The Family, by Jeff Sharlet was published in 2008 by Harper Collins.
By now, most of you have seen on TV or read in a magazine or newspaper about the clique of politicians embroiled in sex scandals while living in a C-Street mansion in Washington, DC. While Senator Ensign and a host of other notables were using this address as a hangout and refuge and ignoring the commonly accepted rules for personal responsibility, they also prayed together. Yes, the family that prays together also preys together. What a concept! Unfortunately for them, since the book was published, their tax exemption for the house as a church has been revoked.
Jeff Sharlet conducted extensive research that required years of interviewing members of the Family in wide ranging settings from Washington, where he was accepted as a sort of research intern, to Colorado Springs where he joined fundamentalists in their everyday religious activities to develop information that uncovered an extra-legal and off-government influence of worldwide events.
The group began formally in 1935 when a Norwegian immigrant (Abraham Vereide) established the International Christian Leadership that became a front for American fundamentalism that has since expanded beyond any reasonable expectation. Now who could have any objection to prayer? That is a fair question that only reading the book will begin to answer. To start with, the name “Christian” has a different meaning for most of us because the theological base of the New Testament seems paramount in the mix of things. Not so for many fundamentalists who seem to be focused on the Old Testament and especially King David whose reputation for adultery and murder might seem at odds with a religion that touts the Beatitudes.
The answers seem rooted in the concept of power that the Family espouses. The powerful do not have to live by the rules of the ordinary folk. God chose David. This act gave David power and power does not have to answer to ordinary rules. You can see where this is going on the level of individuals in power, but what you cannot easily see is that a concept like this would go nowhere unless it was enabled by people in power. Note that the National Prayer Breakfast (formerly the Presidential Prayer Breakfast) is organized by the Family, so that the group creates access to those currently in power.
Some of you will probably see in this fabric the hint of a Calvinistic pre-ordained nature of humanity. Either you are saved or not, and nothing you do will change the outcome. This surely reinforces the powerful and it also makes the rest of us a little out of the picture unless we take sides and join with the powerful to get God’s work done. This is less an illusion and more a matter of secrecy and organization. Concentric organizational circles are drawn that offers something to everyone. Those on the inside touch power and make things happen. Those nearby such as in Ivanwald in Arlington, Virginia, support the Family directly and hope to grow from being congressional aides to men with real power. And, yes, men, because women have a different role in this scheme and direct access to power is not a fundamentalist role for women. Those several circles away take pride in doing God’s work as they see it, and they pray to support the aims of the leaders.
Sharlet carefully explains the links between economic Darwinism and political power through the policies that are promoted by the Family. This allows the group to endorse strong leadership without any flinching and also promotes the image of Hitler, Stalin, Lenin, and even Mao as examples of how power gets things done. Abraham Vereide (Abram) expressed preference for Hitler over Roosevelt who dared to curtail the suffering of Americans during the Depression while Hitler took action against those who were adding nothing to the German community (as he saw it). Later, Doug Coe, taking over the Family from Abram, did likewise. Coe often told the story of how just seven men (Hitler’s closest group from the putsch) were able to do so much to change history (and that the Family should also do so by using power and secrecy).
Again, all this would mean little unless something happened to change “prayer groups” into action committees (cells) at home and abroad. The Family does that handily using Supreme Court judges, senators, representatives and ambassadors and generals in several of the concentric circles. If somebody in the Family feels that it is God’s will that the people of Uganda should have abstinence education instead of condoms to slow the ravage of AIDS, look to Senator Brownback and others to introduce legislation to do that for God and the Family. Unfortunately, the AIDS rate spiked up when he succeeded, but then, pain and suffering are part of God’s plan, so that is not a problem.
In the 40s and 50s the Family effort was to provide get-out-of-jail cards for Nazis. In the 60s and 70s, the Family took the side of Suharto against the citizens of East Timor. Over 600,000 were massacred according to Sharlet (men, women and children, if that makes a difference to the pure), while Wikipedia allows only 100,000 for those killings. What is also chilling is the language that Suharto used. He spoke of the “New Order.” That language was also used by Hitler, Abram Vereide and our own neocons. How could that be? Suharto was invited to the Family’s prayer groups and, incidentally, they never condemned his actions. The reason they supported Suharto was because he was anti-communist although communists did not control East Timor, Suharto was a strong man doing god’s will. The “New Order” calls for hegemony built on absolute acceptance of “Jesus plus nothing.” That is a concept where Jesus is stripped of everything but power and it is a tenet of the Family that separates it from most of Christianity.
This Family scenario is replicated with African and Central/South American dictators and with similar devastating results and, in each case, whether the excuse be homosexuality, communism, or even the lack of “free” markets, the results were the same and help was obtained through our own and allied elected and appointed officials who went to extraordinary efforts to support foreign murderers and thieves. The list includes Papa Doc Duvallier, Emporer Selassie, General Park of Korea and General Medici of Brazil. American resources were spent through foreign aid and other means to do what the Family could not do on its own but did through influencing power so that, in the end, the will of the Family prevailed.
Jeff Sharlet studied several religions for years and then got on the ground with hundreds of fundamentalists here and abroad to discover how this strange group with its concentric circles of faithful was able to get business done. The concentric circles have decreasing power and knowledge of the secrets of the Family as they become more distant from the small group of leaders. The common element appears to be a prayer breakfast. That is something most of us have participated in, so how could anything so innocuous become so powerful in a this-worldly and vicious manner?
Much of the present magnetism of the Family is derived from early American fundamentalists with the ingenious addition of the focus on power. This is a must-read book for anyone interested in today’s reality. I commend this book to anybody that is curious as to why things are as they are. It is a sobering look at how things get done, even when they are too horrible to contemplate.