Bringing the Elite to Jesus

Review of Jeff Sharlet, The Family: The Secret Fundamentalism at the Heart of American Power (New York: HarperCollins, 2008)

By Matthew N. Lyons

This book review was published in New Politics 13, no. 1, Whole Number 49 (Summer 2010) and is reprinted with permission.

Since the “New Right” upsurge of the late 1970s, right-wing evangelical Christianity has established itself as one of the largest and most sustained political movements in U.S. history. From international media empires to living room prayer groups, from think tanks and lobbyists to rock bands and homeschoolers, the Christian Right encompasses a vast infrastructure and subculture with tens of millions of participants. Among opponents, stereotypes and myths about the Christian Right are common: that it represents a monolithic, fanatical fringe; that it’s a backward-looking movement of people out of touch with the modern world; or that it’s on the verge of collapse. In 1993, the Washington Post famously derided Christian rightists as “largely poor, uneducated, and easy to command” (337). In reality, Sunbelt suburbanites are at the heart of the movement, and tens of thousands of its members have taken on grassroots leadership roles.

Starting with Sara Diamond’s 1989 book, Spiritual Warfare: The Politics of the Christian Right, a number of writers have challenged these stereotypes and presented thoughtful critiques of the Christian Right and, often, its interconnections with a larger oppressive social order. Jeff Sharlet’s The Family is squarely in this tradition. Sharlet highlights “the almost sexual tension of [the movement’s] contradictions: its reverence for both rebellion and authority, democracy and theocracy, blood and innocence” (345). He portrays not only the repulsive side of Christian Right politics–the authoritarianism, the misogyny, the callousness toward human suffering–but also the sense of excitement and vitality that have helped make it a mass movement. He shows rank-and-file Christian rightists not as mindless followers but thinking people who don’t always agree with their leaders. And he emphasizes that “American fundamentalism,” as he calls it, is not some recent aberration but something deeply rooted in U.S. cultural and political history. None of these are new ideas, but they are all worth repeating.

What’s new and different about Sharlet’s book is that he focuses on a major branch of the Christian Right that most previous writers have simply missed. “The Family” is a secretive evangelical network that has attracted a startling array of high-ranking political figures in the United States and around the world. Shortly after Sharlet’s book came out, a series of sex scandals involving prominent Republicans brought the organization known as the Family to national attention and made the book a New York Times bestseller. But sex scandals are at most a side issue here. Sharlet lists ten current U.S. senators and several congressmen as members, along with deceased members such as Senator Strom Thurmond, Supreme Court Chief Justice William Rehnquist, and Attorney General John Ashcroft. Overseas participants include Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni and Zulu chief Mangosuthu Buthelezi of South Africa. The Family’s Youth Corps project, which grooms recruits for leadership roles in government and business, operates in over a dozen countries on four continents. The National Prayer Breakfast, the Family’s one public activity, draws thousands of U.S. and foreign political and business leaders to the Washington Hilton each February. Under various names (the Fellowship, National Committee for Christian Leadership, International Christian Leadership, and others) the Family has been around since 1935.

Sharlet describes the Family as a vanguard of American fundamentalism, “a movement that recasts theology in the language of empire” (3). Strictly speaking, Christian fundamentalists believe in a literal interpretation of the Bible, and I prefer this usage for reasons of clarity. But in this review I will follow Sharlet, who uses the term fundamentalism more broadly to denote those who believe in “a Christ of absolute devotion, not questions,” “a story that never changes,” and who want to “conform every aspect of society to God” (4-5). He calls this movement American “not because it is nationalistic but because it is a melting pot movement,” which brings together “traditional fundamentalists and evangelicals, Pentecostals and Roman Catholics, Democrats and Republicans…in the service of an imperial ambition. Not the conquest of territory; the conquest of hearts and minds” (3).

Sharlet argues that American fundamentalism encompasses two major strands: populist fundamentalism, which includes most of the major Christian rightist organizations, such as Focus on the Family, the Christian Coalition, and Concerned Women for America; and elite fundamentalism, embodied in the Family. Both of these strands:

  • regard Jesus’s divinity as absolute truth and all other belief systems as evil;
  • advocate expanded Christian influence on or control over public policy;
  • promote a hierarchical social order, including patriarchal gender roles, heterosexism, European ethnocentrism, and “free market” capitalism; and
  • regard the United States as the greatest country in the world and promote U.S. global dominance.

But within this shared framework, the contrasts between the two strands are striking. Populist fundamentalism has focused on a core set of domestic social issues, notably opposition to homosexuality and abortion rights, as tools for recruiting millions of supporters and thereby amassing political power. Most Christian Right groups have carved out a sharply defined political niche on the right wing of the Republican Party; many have embraced a loud, confrontational style.

The Family is different. Its strategy centers not on building a mass base, but forging ties with powerful political figures–regardless of their religious or political beliefs. Although closest to conservative Republicans such as Kansas Senator Sam Brownback, the Family is also happy to work with moderates or liberals of both major parties, such as Hillary Clinton, who in 2005 participated regularly in Family prayer events, or Al Gore, who has publicly referred to Family head Doug Coe as a “friend.” The Family operates mostly behind the scenes and approaches conflict with a genteel subtlety geared toward cultivating elite unity. “The big Christian lobbying groups push and shout; the Family simply surrounds politicians with prayer cells. They don’t try to convert anyone. They don’t ask for anything. They’re as patient as a glacier” (259).

Compared with most Christian rightists, the Family is also less focused on enforcing so-called traditional values and much more concerned with bolstering capitalist rule and U.S. global power. The Family began as a union-busting initiative, and it operates today largely as a religious adjunct to American empire–arranging prayer meetings, for example, between representatives of authoritarian regimes in Asia, Africa, Central and South America, and Eastern Europe, and top officials of the U.S. government.

The Family is all about power. It believes that the wealthy and powerful are chosen by God, and its mission as an organization centers on bringing them to Jesus, bringing them into a spiritual “covenant” of total unity with each other. “Hitler made a covenant,” Doug Coe is apparently fond of saying. “The Mafia makes a covenant. It is a very powerful thing” –all the more so when it is based on submission to Jesus (54). The Family teaches that those who hold worldly power, as long as they pledge obedience to Jesus, can kill, torture, rape, steal, and lie on a mass scale with no moral constraints whatsoever. This, too, sets the Family apart. Christian rightists generally present themselves as defenders of civic morality. However twisted or hypocritical that claim may be in practice, it’s a far cry from the Family’s absolute repudiation of ethical principles.

The Family’s orientation toward bolstering worldly power has helped it maintain a low profile. “It so neatly harmonizes with the political shape of worldly things,” Sharlet notes, “that it’s nearly indistinguishable from secular conceptions of social order” (57). Almost, but not quite, indistinguishable. As Sharlet writes of the elite religion promoted by Family founder Abraham Vereide, “In one sense, it was nothing more than a defense of the status quo. It neither challenged power nor asked for anything from the powerful but their good intentions. In another, it was the most ambitious theocratic project of the American century, ‘every Christian a leader, every leader a Christian,’ and this ruling class of Christ-committed men bound in a fellowship of the anointed, the chosen, key men in a voluntary dictatorship of the divine” (91).

Sharlet traces the roots of elite fundamentalism to the eighteenth-century New England revivalist Jonathan Edwards, who fostered intense religious zeal among his followers (to the point that some of them committed suicide in order to wipe out sin and be closer to God), but blended it, in Sharlet’s reading, with “an adoration of power, divine and worldly” (61):

His religion was radical, available to all classes and even to slaves, an inspiration to the nascent sense of individual liberty that would become the American Revolution, but his politics were warlike and controlling. Empire struck him as an ideal vessel for the Gospel. He preached often against envy, but named as envy only that feeling which filled those of lesser wealth, or lesser land, or lesser status, who determined to band together to wrest power from above (69).

Jumping forward, Sharlet relates how Vereide, a Norwegian immigrant, founded the Fellowship (the organization now known as the Family) in Seattle in 1935, in direct response to a wave of militant strikes along the West Coast. First regionally and then nationally, business leaders rallied to Vereide’s prayer circles as a way to inject a new spirit of purpose and unity into their fight against organized labor and the New Deal. With the Cold War, Vereide’s “International Christian Leadership” spread to western Europe, notably West Germany, where it helped to rehabilitate a number of former Nazis into anticommunist respectability. (Sharlet describes Vereide’s relationship with fascism as “weirdly ambivalent” [124]. He cultivated Nazi sympathizers Henry Ford and Charles Lindbergh and recruited at least one genuine fascist, Merwin K. Hart, to the Fellowship board, but was ultimately more at home with conservative Republicans than far right rabble rousers such as Father Coughlin.) In the 1960s, Coe succeeded Vereide as organizational leader and made two important changes: Following the trajectory of U.S. Cold War policy, he shifted the Fellowship’s international focus away from Europe toward Latin America, Asia, and Africa, and he took the organization “underground,” moving it out of the public eye as much as possible, as a protective measure against sixties radicalism and upheaval.

Over the past seventy-five years, the Family has been remarkably successful at embedding itself in the U.S. and international power structure. Using prayer events and quiet meetings, it brings together politicians, businessmen, and military leaders in configurations of its own choosing. Sharlet sees the Family’s influence in a wide range of diplomatic initiatives. In the 1960s, it brought members of Congress together with dictators from Brazil, Indonesia, and South Korea; in the 1980s, it organized face-to-face meetings between Salvadoran and Honduran generals and Reagan administration officials. In domestic politics, a Family-groomed bureaucrat oversaw President George W. Bush’s Office of Faith-Based Initiatives, which drove “irreparable cracks into the wall of separation between church and state” (383).

From the standpoint of political and business elites, the Family appears to perform several useful functions. Its international network offers a convenient way to make contacts and cut deals away from public scrutiny. Like some weird throwback to the divine right of kings, its ideology enables members of the ruling class to justify their power–not to those they rule over, but to each other and to themselves. Offering a belief system specifically for elite consumption, it also fosters a sense of class unity–one that is rooted in a specifically American culture but accessible to any dictator, general, or CEO anywhere in the world who is willing to pray to Jesus.

Some members of the elite are drawn to this “covenant” more than others, for reasons of both culture and self-interest. Allowing for individual variations, it would be useful to explore this in structural terms: Which specific capitalist sectors has the Family cultivated most successfully? This is beyond the scope of Sharlet’s work, but he does offer helpful bits and pieces, as when he notes traditionally strong ties between the Family and the oil and aerospace industries (19), or Family-organized seminars for executives in oil, defense, insurance, and banking (22). All of that is broadly consistent with previous accounts of capitalist support for the Christian Right. (See, for example, Mike Davis, Prisoners of the American Dream, or Thomas Ferguson and Joel Rogers, Right Turn: The Decline of the Democrats and the Future of American Politics, both published in 1986.) But do the differences between elite and populist fundamentalism translate into any differences in their elite connections?

Sharlet’s approach to historical narrative, which makes up a good half of the book, presents certain problems. The account of the Family and its forerunners draws on extensive primary and secondary sources, including the Family’s organizational records archived at the Billy Graham Center at Wheaton College. Sharlet has dramatized this material into an engaging story, but it’s not always apparent which parts are documented and which are his interpretation or inference, especially when he gives us historical figures’ dialog, thoughts, or feelings.

Sharlet’s narrative approach also makes it difficult to answer a key question: Given that the Family has adopted a strategy of swimming with the ruling class current, to what extent has its involvement actually altered the course of events? The answer is not always clear, and by depicting history through the lens of the Family’s role, Sharlet sometimes risks exaggerating its impact. In the deepening Cold War of the late 1940s, Vereide and his associates helped legitimize a number of former Hitler supporters in West Germany, but so did major sections of the U.S. government, military, and intelligence services. In the early 1980s, the Family opened doors at the Pentagon for Somali dictator Siad Barre, but the Reagan administration began funding him as a counterweight to Ethiopia, which had recently allied itself with the USSR. Sharlet’s discussion of these and other policy moments doesn’t include enough about other actors to let us clearly assess the Family’s influence.

In focusing on elite fundamentalism, Sharlet also misses a number of important points about the larger Christian Right. He offers a thoughtfully nuanced portrait of the movement’s “sexual purity” campaign, but never addresses the fact that this is the first mass movement in U.S. history to put male supremacy and heterosexism at the center of its program. (For more on the movement’s gender politics, see Kathryn Joyce, Quiverfull: Inside the Christian Patriarchy Movement [2009], or Jean Hardisty, Mobilizing Resentment: Conservative Resurgence from the John Birch Society to the Promise Keepers [1999].) Sharlet also underplays populist fundamentalism’s elite dimension. In the late 1970s, the movement’s big national boost relied on the Moral Majority’s top-down direct mailings more than the grassroots organizing Sharlet emphasizes (which came into its own only gradually over the following decade). In the 1980s, major Christian Right groups put a lot of energy into foreign policy (aiding counterrevolutionary forces in Asia, Africa, and Central America) not just domestic policy. And mass-based Christian Right groups have attracted significant capitalist support and spawned leaders who are major business figures in their own right.

At the same time, in describing the Christian Right as “a cultural front without a politics” (289), Sharlet also neglects tendencies within that movement that challenge the established order at a systemic level. Although most Christian Right groups work within the existing political framework, a hard-line minority aims to sweep away all pluralistic and secular institutions and impose its version of biblical law on all areas of society. The clearest expression of this tendency is Christian Reconstructionism, which Sharlet ambiguously labels “a defunct but subtly influential school of thought” (347). Reconstructionists helped build the paramilitary wing of the anti-abortion rights movement, which assassinated several abortion providers in the 1990s, as well as the Constitution Party and sections of the Patriot movement. More broadly, Reconstructionism has helped foster and intensify theocratic tendencies throughout the Christian Right.

Fundamentalism’s relationship with its political opponents, while not a central focus of the book, helps to frame the story Sharlet is telling. “The lesson of elite fundamentalism” in its battle with secularism, he writes, “is that the sides are not just blurry, they’re interwoven” (288). Sharlet astutely criticizes secular liberals for both complacency (“Our refusal to recognize the theocratic strand running throughout American history is as self-deceiving as fundamentalism’s insistence that the United States was created as a Christian nation” [367]) and complicity (“The Cold War liberalism that led to American wars and proxy wars…ran parallel with elite fundamentalism’s sense of its own divine universalism” [288]). These comments are a welcome contrast to those critics of the Christian Right who demonize “religious extremism” while mythologizing a supposed democratic center.

More problematic is Sharlet’s effort to portray fundamentalism as the mirror image of the radical left, as when he labels mass-based Christian Right groups “the popular front” or titles a chapter “The Romance of American Fundamentalism,” referring to Vivian Gornick’s The Romance of American Communism. Yes, there are resonances and interconnections to be explored, such as the Family’s stated admiration for Lenin and Mao or its adoption of a Communist-inspired cell structure. But Sharlet doesn’t explore them far enough and at times sounds uncomfortably like a centrist of the “radical left equals radical right” school. He is simply wrong when he claims that in targeting secularism, the Christian Right is “rail[ing] against the same familiar enemy” as 1930s labor organizers did when they identified capitalism as their opponent (289). There is a basic difference between blaming your problems, even crudely, on class exploitation and blaming them on disrespect for God’s law.

Despite its limitations, Jeff Sharlet’s The Family is a valuable book that enriches our understanding of right-wing politics, elite networks, and the role of Christianity in U.S. society. Exposing politicians’ sex scandals is easy; tracing the underlying dynamics of ideology and power takes work.

3 thoughts on “Bringing the Elite to Jesus”

  1. Matthew — thanks for this thoughtful, close reading of my book. I'm grateful. I hope you'll take my response in the spirit of conversation. To that end, the most important clarification I have is that I most certainly am not a "centrist of the 'radical left equals radical right' school." I'm a radical leftist. By invoking the "popular front" or Vivian Gornick's wonderful (but rather centrist) book The Romance of American Communism, I meant not to say a pox on both houses but rather to suggest, as you point out, the "excitement and vitality" of mass movements. Fundamentalism is NOT fascism; it's its own monster. But in many communities, it draws on the same intuitive sense that precedes any radical critique, the awareness that the world-as-it-is is unjust.

    You're right about there being a difference between blaming your problems on class exploitation and blaming them on disrespect for God's order. But before both comes a recognition that something just isn't right. That's especially important when we remember that modern fundamentalism had its roots in the class critique of William Jennings Bryan. That was populist, not radical, but it was certainly cognizant of class and exploitation. When we look at the Pentecostal energy that informs the Landless Peasants Movement in Brazil, we see the other road fundamentalism could have taken.

    As for the Family's admiration for Lenin, Mao, and cells — there are no interconnections there. That's based on caricature and a fetish for strength. (continued…)

  2. continued from the previous comment:
    On to gender, which I agree is one of the weaknesses of the book. I don't write much about it. (Though it's a bit ironic that you cite my good friend Kathryn Joyce, with whom I co-authored an article that led to chapter 10 of the book, as a corrective — I published all of Kathryn's early work.) But that weakness aside, this is hardly the first mass movement in U.S. history to put male supremacy at the center of its program. In fact, I'd challenge you to name any real mass movement but queer rights, feminism, and a few scattered branches of labor that didn't. I chose not to focus on that subject because it's been so brilliantly examined by other writers. Likewise my decision not to delve into the much-chronicled "elite" dimension of populist fundamentalism — we could fill bookshelves with great studies on that subject.

    You get at a more interesting question, I think, with your point that my book does not offer a clear answer to the question of whether the Family altered the course of events. That said, I believe I explicitly state that I think that's the wrong approach. The Family provided the religious justification for many of empire's most effective apostles. Would they have found another justification without it? Probably. But this is the one they used, and thus it's worth understanding. I don't think decisive answers are possible. Would Reagan have found another channel to Barre? Possibly, but this is the one the U.S. used.

    In my new book, a sequel of sorts titled C STREET (coming out this September), I delve at great length into the Family's role in the U.S.-Uganda relationship, which, I'd argue, would likely not have have developed without the Family.

    C STREET does deal with the sex scandals; not because they're titillating but because they're the metaphor with which a public mostly deaf and blind to ideology discuss their sense that they're being exploited. Decoding that story, and its construction, is as important, I believe, as the other stories I tell in the new book, of the Family's role in the U.S. arms build up in Sri Lanka, its role in blocking sanctions against Nigeria's Sani Abacha, and, most troublingly, in Uganda.

    Last but not least: No dialogue in the book is made up or speculative.

    Thanks again, Matthew, for the review. I may disagree, but I can't complain — it's detailed and considered and informed. And it's in New Politics! All that an author could ask for.

  3. Jeff,

    Thank you for your gracious and comradely response to my review. Your comments about the relationship between fundamentalism and the Left are particularly helpful.

    I did notice that you and Kathryn Joyce feature prominently in each other's Acknowledgements sections. Your work and hers complement each other well.

    On the issue of the Christian Right putting male supremacy at the center of its program, I don't just mean that it is committed to male dominance, as most political movements have been throughout U.S. history. Rather, I mean that the Christian Right is the first political mass movement that has made the defense and intensification of male dominance an explicit central goal and core mobilizing theme. This is testament to how effective the modern feminist movement has been in shaking the structures of male power. Even first wave feminism's success in winning women's suffrage did not evoke a backlash like this. The 1920s Ku Klux Klan movement, for example, which embodied a backlash against so many things, actually incorporated many feminist themes and ex-suffragists alongside gender traditionalists, as Kathleen Blee and others have shown.

    You argue that the question of whether the Family altered the course of events is "the wrong approach." I disagree for two reasons. First, readers of your book who lack broader historical knowledge may come away with a distorted picture of some events. The clearest example for me is the rehabilitation of unrepentant Nazi supporters in postwar West Germany. In this case, the Family was one of many actors — and not the most influential one — working toward the same goal. But you don't mention most of the other actors, so uninformed readers may be misled.

    The larger problem is that if the Family's role has only been that it "provided the religious justification for many of the empire's most effective apostles," then the Family's own political agenda doesn't matter. That conflicts with your book's core argument that the Family has been working quietly for 75 years to establish a global theocracy. I think the Family's agenda does matter, and I think it has altered some events (Uganda's anti-AIDS program, for example). My point is that we can't fully assess this unless we look at the Family's role in relation to other forces. I concede that "decisive answers" are often not possible (what else is new?), but provisional answers are better than none.

    Thanks for the news about your forthcoming book, C Street. I look forward to reading it.



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