From the Editor:
by Mark Silk
Back in March of 2008, when Hillary Clinton was
desperately struggling to get ahead of Barack Obama and Barack Obama was
desperately struggling to get Jeremiah Wright behind him, Barbara Ehrenreich
wrote a piece for the Nation explaining why Clinton was not tearing
into her rival’s past association with the hot-tempered pastor. “When it
comes to unsavory religious affiliations,” Ehrenreich wrote, “she’s a lot
more vulnerable than Obama.”
Clinton’s vulnerability came from her
affiliation with The Family (a.k.a. The Fellowship), the secretive
prayer-and-counseling organization that popped into the news last June as
the spiritual home-away-from-home of the scandal-ridden likes of Gov. Mark
Sanford and Sen. John Ensign.
Thanks to Jeff Sharlet’s 2008 book,
The Family—which Ehrenreich was promoting—the Clinton connection was
hardly a secret. But you’d be hard-pressed to find a mention of it in the
summer media tempest that included 200 interviews of Sharlet and a featured
week in “Doonesbury” for The Family’s C Street congressional dormitory.
Reflecting on the media’s limited
capacity to get the story straight in an October 1 interview on Religion
Dispatches, Sharlet offered a number of explanations: journalists’ aversion
to weirdness, incapacity to meet the intellectual challenge, religious
illiteracy, and inability to grasp a Washington power tale that wasn’t
structured on partisan lines. The problem, however, lay not only with the
journalists, but also with his own tendency to overstate his case.
Sharlet is a smart guy and a talented
long-form journalist who made his bones looking into some of the odder
corners of the American religious landscape. He’s a man of the left who has
dedicated himself to reminding his ideological fellows that (yes, Virginia)
religion really exists in America and, not only that, can make a big
difference in how Americans do their respective things.
And so it was, that having been tipped
off about a curious religious group operating in Washington called The
Family, he set out to investigate. After spending some time as a
participant-observer at the group’s headquarters, he came away with a
notable story for Harper’s. Here was a distinctive organization of
national leaders and wannabes that was devoted to Jesus, maybe not so
committed to the democratic processes that had brought some of them to
power, and eager to keep their light under a bushel—except when it came to
ushering selected newcomers into their ranks.
The book came about because Sharlet
learned that the group had dumped cartons and cartons of its records into
the Billy Graham archive at Wheaton College. Off he went to bury among what
turned out to be documentation going back to its origins in the 1930s. By
far the most valuable part of his book has to do with what he learned
there—all the more valuable because, it seems, The Family is now keeping
some of the stuff away from prying eyes.
The archives revealed the story of
Abram Vereide, a Norwegian immigrant who founded the group out of a
deep-seated Christian pietism and his distress at the social disruption
created by the Depression.
Vereide’s Big Idea was to sell Jesus to
whatever powerful people he could get to, in the expectation that bringing
them together would be a way to maintain the socio-economic status quo. In
due course he made his way to Washington, hooked up with a sufficient number
of the powerful, and created prayer cells and a network that eventually
reached around the world. The pitch didn’t involve a particular church or
even exactly Christianity: It was “Jesus Alone,” via Bible-reading and
Forty years ago, leadership of the
group passed to Doug Coe, a rather more reticent character who managed to
achieve a kind of cult status among a portion of the Washington elite.
Altogether, over the course of 70 years, the important people attracted to
The Family have included a few Democrats along with the Republicans, and
some unsavory foreign leaders. Being part of the Family network did not hurt
It is unfortunate that Sharlet did not
provide a more systematic account of The Family’s activities. That would
have made the book more academic, but more useful. As is, it is not easy to
determine to what extent the Family’s activities have actually made a
In any group that seeks to have an
impact, insiders tend to exaggerate their importance: We had a terrific
meeting with X, Y told us what a difference we’re making in country G, Z’s
speech was greeted with vast enthusiasm, etc.
While Sharlet allows as how the Family
experienced failure from time to time—e.g. in Germany after the war—his
claims about its importance in advancing the causes of, for example, Suharto
in Indonesia and Siad Barre in Somalia, require far more detailed treatment
than he provides. The problem is that whatever the Family network may have
done to advance this or that individual, this or that issue, it was not
(necessarily) alone in doing the advancing. Sharlet deserves credit for
opening a new field of inquiry, but it will take more comprehensive studies
of particular episodes to judge how much The Family moved the needle.
These will be important in assessing
The Family’s influence in Washington generally. Arguably, the organization
was most important during the early years of the Cold War, when its
establishmentarian style of bringing like-minded leaders together across
party lines was in closest tune with the national inclination. Here, what
the book leaves out is the larger political-religious context.
Portraying Vereide as the key figure in
giving America’s conduct of the Cold War its religious spin, Sharlet does
not so much as nod toward John Foster Dulles or Henry Luce, the role of the
Catholic Church, or the way “Judeo-Christian” language was fashioned to
provide a religious umbrella for including Americans of (as it then seemed)
all faiths in the common cause of fighting Communism. He does make brief
reference to Reinhold Niebuhr (though he gets the dating of his intellectual
evolution wrong)—but the point is, The Family was simply swimming in a much
larger tide. There is a hermetic, conspiracy-hunting quality to the book
that leads Sharlet to miss the forest for his tree.
Nor is it just the forest of Cold War
religiosity. Sharlet tells us his father was a Sovietologist who advised the
CIA, and he himself might best be described as a Fundamentologist—one who
teases out the inside story of American religious evil behind the scrim of
public utterances and appearances. The Family offers up what amounts
to a secret history of religion in America, as seen through what Sharlet
calls “fundamentalism” (or sometimes “American fundamentalism”).
This is not fundamentalism as
historians of American religion know it—that is, the fundamentalism of the
particular theological propositions advanced in the pamphlet series, The
Fundamentals. Sharlet is not unaware of that fundamentalism,
which he once or twice refers to as “theological fundamentalism.” But his
fundamentalism is a different animal—or rather, two different animals: elite
and populist. The Family represents elite fundamentalism; the populist wing
is represented by the familiar religious right.
There is something Humpty-Dumptyish
about this usage, as in Through the Looking Glass:
“When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty said in a rather a scornful
“it means just what I choose it to mean—neither more nor less.”
is,” said Alice, “whether you can make words
is,” said Humpty Dumpty, “which is to be master—
Sharlet means to be the master of an
American fundamentalism that stretches all the way back to Jonathan Edwards
in the 1730s, stretches through the Second Awakening, and remains alive and
more powerful than ever today. The key elements of this spiritual ideology
are, he claims, “heart religion” à la Edwards (not the Awakening’s prime
mover, the English divine George Whitefield); and permanent revival à la the
19th-century revivalist Charles Grandison Finney. Plus a
commitment to theocracy, a concomitant distaste for democracy, and a thirst
Theocracy in Sharlet’s hands is also a
bit Dumptyish, or at least confused. Protestant revivalism, which lies at
the core of American evangelicalism, is generally seen as expressing a
democratic impulse; that’s the theme of Nathan Hatch’s celebrated book on
the Second Awakening, The Democratization of American Christianity.
Certainly there are theocratic moments in American religious history,
including Puritan Boston and Brigham Young’s Mormon Zion, but they are not
part of Sharlet’s story.
He mistakes theocracy—religious
governance—for the desire to exercise the Great Commission and Christianize
humankind. The latter has always been a prime aim, the prime aim, of
evangelicals. But that does not make them theocrats, notwithstanding
Sharlet’s reproach for “[o]ur refusal to recognize the theocratic strand
running throughout American history.”
The Family belongs to the
progressive tradition of American historiography represented by Vernon
Parrington’s classic Main Currents in American Thought (1928). That
book rendered American history as a left-liberal story of good versus evil,
which was to say, the forces of Jeffersonian democracy versus the forces of
business capitalism. Parrington took a dim view of the young 20th
century: Jeffersonian farmers making common cause with greedy businessmen to
create a particularly noxious form of capitalist hegemony.
For his part, Sharlet sees the 21st
century as witnessing the combined forces of populist and elite
fundamentalism, more powerful than either ever was alone. The good guys of
American religion barely make an appearance—a bit of William Jennings Bryan
here, a bit of Martin Luther King, Jr. there. The fundamentalists, by
contrast, have a lot to their credit:
“Consider the accomplishments of the
movement, its populist and its elite branches combined: foreign policy on a
near-constant footing of Manichean urgency for the last hundred years; “free
markets” imprinted on the American mind as some sort of natural law; a
manic-depressive sexuality that puzzles both prudes and libertines
throughout the rest of the world; and a schizophrenic sense of democracy as
founded on individual rights and yet indebted to a higher authority that
trumps personal liberties.”
What might a more accurate picture The
Family’s place in American history look like? Let me hazard a sketch.
The organization emerges not out of the
broad stream of revivalist evangelicalism but from the peculiar
businessman’s Christianity of the 1920s. (In this, Sharlet is not wrong to
call attention to Bruce Bartlett’s The Man Nobody Knows.) After World
War II, it glommed onto the Eisenhower revival, making a permanent place for
itself on the Washington scene via its National Prayer Breakfast.
It participated in what Jeremy Gunn
calls (in his book Spiritual Weapons) the American National
Religion—one that combined governmental theism with a commitment to
capitalism and a military second to none. Like other establishmentarian
groups, it made connections for its friends; unlike them, it had a secret
creed accessible only to those in the inner circle. Its effectiveness was
based to no small degree on the fact that it was able to attract—indeed, was
bent on attracting—fellow travelers who enjoyed the spiritual fellowship and
networking but knew nothing of the Jesus Alone program.
In due course, along came the religious
right and a revived American evangelicalism. Were some religious rightists
drawn into the Family orbit? Of course. But so was Hillary Clinton, who
(Sharlet notes) was a frequent visitor to the notorious C Street house as
late as 2005.
“How much power can a movement have if
it’s sufficiently vague in its principles to encompass both Sam Brownback
and Hillary Clinton?” he reasonably asks. His answer is the
anti-establishmentarian’s conviction that the entire enterprise of bringing
the key people together to maintain order is necessarily a bad,
No doubt, our current secretary of
state is a quintessentially establishment creature, from her
Renaissance Weekends to her Family Reformation. And establishments can mess
up badly. But the anti-establishment approach has its downside too: Consider
the influence on American policy of the conservative and neocon foundations
and think tanks of the post-Reagan era.
The Family has now been subjected to
its own worst nightmare, publicly mocked as a den of creepy Christians
scurrying to keep their sins under wraps. Doubtless, some of the insiders
see themselves following in His footsteps, wending their way to Calvary as
they are pelted by the Rachel Maddows and Gary Trudeaus.
Meanwhile, as Sharlet points out in his
Religion Dispatches interview, the conservative Democrats who were living at
C Street—Rep. Bart Stupak (D-MI) and Rep. Heath Schuler (D-NC) —have clammed
up about their association, while Sen. Mark Pryor (D-AR)’s staff has sought
to distance their boss from the organization. Where once it was part of the
Cold War consensus, now The Family is being drawn out of its bipartisan
stance, into a GOP Alone closet—one more partisan Beltway operation trying
to put its thumb on the scale.
No doubt, the National Prayer Breakfast
will take place as usual next February, attended by the usual suspects, up
to and including the president. But thanks to Gov. Sanford and Sen. Ensign,
Jeff Sharlet will have succeeded in preventing The Family from ever again
basking in the splendor of its secret celebrity. A good thing too.
Silk's blog on religion and politics.