In the July 31 issue of THE WEEK magazine was an article entitled “Washington’s ‘invisible army’ for Christ.” It described an apparently loose-knit organization to which many members of America’s political elite belong, especially, but not exclusively those on the right. It mentioned that three of the recent politicians “embroiled in sex scandals” were longtime members. It mentioned that the group, known as “The Family” had been around since 1935, when it was founded based on a vision of Abraham Vereide, “an itinerant preacher” and Norwegian immigrant. Its present leader is Doug Coe, a well-known, but rather retiring and secretive person.
The article also went on to say that secrecy or invisibility is the first rule of The Family. It also mentioned that personal morality is not at the top of their list of requirements for membership. Then on August 12, Jeff Sharlet appeared as guest on THE DAILY SHOW. Sharlet is the author of the book, THE FAMILY: The Secret Fundamentalism at the Heart of American Power, which is referred to in the above article as “the authoritative book.” He is a research scholar and author on various religious topics.
I was fascinated. Sharlet painted a picture of a cultish, almost conspiratorial group that was mainly concerned with power. Could this be “the vast right-wing conspiracy” that I had heard of? Many of my right-leaning friends seem to believe in conspiracies on the left; here was a left-leaner who was telling of a conspiracy on the right! I bought the book and read it. I had to!
Well, the book was not what I had expected! Sharlet is a good writer and it reads almost like a novel. And the book was informative; I learned a great deal about the history of The Family, or as it is also known, The Fellowship, but I had a hard time with the thesis of the book and how it is “proven.”
Mr. Sharlet wants to demonstrate that religion, especially “fundamentalist” religion and politics are hopelessly intertwined. “This is a story,” he tells us in his introduction, “about that imaginary place, so real in the minds of those for whom religion, politics, and the mythologies of America are one singular story and how that vision has shaped America’s projection of power onto the rest of the world.” The imaginary place is America as the “shining city upon a hill.”
But first, the values of the book. It reveals the history of a movement that began with 1930s union busting and anti-New Deal crusading, and carries through the anti-Communism crusades of the 50s, down to present day right-wing power politics. It shows ties between members of The Family and many political movements. While biblical doctrine seems to be relatively unimportant in The Family, Jesus is, but it is Jesus as a sort of undefined idea, rather than the Jesus of the New Testament. Power is important. They hold to a misunderstanding of Romans 13:1 (KJV): “The powers that be are ordained of God,” and seem to make it mean that those in power are more important to God than those without power. Win those in power to “Jesus” and those below will be blessed – “trickle-down” evangelism. This is in total contrast to Jesus’ example and teachings, such as in Luke 22:24-27.
What’s wrong with the book? Well at least two things. To prove his thesis, the author gives a sketchy, very selective outline of American church history, tying The Family, or at least its philosophy, back to a rather select string of individuals and showing little, if any real connections between them: Jonathan Edwards, Charles G. Finney, Billy Sunday, etc.
Secondly, is his painting with a broad brush. Every well-known Christian leader gets splattered, whatever their connections (or non-connections) with members of The Family. Every political leader (at least on the right) who professes faith in Christ gets splattered. The impression is given that all well-known American Christians are tainted and are part of the conspiracy.
One sketch that struck me as humorous was that of Hillary Clinton. Though she had connections with many in The Family, we are assured that “she’s not a member of Coe’s Family.” So we, the liberal readers can breathe a sigh of relief and rest assured that she’s not a part of this vast right-wing conspiracy.
What is sad to me about the book is that the picture painted in this book of America’s evangelicalism is accurate enough. It pictures us as concerned more with political power than with the teachings of the lowly Jesus. It shows a “fundamentalism” that is really unconcerned about the fundamental truths of the gospel of Christ. It shows a moralistic politics that is unconcerned about personal morality. And whether we accept the book’s “facts” and/or its conclusions, it does, I believe, present a picture of Christianity that is held by many today.
Paul told the religious people of his day, “… the Name of God is blasphemed among the Gentiles because of you …” (Romans 2:24). Would he say that of us today?