What would you say if I told you that a secret cabal of ultra fundamental extremists were secretly at the heart of the American government? And what if I said to you that the very same secret cabal has held power and sway for near on the last century, with its present zenith starting in the last 50 years, and now at its most powerful, its voice is a capable vehicle to the extermination of several hundred thousand people on the basis if helping those you consider family. Such a cabal would be a frightening and dangerous monster, especially as each and every would be political player pays some homage to them and their power. And, to make it even more unfathomable, at its reigns is one man, an American Pope if you will, who wields this groups girth and influence with a few words of encouragement and an occasional memorandum in the right places and at the right time.
Before I read the book, I was skeptical myself, but having just finished Jeff Shartlet’s non-fiction, The Family: The Secret Fundamentalism at the Heart of American Power, I was immediately struck by the connections he draws, all based on a who’s who road map of American political power elite today. What made it more interesting was that this power structure didn’t meet in dark smoky alleys, or in secret liars with special knocks and hand gestures. To the contrary, the members of this cabal meet at the local church down the street (when they attend church) or in your weekday prayer meeting. The Family, is the story of the real American right, whose actions and activities overshadow even the most elaborate fantastical connections of the Illuminati.
The argument that Sharlet presents is that the present day organization behind the
Fellowship Foundation (the subject of the book) has a traceable lineage to 1735, which started in a less than ubiquitous fashion under a pastor named Jonathan Edwards, socially and ideologically an early architect of “the Great Awakening,” which was an early colonial religious passion movement. For its time it created a type of zealotry that some of his congregants, reportedly, began to hear voices that instructed them to “slit their own throats.” For their zeal, Shartlet says that “Edwards staked out a political position as well as a spiritual one, a subtly elitist conception of knowledge as a property to be possessed in different portions according to a divine hierarchy. The wise man of Christ knows that only to some does God give a calling, the power to draw closer to Him and understand His grand plan.” What it seems to of created, however, was a ferocious case of “the emperors new cloths”, as most in the growing following wanted to be an awoken to hear the message. Following these events, Edwards was purged from his congregation in 1750 for the destruction he had wrought on the “Puritan order”, something they would never reclaim. It was Edwards, who’s ideas of an unrestrained Christ could be intimately contacted (and heard) and an unrelenting wild energy which made his religiosity the prime shaper of things to come, especially as his religion looked to rebuild a Jerusalem from the wilderness, the Great Awakening had begin.
From there, the book jumps forward in time to a spiritual descendant of Edwards, found in Charles Grandison Finney, whose populist revivals across the North East America and Britain led him to construct the first mega church seating 2,500 in 1832 (called the Broadway Tabernacle), and the hand behind the Second Great Awakening. Finney ‘s oratory and presence were such, Sharlet writes, that “‘under my preaching,…judges and lawyers and educated men were converted by the scores.” Finney’s message found its way into the minds of the most receptive who were “the new little big men of the nation, the petit bourgeoisie, physicians, inventors, entrepreneurs, self-made men, and their wives” wealthier than the old Puritan aristocracy. Interesting to note that this is the period following the Morgan Affair (in 1825) where those self same followers of Finney were leaving in droves the temples of Freemasonry. Finney’s connection to Edwards style of Awakening began in 1821 upon his own decision to either believe or not believe (in a very Shakespearean fashion) and it was in his revelation in hearing the voice of the divine which immediately solidified his as an evangelist. Finney’s conversion mirrored the conversions experience by Edwards, the intimate relationship with the divine, the aspect of communicating (hearing, feeling, exchanging) in a physical and tactile way with the spirit of the divine. Essentially, he experienced the “before God, you are nothing” state of being. The eventual message behind Finney was simple “‘knowing your duty, you have one thing to do, PERFORM IT.'” Finney’s faith became “faith enacted” the “exerted influence to secure to secure a legislation that is in accordance with the law of God” Finney’s was both an individual encounter with Jesus and the mass contagion of the anxious pew.
Finney also happened to be a Freemason before leveling his own charges against it, perhaps to pull from the growing discontent following the Morgan Affair.
The history of The Family next turns to Abraham Vereide, a immigrant Norwegian, who next takes the reins of this awakened idea of evangelism crafting it into his own Fellowship Foundation, through a dubious power struggle, to the contrary, through the simple vision from a divine source to work to help those who are in the best position to help those in need.
Vereide emigrated to America in 1905 and eventually settled in Seattle in 1906/7 where he was given the vision, Sharlet says, that to the big man went strength, to the little man went need. “‘Only the big man was capable of mending the world,'” said Vereide who realized that “to help such [wretched] creatures, the derelicts, the failures” he would help “those who could help them – the high and mighty – that they might distribute the Lord’s blessings to the little men, whose envy would be soothed, violence averted, and disorder controlled.”
It’s important to say that Vereide was very much pro business, and not a proponent of labor. It was in his early wrangling of local prominent business men that his calling of a top down change was what was necessary, to make things right. What he sought, (such that his supporters firmly believed), was the remedying of the economic ills afflicting the nation (this was the period of the Great Depression) which were caused “by disobedience to divine laws” with the ideal solution being a “revival of genuine religion…a return to prayer and the bible”, and if not “we are headed for chaos.” The leaders of industry were more than ready to steer the entire nation back onto a godly (non union/pro capitalism) path. It was in this period, and the spread of the movement, that a decided fear of Marxism and Socialism crept into this new conservative Christianity, omitting the ideals in the bible of community (communal-ism) and social justice. This was a top down theology, a wealthy mans ideal of Christ, rather than the view of a redeemer, capitalizing on the idea of conviction with out the efficacy of why.
Vierde’s power grew and his connections expanded all the way to Washington D.C. as Vereide ‘s key business men expanded from the Seattle elite to the Washington State elite, carrying his name and work to those in Federal houses in the east. Vereide ‘s spiritual influence, Sharlet suggests, was such as to break union bosses to the will of the pious business men and focused to eradicate the New Deal of FDR. Sharlet goes into great detail about the close following Vereide gave to the busting of union strikes and his affectionate leanings towards Hitler’s socialism (this was pre-World War II and the Nazi atrocities and many American business men found resonance with the Nazi socialism movement for its effectiveness in organization and production. Such was the case that entrepreneur Henry Ford, it’s said, had exchanged portraits with Adolf which he hung on his office wall). Vereide ‘s outlook was very straight forward, that “‘Top Men’ had a responsibility to do for God what lesser men couldn’t. Their failure to take on this burden has led the nation to its terrible position. ‘Obedience’, concluded Abram is ‘the way to power.'” And that, duty as “obedience,” was/is at the heart of this present tense fundamentalism, but not necessarily an envisioned obedience from Jesus, but from a less distinct organization of key men who are, in a sense, doing the work of Jesus, with the expectation of obedience to their instruction. It’s this formula that led to Vereide organizing the still functioning National Prayer Breakfast which, Sharlet reports, created a networking group of like minded individuals to congregate and network in the very heart of American political power.
In Vereide ‘s time, his organization grew and multiplied into several smaller units branching into “cells” which would grow and disseminate their ideals to those interested in a wide and diverse way some examples cited include prayer circles, outreach organizations, residential homes, and similar prayer meetings abroad. In this same period, Vereide ‘s sentiment and leadership dovetailed with the growing rise of anti-communism (but with a healthy dose of admiration for Nazi socialism) that eventually guided the creation of the red-scare film “The Blob” in 1958, all with the goal of striking the fear of communal work to that of individualism, an ideal that still pervades today.
Following Vereide, Sharlet’s work follows the transition of leadership to Doug Coe, who in taking a greater leadership role, began to grow it into an international fellowship, one that worked intimately with the U.S. State Department (if at times covertly) and did its best to make international connections with the “key men” from around the world, stimulating prayer meetings to discuss the idea of this corporate model of Jesus vs. the communal savior of antiquity. This was the new model Christian Soldier, not evangelizing to the downtrodden, but to the down-trotters, the policy makers and enforcers of the world.
Their vision became less the body of Christ and more the corporate ideal of his word with the goal of shaping the international world into the Christian model that they want so desperately to shape the U.S.A. Sharlet details the connections (with evidential reference) to the Somalia genocide under Siad Barre, who was an intimate “Family” member who happened to exterminate hundreds of thousands of people. The Vereide/Coe “Family” organization didn’t provide the means for the Aiad Barre regime, but it facilitated the connections with the U.S. government to facilitate his activities, which in itself is an example of the power behind this “New World Order” (remember, a term Sharlet says was coined by Vereide) organization (the author goes into detail in how the “Family” was tied to the murder of more than 500,000 Indonesians under Suharto in 1965).
Under Coe, Sharlet writes, The Family is of such influence that both conservatives and liberals take their lead citing instances where both Al Gore and Hilary Clinton refer to him in their decision making processes. Gore, Sharlet says, invokes Coe to end a challenge by Senator James Inhofe in 2007. Its easy to see in the glimpses Sharlet provides of the power that the The Family wields but even easier to see the power in the spaces between the examples. In 1966, Sharlet explains, Coe instructed the core of the organization to “submerge” erasing all outward appearance of an organization, taking it back to Vereide’s original vision of a “backroom brotherhood,” and today very little outward expression of it exists.
Ultimately, the way in which Sharlet defines the prevailing ideal principals, as evolved from Edwards, Finney, Vereide, and under Coe’s pastoral, a Czarist leadership was as a Jesus plus nothing ideal which is a formula to exclude a dogmatic understanding of the Christ, and stripping him out of the literal text to instead use the literal interpretation of him as an entrepreneurial force to build following under what the ideal of his being would be, if the textual version could be re-written and re-fashioned. The religious context of The Family became the Jesus plus nothing equation, It was the idealized spirit of the Jesus figure as envisioned by the leadership and communicated down to the duty bound. What the Jesus + 0 equaled was Power: J+0=P with the power being the loyalty of a duty bound following to the same singular vision.
I highly recommend reading The Family: The Secret Fundamentalism at the Heart of American Power. It is a rich and complex narrative that at times meanders, but only to make the details of the point that much more sound. Sharlet leaves no stones unturned (at least of those he could find) and presents the evidence in a manner for the reader to make any judgments for themselves. The depth to which that he has traced the Family will surprise even the most skeptical readers and give pause to reconsider the ramifications of just such a networked body, a contingent whose ideal of a Jesus plus nothing else, no history, no orthodoxy, no church, nor bible, is a powerful thing. No matter where you land on this, agreeing or disagreeing with the ideals behind it, I think you will definitely take something away from this book.
You can find The Family – The Secret Fundamentalism at the Heart of American Power on Amazon.