From Barack Obama’s incendiary pastor, to Mitt Romney’s Mormonism, to Mike Huckabee’s southern Baptist roots, religion is the constant in America’s choosing of a president. Racism, sexism, health policy, the economy and Iraq have had their moments, but religion renews itself with every fresh controversy.
Even John McCain, relatively secure as presumed Republican candidate, has jettisoned a preacher whose endorsement became politically untenable.
Overt fundamentalists, the Bible thumping televangelist populists, are the antithesis of the secretive network he has identified and that is known variously as The Fellowship and The Family.
The Family organises Washington politicians into intimate “prayer cells”, influences foreign policy, inspired the creation of the president’s Annual Prayer Breakfast in 1953 and sponsored President George Bush’s faith-based policy of transferring social welfare responsibilities to religious groups in 2001. It has actively narrowed debate, limiting what change might be possible.
“The Family is an international network of evangelical elites, in government, military and business, dating back 70 years, organised around this one central idea, which was that Christianity for 2000 years got it wrong,” Sharlet says.
“Christianity, in theory anyway, was about the poor, the weak, the suffering, the down-and-out, and the idea of the founder of this network was that God was more interested in those whom he called the up-and-out: the wealthy, the powerful, those with status. (They rely) on this very literal reading of a verse from Paul’s letter to the Romans: ‘The powers that be are ordained of God.’ They take that very literally. If you have power that’s because God wants you to have power.”
It is essentially a conservative concept, defensive of the status quo and a marked contrast with another American contribution to Christian thought, black liberation theology. The Family worships a “manly Jesus” for whom the compassion of the Sermon on the Mount was an aberration.
It might be tempting to dismiss The Family as just another product of the home of conspiracy theories had not the man at the head of the network, Doug Coe, been attested to by presidents such as George Bush, Bill Clinton and George Bush snr, and the group referred to guardedly by Ronald Reagan: “It is working precisely because it is private.”
Sharlet offers a roll-call of, mostly Republican, senators who have been or are members, and notes that while Hillary Clinton is not a member, she has prayed with Coe and is considered a “friend” of The Family. The bigger problem, however, is that The Family is so deeply embedded in Washington that Clinton is not unusual in holding even her casual link to the group, he says.
When a Time magazine reporter who was researching the most influential religious figures in the country approached Sharlet for his opinion, Sharlet suggested the reporter ask around Congress about Coe. The reporter, who had not previously heard of Coe, learned enough to label him “The Stealth Persuader”.
Sharlet, a contributing editor for Harper’s and Rolling Stone magazines, encountered the group by accident seven years ago when he was reporting on fringe religious groups and was invited to one of its residential centres, called Ivanwald, in Virginia.
Those with whom he stayed at Ivanwald were caretakers of The Family headquarters known as The Cedars, where meetings of congressmen, businessmen, ambassadors and foreign leaders were held. While he was there, Sharlet was told that Megawati Sukarnoputri visited The Cedars in her time as Indonesian president. He later discovered a cache of documents, more than 600 boxes of papers archived and forgotten, which unlocked the network’s history.
His work has resulted in his book The Family. Its central finding is that American fundamentalism has two movements, and that the most influential is the least visible. There is the public face, the popular image of sweating, impassioned televangelists, and there is the private one comprising the exclusive world of The Family.
“There’s sort of a trickle-down fundamentalism that begins with the elites and winds up in the mass movements,” he says.
“Ever since the ‘Scopes Monkey Trial’ of 1925, the media has been declaring Christian fundamentalism dead every few years, and it just keeps coming back. The press can see religion when it’s working class and poor; it has a much harder time seeing it when it’s infused at the top levels.”
Sharlet says The Family facilitated aid and links to US industry for dictators such as Papa Doc of Haiti, Siad Barre of Somalia and Indonesia’s Suharto. It finds “friends” in Congress for powerful foreigners and influences foreign policy. Coe annually subverts normal vetting procedures for foreign leaders by arranging for them to meet the President at the annual prayer breakfast, Sharlet says. In short, The Family is a secretive, undemocratic organisation that is prepared to aid and abet dictators.
Since it works on the inside, there is no need for fulminating at the pulpit. Sharlet quotes Coe as saying in a rare interview: “We work with power where we can, build new power where we can’t.”
Sharlet says the push for a “government led by God” is done through secret alliances and in defiance of democratic processes.
“I think it’s dangerous. In some ways I resist calling it a left-right issue – although they do tend to be right-wingers – so much as an issue of open democracy, of transparency.
“They use this pretentious phrase of bringing politicians together to make decisions ‘beyond the din of the vox populi’, the voice of the people. At its worst it’s cynical cronyism.
“What The Family does when it says it is going to get beyond politics is try to shut down the debate.”
Coe preaches submission, and approvingly cites Hitler and Mao. “There’s this constant thread and reverence for what essentially is an authoritarian concept of God, that what matters most in one’s concept of God is obedience,” Sharlet says.
“When I was living with those guys in Ivanwald, you literally turn over decision-making in every aspect of your life. Not just these grand issues of what am I going to do with my life, but should I date this woman?”
It was The Family’s conceit that it thought it could recruit Sharlet, half-Jewish and a leftish journalist, to its distinctive ways.
A bit like Groucho Marx – who did not want to join any club that would have him as a member – Sharlet was amazed to find himself in their company at Ivanwald, where he lived for a month in an all-male, no-drinking, no swearing, arm-wrestling dormitory.
Had they only Googled me, he says, they’d have realised what an unpromising prospect they had. In his background, however, were hints of fertile ground for The Family.
Sharlet’s parents separated when he was two, but he remained close to his Jewish father even as he was raised by his mother, Nancy. His mother was Pentacostal, a member of that fevered troop of Christians inclined to talking in tongues, although she was not so inclined.
She had family among Tennessee hillbillies, but after her separation from Sharlet’s father, she stayed around New York State in a town that, Sharlet says, was unusually anti-Semitic.
Nancy Sharlet was something of a hippie, sampling from numerous religions so that her son grew up surrounded by questions of faith. Catholics would come to pray at their home at noon, and a couple of hours later a Buddhist nun would arrive. It seemed that he was immersed in the entire panoply of religion, with his mother drawn to whichever service had the best music.
Sharlet’s father might have interested The Family. Robert Sharlet was an academic and a specialist in Soviet politics. As a Sovietologist he served as an adviser to the CIA.
“I think the Family liked the fact I was Jewish. Having a Jew pray to Jesus shows the power of Jesus. They liked the fact I was a journalist and they liked the fact my father was a consultant to the CIA,” Sharlet says.
An uncle, also Jeff Sharlet, served in Vietnam as a translator and intelligence officer in 1962-63 and became a critic of the war. He died of cancer, aged 27, having been exposed to a precursor of Agent Orange. He has inspired Sharlet’s next major book, covering GI anti-war movements. It is a joint project with his father, who has done much of the research tracking down veterans.
But first, Sharlet, 36, has another job, having been commissioned to write the story of the evolution, or devolution, of Pete Seeger’s song If I Had a Hammer.
“It’s telling the decline of the American left through the story of that song. When it was first performed there was a huge anti-communist riot in response to it,” Sharlet says. Recorded by Peter, Paul and Mary, it became a civil-rights anthem. “Today, it’s a kids’ song and there’s a hokey-pokey dance you do to it.
“It’s a completely depoliticised song now. The original was not so. Pete Seeger was not just a communist, he was a Stalinist.”
Sharlet lives in New York, a place of infinite wickedness to The Family, a fact that may also have enhanced his appeal to them as a reform project. Despite Hillary Clinton’s involvement with The Family, Sharlet says he voted for her.
“Her involvement is not huge, but that it’s there at all is tremendously significant for the relationship of religion and politics in America. The idea that a group with ideas this eccentric and explicitly anti-democratic (exists) suggests something about the unwillingness of politicians who ought to know better to even challenge that establishment,” he says.
He hopes one of the results of the book’s publication is that newly elected members of Congress will not be blind to the network they are asked to join when invited to one of Coe’s prayer cells.
But sitting in a cafe in Brooklyn’s Carroll Gardens district on the eve of the book’s launch, he was not expecting a big splash. The Family will try to roll with the punch.
They are in power, but they are soft-spoken. And unique to religion in America, invisible by design.
JEFF Sharlet found an Australian association to The Family in his initial contact with the network: one of his fellow inhabitants at Ivanwald, who is unnamed in the book, said he was there on the recommendation of (now former) Liberal federal MP Bruce Baird.
The Family’s links to Australia appear to run much deeper, however.
Australia has had a national prayer breakfast for more then 20 years, and the documents unearthed by Sharlet tell of a delegation of US congressmen in 1966 meeting “leaders in the Australian Parliament” to discuss breakfast groups.
Earlier still, in 1963, an Australian parliamentary group was reported as communicating regularly with a US Senate group. Another reference, in an undated telegram believed to have been sent around 1980, identifies a former immigration minister in the Fraser Government, Michael MacKellar, as an Australian contact for The Family’s leader, Doug Coe.
And the Australian ambassador to the US immediately after World War II, former Labor MP Norman Makin, is identified in a 1948 newsletter as a key speaker to a meeting of the group, which was then known as the National Committee for Christian Leadership. A 1949 reference notes “Ambassador Makin starting groups there”.
In a very different way, Australia’s ties to the group extend to its creation.
In the fear and uncertainty that the Great Depression wrought on 1930s America, The Family was created following industrial violence centred on the San Francisco waterfront.
Leading striking workers was a Melbourne-born militant, Harry Bridges, a member of the Industrial Workers of the World.
“The Family really begins when the founder (Abraham Vereide) has this vision, which he thinks comes from God, that Harry Bridges, this Australian labour organiser who organised really the biggest strike in American history, a very successful strike, is a Satanic and Soviet agent,” Sharlet says.
Vereide began by uniting a group of business leaders that tied his vision of Christianity to what became a political machine. “This is one of the interesting things,” Sharlet says. “American elite fundamentalism begins not around an issue of abortion, sexuality or anything like that, but against organised labour.”
The Family, by Jeff Sharlet, is published in Australia by Queensland University Press. RRP $34.95