Jeff Sharlet's new book, The Family: The Secret Fundamentalism at the Heart of American Power, is one of the most important accounts of the intersection of fundamentalist religion and politics in recent memory. The Family exposes the inner workings of an elite and secretive association of politicos (The Family boasts a bipartisan but mostly Republican roster of members, including Sens. Sam Brownback, a Kansas Republican, and Mark Pryer, an Arkansas Democrat) and business executives (such as the CEOs of Continental Oil and the defense contractor Raytheon) who have exploited their uber-masculine, uber-capitalist version of Christianity to serve political and profit-making goals, from union-busting here at home to imperialist adventures abroad.
The Family is best known to the public for its annual National Prayer Breakfast, a seemingly innocuous event routinely attended by presidents and members of Congress. But as Sharlet shows, The Family's real influence is exerted through a system of prayer groups that provide this elite group of religious fundamentalists with lawmaking and deal-making opportunities long associated with the country club golf course.
Sharlet combines his experiences going undercover at The Family's Arlington, Virginia, compound, skillful interviews with insiders and allies, and exhaustive historical research to produce this riveting account that transcends the recurring question of whether the religious right is dead. Instead of measuring the power of the religious-right grass roots from one election cycle to another, Sharlet tells the most detailed story to date of how fundamentalist Christianity has driven American political power -- and most significantly, how it has fueled opposition to the New Deal, labor unions, and progressive policy in general.
I sat down with Sharlet a couple of weeks ago when he was in Washington on his book tour.
Sarah Posner: Let's start by talking about how the whole project almost came about by accident when the brother of your ex-girlfriend invited you to come to a place called Ivanwald.
Jeff Sharlet: This friend said, "Can you meet with my brother? I'm afraid he's joined a cult; you write about religion and should check it out."
SP: Did he tell you that it was a seat of political power in Washington? Or did he just make it seem like it was an overgrown frat?
JS: It was an overgrown frat with all of these interesting political connections that he denied had any politics, any organization, anything. A group of men loving leaders. The whole thing is predicated on this idea that politicians are somehow the most vulnerable among us. And that they need special care, because they're so busy serving us, who's serving them?
SP: Only men, right?
JS: Women can be involved; I never met one, but I knew they were there. There was a house down the road for women who were being groomed for helpmates to leadership. These were wealthy young women who had grown up on ranches in Texas who were being made to put on skirts and lipstick and curtsy to Ed Meese.
SP: And this is in Arlington, right across the Potomac from Georgetown.
JS: Yes. Big old beautiful mansion where they host -- Ed Meese, for instance, continues to host a weekly meeting there; he'll invite a gathering of diplomats, a few businessmen, and a few politicians. They talk about how we can do conflict resolution, a couple of brothers in Christ can just get together and share their love for one another. If they're "top men." If they're chosen by God for this, if they're elites, if they're chosen by God according to Romans 13.
SP: Give me an example.
JS: The Family did negotiate some years back a peace deal between Paul Kagame and Joseph Kabila in Congo. And it was a terrible peace deal, and it went nowhere, and that war goes on and on because you had these top American politicians exerting their sentimental notions of religion that at the same time tend to line up with American political interests and American economic interests.
SP: What are those sentimental notions of religion?
JS: Are you willing to submit to this Christ, are you willing to say that you're obeying Christ before you obey the will of the people, what The Family calls "the din of the vox popula." They don't like that.
SP: So you're listening to this imaginary Christ instead of representing your constituents, because the will of the people is just the riff-raff?
JS: It's actually a little worse than that. What you're doing is getting a collection of elites who are submitting to the authority of an American-led fundamentalist network, not following their conscience but following Christ as he reveals himself secretly to the elite.
SP: So their Christ is not the social gospel Christ of the mainline denominations, and it's also not the Christ that evangelicals have their personal walk with either, because that Christ is a lot more egalitarian, and the social gospel Christ is more focused on justice issues.
SP: So who invented this Christ that these guys connect with?
JS: It was invented in 1945, in direct response to the social gospel Christ, by Abraham Vereide [the founder of The Family]. He was a Norwegian immigrant to America, and had risen pretty high in social gospel circles, working with Goodwill. He had come to the conclusion that this [social gospel] was going nowhere, because of the Great Depression, which in his mind was clearly a punishment from God, for disobedience. The greatest form of disobedience was labor organizations.
SP: So God was going to punish America for labor unions?
JS: Because we were not a religious enough nation. We needed another great awakening.
SP: How were unions indicative that we weren't spiritual enough?
JS: If you try and regulate economics, well then you're interfering with God's free will. This is of course an idea that's very attractive to the wealthy elites he starts ministering to.
SP: Vereide was the original source of the anti-union ideas?
JS: He's given a vision. He's obsessed with Harry Bridges, the great union organizer. One night in 1935, after the great strike of 1934, Vereide says God gave him a vision that Christianity has spent 2,000 years looking in the wrong direction.
SP: Helping the poor, you mean?
JS: Yes. The down and out, the suffering, the weak, and the poor. God doesn't want to have soup kitchens or social welfare programs, God doesn't like what FDR is doing. What about the up-and-out? Don't they deserve love as well? Doesn't Henry Ford need somebody to love him?
SP: Tell me about how Doug Coe [the successor to Vereide and the current head of The Family] admires Hitler.
JS: Vereide did too. In 1948, The Family is feeling good about themselves; Taft-Hartley [the law which restricted union power] was passed in 1947, which was part of their original goal. And Abram publishes a pamphlet for congressmen, for private distribution, called "A Better Way." He writes, "We have entered an area where the masses of people are dependent on a rapidly diminishing number of leaders for the determination of their pattern of life and the definition of their ultimate goals. It is the age of minority control." "The age of minority control" is something they believe in deeply. They do talk about what could go wrong if minority control got into the wrong hands. As Doug Coe would [later] say, Hitler and Lenin and Mao and these strong men of history understood the New Testament better than any other leader of the 20th century; they applied it to evil ends, but they behaved as God wanted. God wants a strong man to exert leadership in this age of minority control.
SP: Was Jesus a strong man?
JS: Oh, yes, Jesus was the strongest man of all, and if he was alive today, he'd be the greatest quarterback, he'd be the number one CEO, he'd be the head of General Electric. When you live in The Family, they sit around and wonder how awesome Jesus would be if he raced NASCAR.
SP: You were talking about how they don't like violence, but about the tendency of The Family to lend its hand to brutal dictators; this quote from Coe really stood out to me, "the Bible is full of mass murderers." So you're saying that they don't really advocate violence, but they acquiesce to violence.
JS: Yes. That's a nice example. Ted Haggard, later in the book says, you know, the Bible is a really bloody book.
SP: What do you think Barack Obama's relationship with The Family would be if he's elected?
JS: Obama's going to make peace with The Family -- you have to. He's going to go to the National Prayer Breakfast; he has to. How can you say, I'm opposed to prayer? They've set the terms up so you can't really go against it.