feature
July 24, 2009

 

 

 

How a religious group you’ve never heard of influences policy in both Washington and Topeka
by Dan Lybarger

Until South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford made a trip to see his mistress in Argentina on state funds and Nevada Sen. John Ensign got a bad return on the hush money he paid former lover and staffer Cynthia Hampton, few Americans had ever heard of a powerful religious group known as The Family or The Fellowship.

The Family provided spiritual counseling to both Sanford and Ensign and, according to Hampton’s husband, drove Ensign to a FedEx office to send a “Dear Jane” letter to Hampton.

While the former convent house they now run on C Street, just a few blocks from the Capitol in Washington DC, is now synonymous with scandal and seems like something from a conspiracy theory, the impact the Family has had in Washington has been real, and current and past members of Kansas’ congressional delegation have sought The Family’s support.

Ensign even lived in the C Street house while he was in DC, and in a recent divorce case, the wife of former Mississippi Congressman Chip Pickering claims he rendezvoused with his mistress within the building’s walls.

The Family’s Tree

The organization, which has several subsidiary foundations, was founded in 1935 by a Norwegian immigrant pastor named Abraham Vereide. It was his response to the rise of unions during the Great Depression. Vereide thought the economic meltdown was caused by the nation’s sin of siding with unions and “against” businesses.

In 1953, he established the annual National Prayer Breakfast, where the President and several other American and World Leaders meet every year. The meeting helped lead to the 1978 Israeli-Egyptian peace deal, but it also helped solidify America’s ties to Indonesian dictator Suharto (a nominal Muslim more interested in power than either Jesus or Mohammed), whose regime killed nearly 500,000 of his own people in a single year.

Jeff Sharlet, author of The Family: The Secret Fundamentalism at the Heat of American Power.
According to Rolling Stone and Harper’s contributing editor Jeff Sharlet, The Family’s activities have had a very public impact by keeping a low profile. Sharlet lived in their complex, named Ivanwald, for nearly a month in 2002 and later dug through nearly 600 boxes of archives for The Family at Wheaton University, and conducted dozens of personal interviews to write The Family: The Secret Fundamentalism at the Heat of American Power. The book, first published in 2008, has just been released in paperback.

“In the early days of The Family, Abraham Vereide was doing a flow chart of responsibility. One man was ‘finances;’ one man was ‘meetings.’ Beside his own name was ‘power.’ That was going to be his responsibility. And then in this really interesting move, he crosses it out. What Vereide’s great insight about power was that it can’t be had. In other words, if you have to declare your own power, you’re not powerful,” says Sharlet by phone from New Hampshire.

“If you talk about (The Family) at all, you’re breaking the rules. They believe they must practice in secrecy, which is in defiance to what the Gospels teach about openness and doing your deeds in the light. Those who do evil deeds will shy away from the light.”

In addition to the Family’s own secrecy, the author says that the American press has unknowingly been complicit in keeping The Family in the shadows.

“For a long time, they’ve been benefiting from the fact that the American political press is religiously illiterate. They don’t know how to ask these questions,” says Sharlet. “There was a failure to distinguish between evangelical Christianity in America, which is a mainstream movement, and The Family, which is a very different kind of theology: very authoritarian. It is unrecognizable to any evangelical church in America.

“They’re Washington insiders. A lot liberals are happy to bash fundamentalists when they think they’re hillbillies or backwoods and that kind of stuff, and they don’t know what to do with a group like The Family, which is establishment, which is elite and sophisticated and internationalist.”

While Ensign and Sanford are Republicans, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Arkansas Sen. Mark Pryor, both Democrats, have also been actively involved with The Family. “It’s a rightward movement pulling on both parties,” says Sharlet.

Prayer for Power

Some of the most familiar quotations from the Gospels display a wariness of wealth and power and a deep concern for the underprivileged. In John 18:36, Jesus states, “My kingdom does not belong to this world,” and in Matthew 25:40, he ends a parable by declaring, “And the king will answer, ‘I tell you this: anything you did for one of my brothers here, however humble, you did for me (New English Version).”

It’s also hard to forget Mark 10:25, where Jesus warns his followers, “It is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.”

According to Sharlet, Vereide and his successors believe that their ministry was to the “up-and-out” instead of the “down-and-out.” One of their core beliefs is that many rulers who have come to power, regardless of wretchedness, gained their thrones through divine selection.

“This is not actually in the book. It’s in a bunch of audio sermons we found after the book had already gone to press. Doug Coe (who succeeded Vereide before the founder’s death in 1969) does this little rhetorical move where he wants congressmen to understand what he means about power.

“‘Who are the three 20th century leaders who best understood Jesus’ message in the New Testament?’ You imagine people guessing something like (South African Nobel laureate) Desmond Tutu, (German Anti-Nazi theologian Dietrich) Bonheoffer, or Martin Luther King or maybe Billy Graham even,” recalls Sharlet.

“And he says, ‘None of those guys. It’s Hitler, Stalin and Mao.’ Your jaw drops. These are evil men. He’s not saying you should commit genocide. ‘They are evil men, but they understood the bottom line of the New Testament.’ That’s a constant of all their stories.”

Kansas Connections

Two of the Sunflower state’s most prominent Republican politicians, Sam Brownback and Todd Tiahrt, have been regular visitors at the counseling sessions. Brownback is expected to run for governor of Kansas after declaring he would not run for reelection to the U.S. Senate. Tiahrt, who is the current Fourth District Congressman, is a 2010 U.S. Senate candidate for Kansas.

He received national attention when he lamented a House bill that might have led to taxpayer-supported abortions in DC, if applied to earlier generations, would have led the mothers of Barack Obama and Clarence Thomas to end their pregnancies.

U.S. Sen. Sam Brownback and Congressman Todd Tiahrt, both representing Kansas, are regular visitors at counseling sessions conducted by Douglas E. Coe, leader of The Family, a secretive Christian movement.

Sharlet says Tiahrt’s emphatic rhetoric is unusual for Family members. “They don’t like bomb throwers. That’s not their style. It’s easy to forget that Brownback can be a very subtle player. I don’t know if Tiahrt can.”

In the book, Sharlet recounts a counseling session with Coe where Tiahrt lamented that Christians were losing the race with Muslims because Muslims were having more babies and Christians were aborting theirs.

“Apparently, in Todd Tiahart’s world, there are no American Muslims,” says Sharlet. “(Tiahrt and Coe) were sitting in a breakfast nook of the C Street house. They were sipping their hot cocoa. I brought them their cocoa.”

Ironically, Sharlet’s experiences in The Family landed him an extensive 2006 Rolling Stone interview with Brownback despite an unflattering article he’d previously written about the organization in Harper’s. The author recalls that a Kansas reporter sent the senator a dossier on Sharlet warning Brownback not to consent to the article.

“Once you’ve been a member of The Family, because it is a type of bastardized Calvinism, you’re always a member of The Family,” says Sharlet. “God uses you for a purpose. In Brownback’s case, it really seemed in my conversation with him, it really seemed like he felt that if he could show me what he did and what he believed that I would be overwhelmed by the goodness of it and come back to the fold.”

Sharlet also describes a vivid example where Kansans don’t have to look far to see the impact of the Family on the state.

“A bunch of Family guys on a Senate appropriations committee are in charge of military construction. What they’ve been doing is green lighting mega-church size and style chapels across the country. And Fort Riley’s got one under construction that came through Sam Brownback. Keep in mind Fort Riley (already) has a chapel. They don’t need a new chapel for $18 million,” says Sharlet.

“At the same time, this committee couldn’t fund a much more modest and ecumenical chapel at the Dover Air Force Base that would have been for the families of the war dead. They couldn’t find three million bucks for that.”

He Never Left

Sharlet’s expertise on The Family and his first-hand observations have suddenly made him an omnipresent pundit. The week I had spoken to him, he had written a Family-related article in Salon and made his fifth appearance on The Rachel Maddow Show.

“I published the book last spring. It made it on the bestseller list for a week, but it wasn’t a big hit,” says Sharlet. “None of it took. And now come sex scandals, the great American blood sport. Americans know how to deal with it. Hypocrisy, they get. What’s been promising about all the attention is that it starts with the sex scandals but in a lot of the media we’ve been doing, we start with the sex scandals but we get to the real issues at hand, which are not about who’s sleeping with who but about where the money is going, what kind of political influence is being used, what kind of ideology is being pushed out there. I’m very glad that people are paying attention.”

Dan Lybarger is a Kansas City-based freelance writer. Contact him at lybarger@efilmcritic.com.