The Family: A secret conspiracy of religious fundamentalists, who use their unequaled access to American politicians to meet in secret with overseas dictators, sounds like the plot of a Tom Clancy novel. If true, or if masquerading as truth, then one would expect to find it in a photocopied zine left in a punk rock cafe or an Allston laundromat. Not in a well-researched book, excerpts of which have appeared in Harper’s and Rolling Stone. Not by a man who’s met this conspiracy in the flesh.
But such a book is Jeff Sharlet’s The Family. And such a conspiracy is … well, the Fellowship is such a loose grouping of interconnected “prayer cells” that it’s tough to give them a single name. Founded in 1935 by Norwegian missionary Abraham Vereide, it started as a means to create a solid anti-union, anti-communist front – in the name of Jesus – on America’s west coast. It has grown since then: a faith that does not target congregations but “key men” in places of high power. Since Vereide’s directive that his brothers “submerge the institutional image” of the Family in 1966, they have had no formal status. It’s hard to call a faith that builds no megachurches, sponsors no protests, and does nothing public except run the National Prayer Breakfast a “fundamentalist conspiracy.”
And yet many of the Watergate co-conspirators, including Chuck Colson and James McCord, were members of the Fellowship. Gerald Ford prayed in a secret prayer cell with them. William Rehnquist led the Family’s bible study for federal judges. Figures attacked by controversy, such as James Watt and Clarence Thomas, have absconded to the Family’s private retreat – the Cedars – to avoid the public eye. Reagan and Bush Sr praised the Family for its secrecy and diplomatic efforts. Paul Temple, former Exxon executive, helps support the Family through generous donations. The Fellowship was instrumental in arranging the Camp David accords in 1978 and the Congo/Rwanda talks in 2002. Senators Hillary Clinton, Sam Brownback and John Ensign, as well as Congressman Chip Pickering and Gov. Mark Sanford have all relied on the Family for moral guidance, if not diplomatic cachet. And this is a short list.
What makes the Family so successful, if not so sinister, is that they’re not obvious in their fundamentalism. They don’t have much use for the Bible beyond the New Testament, and even that they don’t memorize. They don’t build a lot of churches. They don’t write op-eds opposing gay marriage. What they have done, rather, is quietly command the ear of every President since Eisenhower, the most powerful men in both houses of Congress, the occasional Supreme Court Justice, and many American diplomats abroad.
Their explicit goal is to turn the U.S. into a Christian nation, and thereby the world into a Christian planet. Or not Christian, rather, but Christ-loving. As Sharlet makes clear, the Fellowship does not believe in the idea of Christianity so much as they worship Christ the man: God made flesh, the ultimate source of power in human form. And in spreading God’s power around the world, they have funneled money and U.S. aid to some of the 20th Century’s worst dictators, including Mohammed Siad Barre, Suharto and Gustavo Alvarez Martinez.
Sharlet doesn’t spend the entire book on the Family (though he could). He spends a lot of time digging into America’s religious history: its Pilgrim founding, its revivals and hysterias, its itinerant preachers and urban megachurches. Secular observers, Sharlet claims, look at events like the Great Awakening or the Scopes Monkey Trial as outliers – bursts of fundamentalism that flare up and die down in time. Sharlet asserts, to the contrary, that the periods of secular culture are the outliers. America is and always has been a fundamentalist nation. Americans want to feel their religion, not be guided by it. And by tapping into that need for a strong, emotional faith, and delivering it to key men in Washington, the Family has succeeded where generations of grass roots efforts have failed. Their hand is on the wheel.