Thursday, June 12


One of the great ignored campaign stories of the mainstream media was about HRC and The Family. We've reported on the group before, but now a new book gives useful details by a writer who embedded himself in The Family to find out what it was all about

LINDSAY BEYERSTEIN, ALTERNET Did you know that the National Prayer Breakfast is sponsored by a shadowy cabal of elite Christian fundamentalists? Jeff Sharlet's new book, "The Family: The Secret Fundamentalism at the Heart of American Power," offers a rare glimpse of this remarkable network, which is known variously as the Family, the Fellowship and the International Foundation.

The Family was founded 70 years ago by Abraham Vereide, a Norwegian immigrant evangelist based in Seattle. In 1935, Vereide said, God appeared to him in a vision and revealed where Christianity had gone wrong: preoccupation with the poor, the weak and the suffering.

The down-and-out were in no position to bring about the Kingdom of God, Vereide realized. Some Christians believe that the rapture is imminent, but not the Family. They're convinced that Jesus won't return until we get our collective house in order. If they were to wait for the down-and-out to remake the world in God's image, we could be here forever. . .

The roster of current and former Family members includes senators, congressmen, Fortune 500 CEOs, generals and at least one Supreme Court justice. The Family does not publish membership lists, and its members are sworn to secrecy, so a full accounting is impossible.

Sen. Hillary Clinton has been involved with the Family since 1993 when, as first lady, she joined a White House prayer circle for political wives. Clinton has also sought spiritual counseling from the current head of the Family, Doug Coe. Sharlet argues that Clinton's longtime association with the Family has helped her forge working relationships with powerful religious conservatives such as Family member and anti-abortion crusader Sen. Sam Brownback of Kansas.

The Family nurtures the next generation of prayer warriors in suburban dormitories. Sharlet spent nearly a month living at Ivanwald, a dormitory in Virginia where sons of the Family are sent to immerse themselves in Jesus and clean the toilets of congressmen and senators.

The Family also runs a house on C Street in Washington, D.C. The C Street Center has housed a number of federal legislators, including Sen. John Ensign of Nevada. Residents allege that the center is just a cheap place to live, but as an Ivanwald brother, Sharlet saw firsthand that the center is a religious community. As far as the IRS is concerned, the C Street Center is a church.

Members will tell you that the Family is just a group of friends. As Sharlet discovered, 600 boxes of documents at the Billy Graham Center Archives tell a different story. . .

From an interview with Sharlet:

Lindsay Beyerstein: In "The Family," a lot of subjects explicitly state their admiration for Hitler and other authoritarian political figures. How much of that is admiring their style, and how much is admiring their substance?

Jeff Sharlet: I'd argue that there isn't a hell of a lot of difference. I spent a lot of time living with these guys, and I remember at one point asking them, "What's the deal with all this Hitler talk?" And they'd say, "Oh, it's not the ends, it's the means." But to most of us, the means seem pretty bad, too. The means are authoritarianism.

It's pretty close to the substance because it grows out of this very broad movement in the 1930s of elites concluding that democracy has run its course, that democracy was a temporary phase in world history. And so, these people were experimenting with all sorts of different alternatives. And remember, before World War II it was considered a perfectly legitimate and acceptable position to endorse fascism.

Lindsay Beyerstein: When I read the book, I found myself thinking about Umberto Eco's essay, "Eternal Fascism," which provides a kind of checklist of the essential characteristics of fascism. How many of those criteria does the Family meet?

Jeff Sharlet:The book I find helpful as a succinct guide to fascism is a book by historian Robert Paxton. He'll boil it down into five principles or ten principles. The Family's always hovering around 80 percent, but never all the way.

And that's an important distinction to make. I think many progressives want to reduce everything bad to fascism. There's more than one kind of bad under the sun. One of the arguments in this book is that these guys aren't fascists; they're ultimately something worse. They're not fascists because they don't explicitly revere violence. Lots of violence occurs through various dimensions, but in fascism, violence is thought to have redemptive power. . .

Lindsay Beyerstein: What kind of empire do they envision?

Jeff Sharlet: They envision the empire that we have. Doug Coe says, "We work with power where we can and build new power where we can't." Usually they can work within power. Rob Shank, another Christian right activist in Washington, says, "The Family is into living with what is.". . .

Lindsay Beyerstein: In the book you say that they teach a kind of ultrasubjectivism, stripping away all history, doctrine, institutions and all rituals until "religion" is just what pops into your head. . .

Lindsay Beyerstein: They think it's bad even to know about history?

Jeff Sharlet: They just don't care. One of the ironies of this book is that now they're in my debt. I know more about the history of their movement than they do. (That's why they were so casual about what ended up in the Family's records at the Billy Graham archives.) It didn't even occur to them that anyone would find anything wrong there, including various government documents that shouldn't have been there. . .

Lindsay Beyerstein: In the book you say that the Family treats powerful women like Hillary Clinton as if they belonged to a kind of "third gender" that's female but not subordinate like ordinary women …

Jeff Sharlet: Two ways third gender works in the Family: There are these very strong wives who oftentimes are very strong-willed people. . . And the other are women like Hillary Clinton, who's just a man as far as they're concerned.