Jeff Sharlet: The Family

January 10, 2009

I am always on the lookout for journalists in mainstream media who understand contemporary Christianity, who speak passable Christianese and are capable and willing to translate into Americanese, or journalese, or whatever (say) Newsweek or The New Republic or the Wall Street Journal are written in. Sharlet occasionally shows signs of being one of those people, and his articles in Harper’s are typically worth reading.

Sharlet is the author of The Family: The Secret Fundamentalism At The Heart of American Power. I had been looking forward to this book ever since I stumbled across his earlier article in Harper’s (Jesus Plus Nothing (2003)). It forms the first chapter or so of the book, and is nearly sufficient as a substitute for busy readers. It’s about Abraham Vereide, Doug Coe, and what is by turns called The Family or The Fellowship, the people behind the National Prayer Breakfast.

Sharlet visits Ivanwald, a Family retreat in the Washington DC area, and documents what he saw and heard there. And this is the part of the book that should interest the Online Discernment community, because he presents a Christianity at the heart of The Family that is surprisingly heterodox. Surprising because Sharlet calls it fundamentalist, but heterodox because the Jesus that is at the center of it isn’t a Jesus most Christians would recognize: this Jesus doesn’t die for anybody’s sins. He endorses powerful people and their aggregation and use of power. 

Sharlet even offers this quote from a Family planning document: “Anything can happen,” according to an internal planning document, “the Koran could even be read, but JESUS is there! He is infiltrating the world.” This Jesus who is infiltrating the world through the Family is one of the themes of the book, and he doesn’t bear much resemblance to the Jesus of the Bible.

Sharlet goes back to Jonathan Edwards and Charles Grandison Finney to discuss the history of revivalism in America, wanders briefly through the nineteenth century, and then takes up the history of The Family’s founder, Abraham Vereide, on American shores. The idea at the heart of the story: that Jesus works to exercise dominion over the world primarily through powerful people, unfolds through Vereide’s story.

Sharlet clearly sides with labor unions and socialists, and this occasionally causes the story to bog down: he’s not upset with Vereide for selling something not entirely unlike prosperity theology (“Jesus wants you to be more powerful!” rather than “God wants you to be rich!” or whatever), but for selling out strike-breakers. He’s not wrong, he just portrays the struggle as a bit black and white: the union’s rank and file are never wrong, and corrupt union bosses’ flaws are glossed over. He runs into the same problem when the history reaches World War II; Sharlet is full of righteous indignation that the United States sided with West Germany against the Soviet Union after the war, and he portrays many postwar Christians as secret Nazis or worse.

The chapters on the role of The Family in working to project American power overseas using prayer groups for powerful people are probably the most damning; Sharlet portrays The Family as making common cause with Third World dictators, most of whom are not Christian in any way shape or form (e.g. Suharto of Indonesia) for the benefit of nobody in particular: it isn’t even clear how American interests are being served in some cases.

Then Sharlet inexplicably turns his attention toward American Christianity at home, and the book sort of falls apart: he wades into a pre-2006 discussion of Ted Haggard and draws unwarranted comparisons between The Family’s “prayer cells” and New Life Church’s “small groups.” He picks up a theme he’s been developing all along, that The Family is the brain behind more mainstream groups (Campus Crusade, The Navigators), but he makes the mistake conspiracy theorists typically make of mistaking a financial contribution or leadership involvement in third organizations as signs of control. He picks up on war metaphors in small (and probably fringe) Christian groups but doesn’t parse them sensibly. He notes a use of the phrase “armor of God” but doesn’t mention that it comes from Ephesians. He describes an America with New York at one pole and Colorado Springs at the other, but stumbles when it appears that it’s vitally important that the world be made safe for film critics.

There’s a lot more, too, but his ear for contemporary Christian culture is off and the final section of the book doesn’t work. He makes an attempt at drawing the book to a close with a call to arms of sorts, but it’s mostly about liberals and moderates telling a different story about a different America, but there’s nothing stirring about it: he really seems to have bitten off more than he can chew, and by the end he’s just going through the motions.

All that being said I strongly recommend this book (well, up through the first two sections/284 pages) for any conservative Christian who e.g. voted for George W. Bush because he was pro-life and found themselves defending the Iraq War. It’s not a cure for the post-Bush hangover, but it’s helpful for figuring out how things went so wrong. Bush doesn’t figure in the book, but the culture of American civil religion as a co-opted version of Christianity focused on secular power made him possible if not inevitable.

Update: Harper’s offers a follow-up interview with Sharlet (2008). It’s a pretty good view of the whole story from 30,000 feet or so.


3 Responses to “Jeff Sharlet: The Family”

  1. Jeff Sharlet Says:

    Dear ODM,

    Thanks for the review and for recommending the book, despite your misgivings. I see your review in about the same terms as you see my book — decent two-thirds of the way through, despite some missteps. But your initial summary is a lot more on the money than most liberal reviews of the book.

    A few clarifications: I’m no fan of prosperity doctrine or Vereide’s early form of it. But I don’t think you can separate prosperity doctrine from the anti-poor philosophy expressed by Vereide’s attempts to to combat working people’s organizations. Unions don’t always work well — and sometimes they’re a disaster — but any view worthy of being described as small d democratic, and Christian, ought to respect the efforts of working people to take responsibility for their own wellbeing rather than depending on the goodwill of the rich.

    Along those lines, I don’t think you can say I gloss over the flaws of corrupt union bosses, given that the chapter in question presents the Teamster warlord Dave Beck as a killer who was worse for for workers than Vereide. You are, perhaps, upset that I portray Harry Bridges of the West Coast Dock Workers in a positive light. That’s because Bridges in that era wasn’t corrupt. If you’re thinking of “On the Waterfront,” you’re thinking of the east coast dock workers, whose bosses did everything they could to stop Bridges.

    As for Germany: I don’t “portray” postwar Christians as Nazis; I report that the Family recruited men such as Hermann Abs, known during the war as “Hitler’s Banker,” and Gus Gedat, an early and enthusiastic supporter of Hitler who believed the Fuhrer had been sent to “hunt the Jews.” Neither were members of the Nazi party. Cold comfort. Two of Vereide’s closest German allies, Manfred Zapp and Baron Ulrich von Gienanth, were deported from America after being exposed as Nazi spies; indeed, Gienanth was the Gestapo’s representative at the U.S. embassy in the late 30s, responsible for providing covert support to German undercover agents in America. This is all a matter of simple historical record. Indeed, Zapp and Gienanth were front page news when they were caught. If they were “Christians,” they forgot to mention it in their correspondence, which revolves chiefly around lobbying Vereide (successfully) for support for German industrial titans.

    Most importantly, I certainly do not argue that the Family is the brain behind groups like the Navs or Campus Crusade. Rather, I’m interested in how American evangelicalism lost its way in the Cold War, conflating Christianity with a defense of contemporary capitalism and overseas interventionism. The Family, the Navs, Crusade, and others were all part of that transformation, not through any conspiracy — I denounce “conspiracy” as an explanation for anything in the book’s intro and throughout — but through the interplay of ideas and ideology. The question — stated, perhaps, not clearly enough — is how did we get from Jonathan Edwards to Bill Bright? How did we get from a great Christian statesman like William Jennings Bryan to a figure as banal and self-involved as Ted Haggard?

    I may indeed have bitten off more than I can chew in the final chapter. In fact, I definitely did — I generally think that’s what final chapters should do. I don’t trust books with tidy resolutions. Life isn’t like that. But the questions I try to raise at the end certainly don’t point to moderation and liberalism as the answers; indeed, the last chapter is intended as an indictment of liberalism, drawing on Christianity as on radical ideas. I was particularly impressed by the ideas of theologians and Christian thinkers and writers such as Stanley Hauerwas, John Milbank, Graham Ward, Rowan Williams (before he became archbishop), Cornel West, Marilynne Robinson, Daniel Berrigan, Flannery O’Connor, Dorothy Day, Martin Luther King, Simone Weil, Garret Keizer, James Cone… you get the idea. Yes, folks from the left side of Christendom.

    As for film critics, I’m really lost; what are you talking about?

  2. onlinediscernmenttoday Says:

    Mr Sharlet —

    Thanks for taking time out to respond; let me start with the easy points and work to the more difficult ones.

    The reference to film critics is in the last episode in Colorado Springs, on pages 319-321.

    Perhaps I should have chosen my words more carefully regarding the use of the term “conspiracy theorist.” I believe your portrayal of the relationship between Coe and Dawson Trotman suggests more than it should about The Navigators. Perhaps I missed your suggestions that conspiracies were not afoot; or maybe your suggestion that missionaries were de facto spies in Indonesia was too much for me to swallow, and I didn’t read very closely after that.

    I’m won’t object to your objections regarding unions and Nazis. I was hoping you would delve a little more into the origin of the term “godless communism,” because it seems to me that it’s key to understanding how conservative Christians ended up de facto allies of (former) Nazis.

    I don’t have a good answer for you regarding the distance between Jonathan Edwards and Bill Bright, except to say that conservative American Christians tend to consider themselves an independent bunch intellectually if not politically, so there really is no such thing as a lineage for many of the little movements inside e.g. evangelicalism. The story of Ted Haggard rolling into town and starting a church that grew to be something huge is typical of the foundation stories I hear repeatedly within evangelicalism, and I think it says a lot about how we view ourselves.

    I’m as baffled by the depth of the belief in the moral rightness of the free market as you are; I suspect it’s a byproduct of our stance against “godless communism.” And of living in a prosperous country, etc. I’m amazed by the spasms some people go into when presented with ideas that might fall under the general rubric of loving one’s neighbor; it can’t all be because people on the left are pro-choice.

    You’re quite right: you don’t mention prosperity theology, but I needed to put the problem with the focus on raw power with a Christian gloss in terms my readers find familiar.

    Thanks again for taking time out to respond.

  3. Jeff Sharlet Says:

    Discerner — you write: “perhaps I missed your suggestions that conspiracies were not afoot.” Indeed, you did. I’m not sure how I could have made my view of conspiracy theories clearer than this, on page 7 of my introduction, referring to Christian Right leader Chuck Colson’s description of the Family as a “veritable underground”: “This so-called underground,” I write, “is not a conspiracy.” If that’s too vague, there’s always this, later in the book, referring to Family founder Abram Vereide: “Abram’s upper-crust faith was not a conspiracy.” And if a reader was still confused, he might have skipped ahead further, to this, in response to current Fellowship leader Doug Coe’s documented decision to “submerge” the profile of the organization: “The decision was not so much conspiratorial, as it seemed to those among Abram’s old-timers who responded with confusion, as ascetic, a humbling of powers.”

    Is The Family secretive? Yes, by its own declaration. “The more you can make your organization invisible,” declares Coe, “the more influence it will have.” Does that make it a conspiracy? No; that’s political strategy, and, to Coe’s mind, a kind of theology.

    As for your point regarding Indonesia, I certainly don’t suggest that men such as Family employee Clif Robinson or Continental Oil VP Howard Hardesty were spies, de facto or otherwise. They were quite explicit about their belief that God’s interests aligned neatly with U.S. spheres of influence in Asia and those of oil companies like Hardesty’s. That wasn’t cynical on their part; they believed it, they lived it, and they spoke it plainly to dictator Suharto and each other.

    I agree that a history of the term “godless communism” would be interesting. But that’s another subject. Here’s how I saw my subject (and, for what it’s worth, I think this is a very Christian position), as states on p. 182:

    “To today’s conservatives, [the Cold War] was a philosophical stance—better dead than red—that resulted in “our bloodless victory.”2 For liberals eager to reclaim a mantle of muscular progressivism, meanwhile, Cold War refers to an abstract strategy of containment—as if the Cold War didn’t explode into dozens of “regional” conflicts strategized in Moscow and Washington, “civil wars,” fought with the empires’ weapons, that killed millions. Most memorably, the dead, American and otherwise, of Korea, Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos, but also the forgotten losses of the Shah’s Iran, Suharto’s Indonesia, Mobutu’s “Zaire,” Pinochet’s Chile, Papa Doc’s Haiti, the United Fruit Company’s Guatemala, and many more. One could draw up just as long a list to lay at the Kremlin’s door or Beijing’s, but it’s our own sins that most require recollection, that fade to nostalgia in the sepia-toned memories of both liberals and conservatives.”

    The point being that there are no shortage of American writers — conservative, liberal, and Christian — ready to catalogue the many crimes of communism. It’s always easier to find fault with the other side. My subject was the flaws in our own democracy; our own sins.

    You make a good point about the preference for intellectual independence within evangelicalism, but I think you mistake a belief in one’s own independence for the real thing. For instance, Ted Haggard (an avid fan of Jonathan Edwards, by the way) liked for people to think he had almost invented the cell group approach singlehandedly. Push him a bit, and he’d acknowledge Korea’s Cho. Talk to him for awhile, and you see a common ancestor in Frank Buchman, about whom I write at length. Those connections are important, right? But the lines of connection are, indeed, thin. That’s my point — American evangelicalism has, to a large extent, lost both its heart and its head, traditions perhaps best represented by William Jennings Bryan and Jonathan Edwards, respectively.

    As for my allegedly deep concern for the defense of film critics, I’ll let your readers decide. Following is the entirety of the section to which you refer, a description of an evangelical small group meeting in Colorado Springs: “When I walked in, an hour late, they
    were talking about Christian film criticism—whether such a thing could, or should, exist.”

    To be honest, I don’t really have an opinion on the matter.

    Thanks again for giving the book your attention. I really do appreciate it, and I’m glad for these conversations with engaged Christians.

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