June/July/Aug 2008

Beyond Belief

Richard Byrne


Earlier this decade, Jeff Sharlet moved in with a group of men in a Christian community called Ivanwald. Together, they lived in a nondescript house in suburban Washington, DC, that was run by a group that called itself the Family. On the surface, the place seemed harmless enough—blending the camaraderie of segregated male domains (the locker room, the frat house) with more sober elements of spiritual retreat (Bible study, rigid self-denial, and structured work). Sharlet, who is the coauthor of a book on fringe American religious experience, Killing the Buddha: A Heretic’s Bible (2004), writes, “I had no thought of investigative reporting; rather, my interest was personal. . . . I thought Ivanwald would simply be one more bead on my agnostic rosary.”

But he soon discovered that Ivanwald was no grown-up tree house for Jesus. It was a recruiting camp for an active yet secretive branch of America’s conservative power structure. The retreat hosted morale-building exhortations from Family leaders, who preached a gospel of Scripture-based self-abnegation. Worldly instructions were also woven into the fiber of the Family gospel, stressing the power of “cells” and “cov­enant.” But these parables of power bypassed the models of social organization handed down from early Christians in catacombs, in favor of realpolitik appreciations of the efficacy of Mao and bin Laden. “Hitler made a covenant,” said Family leader Doug Coe at one gathering. “The Mafia makes a cov­enant. It is such a very powerful thing.”

Sharlet published an account of his Ivanwald stay in Harper’s in March 2003. But his interest was piqued: What happened to the leader-worshipping cadres for conservatism created there? To what purpose were they used? The Family is Sharlet’s answer to these questions. And much of his book is as astonishing as his original article. The Family boasts a bevy of lawmakers in its ranks, straddling a surprisingly wide range of professed religious belief. The influence of that core membership gets multiplied via the recruitment of allies and fellow travelers—includ­ing Hillary Clinton, who attends a weekly prayer meeting organized by the group.

Sharlet discovers that the Family, which has operated under a variety of names, including the Fellowship Foundation, is almost as old as American fundamentalism itself. The group was created in the mid-1930s by an immigrant preacher from Norway named Abraham “Abram” Vereide. At first, Vereide’s group provided a useful wedge against the labor tumult of those times, preaching what Sharlet calls a “biblical capitalism”a “Word made fresh for the industrial age, vital and strong.” But some of its earliest members and allies also had fascist sympathies, including Vereide’s Bible student Henry Ford. Sharlet quotes a 1942 pamphlet in which the group’s founder seems to draw all the wrong lessons from the war America was fighting: “We have entered an era when the masses of the people are dependent upon 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 group continued to gain influence in postwar America. In collaboration with Billy Graham in 1953, Vereide created an enduring and close-to-mandatory Washington event—the National Prayer Breakfast. After a three-way leadership tussle, won by Coe in 1969, the Family made a strategic decision to cloak itself in mystery and work behind the scenes. Among other things, that approach has helped Coe and company recruit businessmen and foreign leaders—regardless of their brutality, or even their lack of Christian belief (Indonesia’s murderous strongman Suharto, for instance, was a proud catch)—into prayer groups aligned closely with advancing the interests of American empire.

Sharlet’s reporting in The Family is classic muckraking—passionate, principled, and powerful. He has a sharp eye for the telling anecdote that will propel his narrative forward—observing, for instance, that prominent conservatives beset by woe and scandal, including Supreme Court justice Clarence Thomas during the firestorm over Anita Hill, have found refuge at the group’s Virginia mansion, the Cedars. Muckraking usually leaves the raker—and the reader—feeling confident about the possibility of effecting change. After all, knowledge is power. So it is surprising to find Sharlet so seemingly dispirited by the muck that he rakes. Near the end of the book, he sizes up American fun­damentalism and finds it to be a rapacious Godzilla. It has devoured or co-opted all the weapons once used to combat it­—including history, mockery, and even reason itself. “No, God isn’t dead; Freud and Marx are,” writes Sharlet, who concludes that elite fundamentalist power plays can be countered only with sincere spiritual questioning.

Sharlet may be right not to underestimate the power of fundamentalism when it aspires to become a civil religion. But one could also argue that the careful attention to history and the acidic truth-telling in The Family could prove equally effective tools against the group’s success in that goal. After all, the history that Sharlet so carefully spells out in the backdrop to the Family’s victories also supplies some useful longer-view antidotes to despair over neotheocratic power in the United States. For one thing, the currents that usher in revivals also sweep them back out of fashion. In addition, several wings of the American fundamentalist movement have nursed a long-running distrust of dalliances with the fallen political world. Perhaps America’s fundamentalists have the power, intensity, and sense of purpose that Sharlet ascribes to them. He is clearly determined not to sell them short. But in the face of the sulfurous blasphemies that he sets out in The Family, it would seem a bit lacking in spiritual charity to assume that our fundamentalist brethren cannot sniff out such uncleanness in their own house themselves.

Richard Byrne is a journalist and playwright. He lives in Washington, DC.

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