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.