The Family: The Secret Fundamentalism at the Heart of American Power

“The Family” by Jeff Sharlet is not a theology book. It is, however, an attempt to deconstruct a movement, one that has shaped not only religion but also the American identity, by cutting through the intricate web from which the movement fomented with the twin axes of investigative reporting and historical clout. Sharlet does not so much loom above the subject material as stare up from beneath it. He seems as much captive to the process as we are, asking questions and offering insights in an attempt to comprehend the form of the movement, and so to read this book is to be involved with Sharlet as he writes it.

This book is compelling, bewilderment humming through every word of its prose, but it is also fortuitous. “The Decline and Fall of Christian America” an April Newsweek cover read, spoken with the kind of sober demure of a self-appointed forensics investigator, coroner, pathologist, and priest. Newsweek did not come to eulogize the end of faith, of course, but of religion as a viable social and political force.

But Sharlet is never shy about discussing the way in which secularism constantly underestimates fundamentalists, reducing it to a mere idea within the boney case of someone’s head, indeed, interpreting it in recent years as the waning of a light, and so it comes with a bit of a shock along the spinal nerves when Sharlet exposes what has been hiding in front of us all along, in plain sight.

The Family is an elite group of religious fundamentalists, but it is not a conspiracy. They are secretive, yes, paradoxically consolidating power by calling upon powerful people without actually wielding any power as a lobby group or organization (the Family tends to invoke in a post-9/11 world the term prayer “cells,” but such an expression actually dates to the Cold War). Instead, they conjugally wrap themselves in the veneer of politicians and businessmen and evangelicals who seem hardly out of place in America today. One may be surprised by who is and isn’t connected; even when the Family is not involved, their ideas subsist.

As a ministry or a group of Christians, they are best known for the National Prayer Breakfast, but their ultimate creed is power. God works through the elites, the new chosen. They seem to preach self-destruction as a means of ascendance; death to one’s own will by a spiritual drive-by and in so doing it allows the individual to be totally used by God.

Many of the people in this book, including perhaps the founder of the movement, Abraham Vereide, and his darker successor, Doug Coe, all seemed to reach epiphany after wandering the spiritual wilderness, sweating out their religious disorientation in darkly existential suffering. Their desire for something new returned them again to a creed simpler and more fundamental: unequivocal submission, goodness reduced to authority.

With God behind them, any political dictum could be rationalized, such as support for dictators. A failure, like Vietnam, is a failure of the individual to submit to God’s will (9/11 is described as “the ruins of secularism”). This submission is known as Jesus plus nothing. But that nothing could be filled by anything.

Despite his skepticism, the Family invites Sharlet to join one of their houses, Ivanwald, in Arlington, VA. Sharlet is not furtive or deceptive about his motives. He does not need to be. The Family views his arrival as the will of God, a bit of Calvanist decorum. He is cordoned away from the world at large, only existing in their own small space, allowing us to be wrapped in their “mood,” as he calls it, with him, and they become his brothers, but yet he is tepid and restrained, looking upon the behemoth with a sort of perverse awe, rarely arguing against them but letting their own words and actions hang them.

Most of the book is a factual entreaty, bobbing and weaving through a history that is complexly enriched by labor disputes and the thin chill of the Cold War and political intrigue. There is little adipose here; it’s fit and trim and densely-packed. Sharlet throws a dizzying number of names against an overwhelming facade of disparate beliefs (secularism vs. fundamentalism, social Christianity vs. fundamental Christianity, populist fundamentalism vs. elite fundamentalism, and perhaps further mitosis and division from there). Keeping it all in one lane within the reader’s mind represents a technical wonder, but Sharlet offers enough of his own thoughts to give the book focus. He understands people, and he understands motives, both psychological and sociological, and he helps us understand what he has seen.

Sharlet truly soars as he begins illuminating the girders of a larger, more connected picture; our political landscape is, as Sharlet describes it, a Mobius strip, “left and right twisting into one another.” The Family’s brand of fundamentalism advocates the invisible hand of the free market as a literal force, a sort of capitalist Christ, CEO, free only in the sense that it is beyond man’s solvency and in the hands of a more eternal authority. Their false humility trades humble decision-making for vicious certitude, and their influence isn’t transmitted through empire but through ideas, manifest destiny, Cold War-inspired. Whether those ideas are democracy or religion, it is ideology as it’s most granular, metabolized into American values as if its Biblical prophecy.

Hitler and bin Laden and Stalin are invoked by Coe as an organizational model for power. And yet it is clear that they come even closer to these men, not one nation under a man, a cult of personality, perhaps not even a theocracy, but One Nation Under God, at the whim of a Personality, an eternal and Ultimate Personality, with unbending, charismatic individuals (Sharlet verbally paints them with masculine tones) as its messengers around whom others act as satellites. And so at times the movement seems to flirt with totalitarianism itself.

In practice, there does not seem to be a difference between any of these. Fascism of the will, not under something higher, but under something lower, a dark spell that they conjure and impose deep within themselves, is still fascism of the heart and fascism of the mind.

There are some parts of the movement that are intellectual, some parts that aren’t. But the fundamentalists routinely mistake psychology for spiritual warfare, and thus they cannot understand and have compassion because where exists motivations and consequences they can only conceive of as good and evil. They have shut off this awareness of themselves and their circumstances so that a traditional reading of good or bad is abolished: there is only what happens and what doesn’t when one submits to God.

And so what Sharlet presents is a fractured memoire, both intimately described and coldly historical. People shuffle in and out of Sharlet’s focus, existing there and nowhere else, connected from one page to the next by devotions to theme, the larger movement. Even Abrams and Coe seem only important as the convection of an evolving Idea. The Family, or the Fellowship, as subversive as it may be, is nothing more or less than Fundamentalism itself, embroiled and wrapped in power. It is the kind we know exists in America and yet we think is balanced by natural forces.

But in a time when Blackwater seems all the more palpable, fundamentalism cannot be ignored. Sharlet tells with devastating clarity the story of Somalia, war-torn, a Cold War casualty, shaped in the worst of ways by superpowers and treated with the casual indifference of a sacrificial chess piece. “The Family” is not an attack on religion but on ideology that obviates our compassion and individuality. We are not God. We can’t play with souls. And so we must be cautious when someone claims to speak for Him.

I contacted Jeff Sharlet, and he brought to my attention a number of related articles ranging from World Magazine to Salon (by Sharlet) to a rebuttal in Christianity Today from Family associates Frank Wolf and Tony Hall (USA Today offers a counterpoint).