Written by Nicholas MH
As featured in The Truth&Rights Volume 2009.02
Shuttling amongst planes and meetings with his publisher, its 10:45 in the morning on a Thursday in what is slowly becoming a normal existence for author and journalist Jeff Sharlet. The unassuming yet highly provocative writer, who in recent weeks has run alongside the media’s upper crust elite, sounds poised and content in light of the praise that his political expose-extraordinaire, “The Family: The Secret Fundamentalism at the Heart of American Power,” is receiving from both the conservative and more liberal wings of organized Christian hierarchy. Making the welcome, albeit, shocking reception of the book all the more relevant are the recent philandering ways of Nevada Senator John Ensign and South Carolina Governor Mark Sanford, who had both received “spiritual counseling” in the aftermath of their affairs from the evangelical leaders at C-Street, the startling subject at the heart of Mr. Sharlet’s newest work.
Although not registered as a lobby itself, the organization at the center of the author’s book takes no obvious action in hiding the theological fallacies central to what the public is now waking up to as one the most covert, influential and dangerous groups in all of Washington.
In front of the familiar sounds that mark airport transit, Sharlet states, “I really do think that this group overturns decades of thinking about how religion and politics work in America. With great respect to all the wonderful scholarships out there, here’s this 800 lb gorilla, right there in the middle of Washington that doesn’t look like Jerry Falwell and it doesn’t look like Pat Robertson.”
“On one of my first days at Ivanwald, the house in which I stayed, we had a visit from Jesse Helms. I had gone in there not really knowing it was a political group, so Jesse Helms was surprising… but not that surprising. A few days later we had a visit from Kjell Magne Bondevik. He was the then newly elected prime minister of Norway. And that was just odd, because when we think of the Christian right, we think of pulpit pounders and bible thumpers and you don’t imagine this much more sophisticated international diplomatic community; foreign heads of state traveling and gathering in this little cul-de-sac in northern Virginia to talk about foreign affairs and to do so in this language that is infinitely related to the language of evangelicalism, but at the same time is radically different.”
It’s this evangelical-influenced, almost empirical foreign diplomacy that predominates many of the most shocking events documented during Sharlet’s days embedded within the organization and its devout and politically prominent members.
The writer’s initial encounter with The Family, as they have so christened themselves in obervervance of the Mafioso vernacular, began in a way that, often times, all grand adventures do: With the simple introduction from a friend in need. Sharlet’s associate, who happened to be worried that her brother had become involved with a cult-like group, told him of the startling transformation that occurred when the family member left his career and his relationship behind to immerse himself in the teachings of C-Street’s opaque organization in Washington, D.C. Having known his associate’s brother for nearly twelve years, Jeff Sharlet found himself engaged by what was taking place in the context of the man’s spiritual re-awakening. Formerly a bully of sorts, the brother seemed to be immersed in a watershed moment in which he briefly returned to New York City as a much gentler individual, to survey what he called “the ruins of secularism.”
It was this statement that captivated Sharlet, and upon an invitation from the brother, the writer who had been on the road for weeks surveying and writing a book on various religious communities around the U.S., set up shop at C-Street’s residence and began listening intently as the group’s custom-tailored theology and political ambitions were taught eagerly and openly to its privately referred recruits. Almost immediately, Sharlet was indoctrinated in one of the organizations primary tenants, the use of a sensational metaphor in which Jesus’ intention for those in power is showcased through the example of his favor of the most hardened and hated dictators that history has ever witnessed.
“If you get down to it, you can see the logic in their use of this brutal metaphor of Hitler or sometimes they’ll switch out Stalin or Mao,” says Sharlet. “The idea is that the best way to understand Jesus is by looking at these genocidal killers of the 20th century. They do have this concentric-ring model theology, with the idea being that Jesus had one set of teachings for the masses who can’t really understand what he’s about and another set of teachings for the inner circle… those in power. But once you’re in the inner circle, because they believe in this very interventionist God, you’re there because God put you there. There’s not a whole lot of testing.”
The author is quick to point out that although the group’s use of Hitler as a model of God’s intention and favor isn’t a sign of support for a neo-nazi ideology or rhetoric, it is equally scary in their belief that those in power, even those that fall far outside the moral boundaries of Christian thought, are still none-the-less ordained and justified in their placement through the name of Jesus.
Insisting that Christ’s favor was more structured for those at the top rather than the poor and humble at the bottom, it’s this favored Christianity that lends itself to the most frightening elements of The Family. It is also central to understanding why this ideological approach is as ultimately disturbing to individuals on the Left as it is to those on the Conservative Right, who find these creative theological inventions to be bastardizations of the most sanctified adages within the Bible itself.
The Beginnings of a Tailored Theology:
To fully grasp the scope of C-Street and their rise to power within the American political landscape, one must go back to its founding in 1934 San Francisco by Dr. Abram Vereide, a Norwegian immigrant and Methodist evangelist who categorically opposed President Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal.
Traveling the country and instituting prayer breakfasts amongst prominent business types and politicians, Vereide sought to bring about discussion in opposition to Unions and Communism, both of which the doctor viewed as Satan’s influence in action. By 1942, Vereide had over 60 nationwide prayer breakfasts taking place and he had made deep inroads with the U.S. House of Representatives by holding similar gatherings in which an emphasis was placed on fellowship through a very low-profile public front. Vereide’s named International Council for Christian Leadership, or the ICCL for short, continued its expansion and according to Sharlet, eventually found their public persona to be hindering some of the more covert influence that could be had amongst Washington’s power elite.
“The group begins in 1935 and until the 1960’s they had letterhead. They had a formal organization, the International Council for Christian Leadership and they’re not going out and seeking press because they really don’t care about the masses. You go back to the 1953 power breakfast, the first one, which they kind of shanghai Eisenhower into attending. He doesn’t really want to do it because I think he sees the violation of church and state but he owes some favors and he says, ‘Ok I’ll do it… but I don’t want any media there. And Vereide is fine; he doesn’t want any media to be there either. The idea is a decision should be made beyond the den of the Vox Populi – this pretentious little bit of Latin they use – to suggest that they are not interested in democracy. But I think up until the sixties they didn’t have to work too hard because there was a really dramatic shift in the American press when they really started looking at power very suspiciously. So then you get into the late sixties and everything is changing and I think this is part of the reason that Doug Coe assumed leadership and sort of leap-frogged over other guys who were more his senior. He comes up with the idea and sends out this memo that says the time has come to ‘Submerge our public profile… We’re going underground.’ These are his words, not mine. From his perspective he’s not doing anything conspiratorial. He thinks he’s saying look, we want to do this work, but don’t want the attention to be paid on the institutional structure so don’t use letterhead, don’t even speak of an organization. Let’s stop talking about ICCL. Let’s just call ourselves The Family and let’s be a social movement. At the time, Doug Coe is also being influenced by the great social movements of the sixties. You call yourself ‘The Family’ and you’re really drawing on that stuff, the Jesus People Movement we call it. At one point they dump 600 boxes of paper in the Billy Graham archives…”
It was this slightly contradictory move in the face of the group’s desired secrecy that allowed Sharlet to gain a vantage point of The Family’s early inner-workings, as subversive as they may have seemed.
“I was not the first person to look at these archives, I was the second and they’re not well-organized. It was a document dump but my guess is, and I couldn’t verify this, is that they were probably not meant to be in there. There is a lot of congressional correspondence, government correspondence, intelligence correspondence; stuff that’s probably not supposed to be in a public archive. I think they counted on people not caring. You have to remember that by the way they think, they are doing something good so they were pretty certain that if anybody sees what’s going on, it’s not going to be a problem.”
It was in fact, Doug Coe’s assumption of power from Abram Vereide which has lead The Family into it’s most influential but ultimately covert years of association and power within Washington and then to other nations’ inner pantheon of government and ruling officials. According to Sharlet, eleven members of Coe’s family are currently on the payroll with Doug referred to as the “first brother.”
“There’s a son named David Coe who kind of seems to be heir apparent although another son Tim Coe is also very active and a daughter is involved in a women’s ministry. More recently there was a guy named Dick Foth, this interesting character who was an old friend to John Ashcroft. When Ashcroft went to Washington, Foth quit his job and moved to D.C. to be a friend to John. And that’s what he would describe when you would ask him ‘what’s your job?’ He would say ‘well, I’m just a friend to John.’ That’s very much in keeping with The Family. I would hear this again and again from people who encountered them and were creeped out by it when they would ask David Coe what his job was, and he would simply say, ‘I’m just a friend.’ Jeff laughs… ‘Do you put that on your taxes? What’s your job?’
In what is surely a testament to Sharlet’s seminal work and first hand-experience while surrounded by the members of The Family itself, is the fact that certain members of the right who originally labeled the work as conspiracy-laden diatribe, have come full circle in their recognition of the need to publicize the more covert influence that The Family’s radical and certainly off-kilter evangelical agenda is wielding.
“I was speaking out at Calvin College, in Western Michigan, and in the audience was one of the really great historians of American fundamentalism – a guy named Joel Carpenter. A conservative evangelical himself but also a terrific scholar who has written a book called ‘Revive Us Again,’ which has been very useful to me. This guy seemed like a straight shooter and I’m giving my talk and I’m speaking about The Family’s involvement in Somalia and Joel gets very upset and he says, ‘I don’t believe you.’ Because I knew this was a Christian right college, and I knew I might have these problems, I brought along some documents…A little show and tell. I ask him to tell me what he thinks and he becomes very angry. Afterwards he said, ‘well I knew about his organization’ that previously he had mentioned just briefly in the book. I said ‘really, you knew about their level of access to power? Why didn’t you put it in your book since it’s such a great history of American fundamentalism.?’ He said ‘well they prefer to be private.’”
“You now have an individual like James Inhofe saying that – It’s not secret, it’s private – which is an odd thing for a Congressman who is accountable to the public to say. They have another defender – a center-right sociologist named D. Michael Lindsey down at Rice University who did his dissertation at Princeton on faith in the halls of power and published it with Oxford. He had a tremendous amount of access to the organization, and he also said it’s not secret, it’s private. Secret is only when you can find privacy with power but they’re just doing this for their personal benefit.”
Sharlet goes on to expand regarding the influence of C-Street and its adhering members. “I mean, on the most crass level, John Ensign just combined privacy with power, using The Family to help cover up this affair but in a much bigger sense you have someone like Senator Inhofe, who since this scandal broke, we found this little video of him talking about and confirming all the stuff we’ve known about for years. It’s interesting to hear him say it so directly because he uses his status as a senator to travel overseas on missionary trips for The Family on the tab of the U.S. Senate Armed Services Committee.”
“In his words, he promotes the political philosophy of Jesus as taught to him by Doug Coe. That’s not personal, that’s power. He’s using power and insists that you have no right to know about it. The other thing I think is really interesting about why this happens and how you reconcile these two things is you have to look at one of the really great things about the American press and one of the really terrible things. One of the great things is because the first amendment is really important to journalism; we tend to think of it as the free speech amendment. Of course the first line is about freedom of religion – that’s what the first amendment is – that Congress shall make no law establishing religion or prohibiting the free exercise thereof. And I think the press has developed this American tradition that religion is private and that comes from this place back in the early days of The Family, before the days of JFK, when almost every politician was from a small handful of Protestant denominations. There really was a consensus. You had a handful of Jews and in cities you had some Catholics and really that was it. You didn’t even have a whole lot of variation in the types of Protestants. So it was a private thing, a gentleman thing you respected, that and you didn’t ask tough questions about it because it was personal business…”
When asked if any of the members of C-Street, whether in the outer circles or the inner-most bastions of congressional power, ever questioned the rationale or doctrine being set forth through Christ’s name, domestically or abroad, Jeff Sharlet pauses and speaks to one of the more conscientious moments of his time spent living off of Virginia Ave.
“Those moments occur rarely and in very minor ways – they’re interesting,” says Sharlet amidst what sounds like screaming babies in the bustling airport. “There’s a guy named Elgin Groseclose, who was a right wing Quaker. Elgin had a high-ranking propagandist job within the Pentagon and during the Cold War. He also had been advisor to the Shah of Iran… This was a guy who was comfortable being a representative of the American empire, being involved in that old imperial way and as an emissary to the local strongmen. So when it came to The Family’s relationship and support of Indonesian President Suharto, a guy who made the Shah look like a teddy bear and was really just one of the bloodiest killers of the 20th century, he was a little uncomfortable with this partly because of the brutality. But also partly because in order to reach out to Suharto and guys like him, The Family was diluting any kind of Christian methods and it was all being reduced to this absolute of American power and Christ’s will…. And he got kind of worried about this. I wouldn’t say there was a debate, they just sort of steamrolled over him.”
“And that really was Doug Coe – this was the distinction and what’s happening now with this Christian right new world saying that Coe has muddied theology. Which they all have muddy theology – it’s crap to say that Coe is the bad apple in the barrel. But there was a moment in the late sixties again where you had all these old western Europeans that were part of the family, part of the conservative Christian democrat branch of western European politics. They were very uneasy with what Coe was doing, very uneasy with the secrecy and the willingness to deal with anybody. Which is ironic because they were dealing with the Germans, not really paying attention to the fact that the only reason they had been rehabilitated after Hitler’s regime is that they were now enjoying positions in high west German government and they had made friends in the American congress was because The Family had been willing to muddy theology and overlook their past. Some of them had been former Nazi’s, one of them was known as Hitler’s banker and was finally outed and forced to resign from public life. Another, before the war, had been a prominent public preacher, speaking about how God had ordered Germany to hunt down the Jews. After the war he had a different tune, ‘please let’s not talk about that recent unpleasantness…’ But the way The Family has set itself up with this muddy theology allows it to always just roll over that. To say but we’re just talking about love – it’s love with an iron fist.”
It’s details such as these that make Jeff Sharlet’s book as ultimately disturbing as it is requisite reading to fully understand the theology at the hearts of several of our elected officials. Whether as a reminder of the essential separation between church and state or a more electrified antagonist to incite the public’s questioning of hidden lobbies that influence both domestic and foreign policy, “The Family” is perhaps one of the most important insights into Washington’s inner-workings in the past twenty years.
One of the most poignant moments in Sharlet’s work comes nearly half-way through the book as a critical look is taken in regard to the weaponry meetings that were arranged through the agency of congressmen who perceived that Indonesian President Suharto was a man of God because of his involvement with The Family.
“Suharto’s victims – 602,000, 1.2 million, or 1.8 million – may never find a place in literature. But they deserve a place in history, and to win them that, one small problem must be solved here in America, that of Jesus plus nothing, the logic of faith that allows American politicians to contribute to the nightmares of other nations, and the rest of us to vote for them… Coe and his inner circle do believe in the trinity; a Washington fundamentalist activist told me, but “they’ll give the father and the Holy Ghost the weekend off. Because they clutter the conversation…”
Perhaps the central idea of David Coe and his “Jesus plus One” theology, truly equates to nothing more than, well, zero.
And perhaps it’s journalists like Jeff Sharlet who are willing to bravely and objectively expose the flawed math for itself.