The Family—The Secret Fundamentalism at the Heart of American Power, by Jeff Sharlet (New York: Harper Perennial Press, 2009, ISBN 978-0-06-56005-8) 387 pp. Paper $15.95.
“The Fami ly” of the title of this book is not an organization familiar to most Americans, and its almost invisible presence (outside of political power circles) makes assessing its actual influence difficult. Author Jeff Sharlet believes The Family’s political influence is considerable, and exposing it is the purpose of his book.
Sharlet details numerous personal encounters with The Family’s leaders as well as with many prominent citizens associated with it. Many are on the extreme right wing of American politics and religion. A particularly disturbing revelation is that, notwithstanding The Family’s authoritarian tendencies, leading members of progressive American political culture, including Al Gore and Hillary Clinton, have also been cultivated by its leaders. The author does not imply that Clinton and Gore agree with the principles of The Family but notes that its political power cannot be denied.
The author describes his own initiation into how The Family trains its future activists. Sharlet shared room and board with other trainees and their mentors at Ivanwald, a house in the Virginia suburbs of Washington, D.C. The initiates were asked to be good neighbors and to blend in with the surrounding community. Sharlet found that the name of Jesus was often invoked as a rallying cry, but he was puzzled by what Jesus actually meant to The Family. Noting that The Family’s leader defined the organizational goal as “Jesus plus nothing,” Sharlet suggests that Jesus served as a symbol around which passionate dedication to the organization’s goals could be built. Family members need not be true believers in the religious sense.
By calling upon a higher power, this indoctrination technique brings the initiate down before building him (or her) up to rule the world. The obligatory professed humility—whether genuine or only apparent in each individual—furthers the goal of becoming a leader over less-favored members of the political and religious Right. Taking over first America and then the world in the name of Jesus may resonate with older Americans who remember the 1930s: “Heute Deutschland! Morgan die Welt!” Naturally, members of The Family might take exception to this characterization, but read on.
According to Sharlet, the current leader of The Family is the charismatic Doug Coe, although his star may be fading. There may be some kind of succession plan: Coe was not the first leader of this organization, which got its start during the Great Depression. Sharlet describes Coe as admiring Hitler for the latter’s undeniable organizational skills and personal charisma, subject to regrets that the Fuhrer’s remarkable talents were compromised by his unfortunate actions against the millions of people murdered in his name.
Sharlet names some of the politically prominent figures who have been involved with The Family. A personal favorite of mine is Oklahoma Senator James Inhofe of global-warming-denial notoriety. According to Sharlet, the senator took a taxpayer-funded trip through Africa to bring the message of Jesus (plus nothing?) to the locals. Also mentioned is Kansas Senator Sam Brownback, whom Sharlet notes is reluctant to accept contributions in person, but his staff will gladly take $2,000 offered in an envelope if one wants face time. He is also the chief honcho for the National Prayer Breakfast. Sharlet writes that there is a parallel assembly of promising students, many from fundamentalist colleges, who are then introduced to power figures in Washington.
(On a personal, somewhat humorous note: when Center for Inquiry/Office of Public Policy Director Toni Van Pelt and I return from our visits to Capitol Hill, we enjoy walking by The Family’s house at 133 C Street S.E. It is a pleasant, unpretentious red-brick building flying an American flag. This ordinary structure apparently offers a home away from home for weary politicians of the right political persuasion, reportedly including a certain married governor who recently made headlines because he has an Argentinian girlfriend. I like to imagine what might happen if I were to knock on the door and plead for guidance, having just seen the face of Jesus in the full moon, an event that brought a current associate into the organization, according to Sharlet.
The book is so loaded with accounts of escapades of Family members in Washington and all over the globe that it’s hard to keep all the details straight. If Sharlet is right, The Family had a role in facilitating the murder of nearly one million people in numerous countries, from the currently crisis-ridden Somalia to the now relatively prosperous Indonesia, which dispatched hundreds of thousands of Chinese under Suharto’s rule.
Near the book’s beginning, Sharlet gives a brief history of American fundamentalism and its relation to the notion of American exceptionalism that surfaced in President Ronald Reagan’s reference to America as “the shining city on a hill”—in effect, the New Jerusalem. This has been used many times before to justify the idea that America is chosen by God to rule the world, so let’s get on with it. The ugliest presentation of this ultra-imperial notion is found in the New Testament Book of Revelation, which inspired the Left Behind Rapture novels. History-minded Americans might remind fans of this series that the idea of a chosen people or a master race is not unique to the United States. Most Western European nations have succumbed to this notion at least once, and Japan tried it not long ago in an attempt to bring the seven corners of the world under one roof, guided by their glorious emperor. Exceptionalism never seems to work very well.
Sharlet asserts that The Family is dedicated to advancing this notion for the United States today. In this scenario, The (elite) Family provides covert connections to power when not exercising it directly and offers leadership to a citizen army. Onward Christian soldiers! What a notion for assuaging the anxieties of those would-be peaceful Muslims who would then have to choose between their own murderous fanatics and a new Crusade.
Coming full circle, how serious is the challenge The Family poses to democracy in America, and after that, to the world? The election of Barack Obama after eight years of authoritarian mismanagement of the American federal government convinces me that the sky is not falling and that democracy in America is still alive, with the voters still able to throw the rascals out if they govern badly. However, the enormous wealth and frequent mean-spiritedness of the political and religious Right gives pause for reflection. In addition, with a few notable exceptions the American media seem to have lost their gumption in the interest of “balanced reporting,” even when the evidence strongly supports one side of an issue. Nor is American general education, as opposed to elite education, particularly distinguished today. All of that plays easily into the hands of those who wish to gain power by pandering to an ignorant electorate.
I recall a scene while float fishing with my father in a different time and place. On occasion, we would pass a rural fisherman relaxing with a pole on the bank and ask his opinion on some person or issue of the day. Often the reply was, “Not sure I trust ’em. I watch ’em like a hawk.”
I highly recommend this book to all those who care about the health of American democracy. That seems to be chugging along right now, but democracy can never be taken for granted. The Family is somewhat wordy and not always optimally organized. However, its important message is generally well presented. As for The Family? I would watch ’em like a hawk.