of rationalism, and sad that I have spent my adult life watching it fade away.


Anonymous said...

Dr. Kaiser:

>> But the extent to which a
>> particular kind of
>> fundamentalism dedicated to
>> free markets, homophobia,
>> opposition to birth control and
>> a forthright foreign policy has
>> come to dominate one of our two
>> political parties is quite
>> unprecedented.

What is this opinion/assertion based on?

Care to offer any examples, or should one take this opinion/assertion at face value?

Are you trying to assert that only non fundamentalists are DEMOCRATS?

Where does an independent voter come in your black and white universe of two parties only?

As for birth control, let me mention, that as of a few days ago Pentagon is offering the morning after pill to its personel.

I have not noticed that the world has come to an end.

Anonymous said...

When you woke up this morning,
have you realized that your own
neighbourhood/district is full
of "fundamentalists"?

Seems that there's yet another
"fundamentalist" on your
immediate horizon Mr. Kaiser, in your own back yard, that will be
representing your own district
come november, 2010.

Patrick "Patches" Kennedy's
polling numbers seem not to be
sooo scorching in Rhode Island
after all:

As per WPRI-TV, Channel 12 survey
released Thursday night, the
polling numbers are as follows:

Nearly 6 in 10 registered
voters in the First Congressional
District would consider another candidate or vote to replace
Loughlin’s opponent, U.S. Rep.
Patrick J. Kennedy.

The entire article can be seen at:

George Buddy said...

We used to call this type of writing "heavy."

George Buddy said...


This was in my mailbox and it mentions your book :

Dear Customer,

As someone who has purchased or rated The Road to Dallas: The Assassination of John F. Kennedy by David Kaiser, you might like to know that Voodoo Histories: The Role of the Conspiracy Theory in Shaping Modern History is now available. You can order yours for just $17.79 ($9.16 off the list price) by following the link below.

Voodoo Histories: The Role of the Conspiracy Theory in Shaping Modern History
David Aaronovitch
List Price: $26.95
Price: $17.79
You Save: $9.16 (34%)
Other Versions and Languages

buildakicker said...

As a thinker and agnostic, I thought you might like to listen to Ravi Zacharias:

ginstonic said...

Sounds like another attempt at circumventing the separation of church and state. I AM religious, but I don't want my government to be. My luck it would pick an affiliation I am not a part of.

Anonymous said...

It does seem,that "fundamentalism"
keeps on growing. At least
according to the newest Marist
College poll.

"The Marist Poll found that 57 percent of independent voters have a negative view of Obama’s job performance, up from 44 percent in a Dec. 8 survey. Twenty-nine percent of independents approve, down from 41 percent, and 14 percent said they were unsure."

"According to exit polls in the 2008 presidential election, 52 percent of voters who identified themselves as independent said they voted for Obama. By comparison, 44 percent said they voted for Republican candidate John McCain, the exit polls conducted for news organizations by Edison Research showed."

Mr. Kaiser, what would be your analysis and explanation for such rise of fundamentalism in the short period of the past 14 months?

The quotes are from

オテモヤン said...


Anonymous said...


Patrick "Patches" Kennedy saw that
last Thursday's WPRI-TV, Channel 12 survey and decided NOT to run! This leaves me to wonder aloud whose candidacy is a joke - freshly elected Senator Brown's or Patrick "Patches" Kennedy's?

Kennedy won't run for re-election in RI

Jim said...

Dear Dr. Kaiser, I am trying to write a "History of the World in Seventeen Seconds"
My thesis is that 17 sec. is the average attention span of most individuals in the world and the "history" will be in paragraphs readable in 17 seconds.
It would be thoroughly indexed as to chapter and verse as in a bible. So far I have researched approx ten file drawers of material: some of it rather thoroughly, but have not written a word.
My question; mwould you be at all interested in being a major author( I have written medical articles) since I am a retired Neurologist and not published to any significant extrent but desire to persue this topic.
I believe the thrust is in line with many of your perceptions about our current misanthropism that seems to be promulgated currently in the current congessional leadership.
Your thoughts would be appreciated and I really do not expect an answer, but if somewhat condescendingly you are so inclined I would be deeply appreciative. Sincerely, Jim Perry MD

Meowomon said...

Wow, there are some real assholes commenting on here.

Aunt Katie said...


I hate to leave that last comment there, for readers.

I thought I would, just for roundness, allude to Holy Blood Holy Grail themes, and conclude the Fellowship equation, Jesus plus nothing, for your viewers:

leads, perhaps, to the celibacy of the Catholic hierarchy;

most ironically, disaffected conservative Anglican have allegedly flocked to the celibate Papal Hierarchy...

or, revise the Fellowship equation:

Jesus plus Mary Magdalene, leads, perhaps, to the Priory of Sion,

ostensibly under attack from the Roman Church, for the opposite reasons.....

Why wouldn't disaffected Anglicans rather flock to a Priory view, than to the, celibate, Papal one?

Why would Fellowship folks settle for a fragmentary math equation?

Who knows?

All the best,

Gerald said...

The last sentence, of the original post, resonates across the web.

Not much that any of us, erudite or not, sympathetic or not, or some third, fourth, or fifth, possibilities, at this late date, could do about it.

Perhaps it represents a move back, toward a 'kind' of middle ages, but not one with which versed folks would be familiar.

Certainly it finds little warrant, or support, in biblical scholarship of the past 150 years; but then, the Church only very recently, called Galileo's persecution a sort of mutual mistake. Even secular lawyers would understand the sophistry of that.

All the best
Gerald Meaders

Volker said...

Ich haben eben Eure Internetseite besucht und nutzen sogleich die Gelegenheit,euch auch einen Gruß aus Deutschland in Eurem Gästebuch zu hinterlassen. P.S. Kommt uns doch auch mal besuchen

Deckenventilator said...

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Vielleicht schauen sie mal auf meiner Homepage vorbei!
Schöne Grüße aus Bayern