[13 June 2008]
A stuffy courthouse in Dayton, Tennessee was supposed to have been the burial ground of American fundamentalism in the public sphere. The Scopes “monkey” trial in July 1925 did result in a legal victory for William Jennings Bryan and his fellow believers, but Bryan died less than a week later, and media coverage of the trial characterized fundamentalism as rural belief that was out of touch with the American mainstream. Its adherents retreated in response, creating a subculture with its own colleges and church organizations.
Historians have affirmed the above facts for decades, to the point where they’ve become conventional wisdom. But what if they don’t reflect the whole story? What if there also have been fundamentalists that not only remained “in the world” (so to speak), but also established themselves within the upper echelons of governmental power? And what if their power and influence became such that they helped destabilize the New Deal, played key roles in anti-Communist foreign policy during the Cold War, and supported numerous bloodthirsty dictators?
This is Jeff Sharlet’s stunning claim in The Family, one of the most important books on American religion and politics to appear this year. Sharlet is a talented religion journalist, and he capably synthesizes much of his reporting from the last several years. Relying on a keen sense of history and literature, he also provides a cogent meditation on democracy, power, and myths of American nationalism.
The central subject of Sharlet’s study is a network called the Family (formerly the Fellowship), which he refers to as an “elite” or “avant-garde” branch of the fundamentalist movement. The Fellowship began taking shape in 1935 through the efforts of Seattle businessman Abraham (Abram) Vereide. Concerned about increasing labor unrest and the big-government politics of the New Deal, he formed “breakfast prayer meetings” for a select group of like-minded colleagues. Their organizing principle was “the Idea”: it wasn’t the “down and out” in need of God the most, but the “up and out”, the powerful leaders who could shape the world in God’s image.
It isn’t surprising, therefore, that as the Fellowship grew in power and influence, their skewed theology led to self-serving and unethical stances. After Abram recruited several members of Congress to join his Washington, D.C. “Breakfast Group” in the 1940s, he convinced them that anti-labor legislation was in line with God’s will. More egregious were his diplomatic efforts with and on behalf of German war criminals after World War II. Communism was a different story, as Abram’s views “ran parallel to and often infused American Cold War tactics”, with repentant Nazi key men joining his cause as allies.
Nevertheless, the Fellowship’s means of growth after Doug Coe became its president in the 1960s is perhaps most damning of all. As Sharlet writes, Coe, unlike Abram, “never lied to himself about the virtues or lack thereof of the top men he was courting”. Accordingly, he was comfortable forming “prayer cells” with men such as Haiti’s brutal “Papa Doc” Duvalier, using the Idea as a means of gaining the power of their diplomatic aid. Even as Suharto of Indonesia ruthlessly killed his own citizens and conducted genocide against East Timor, Coe remained silent despite his personal ties to the regime. So also with regard to Somalia’s Siad Biarre, a recipient of Coe’s aid whose mass burning of arable land before his exile in 1991 led to the country’s horrific famine.
That Sharlet was able to uncover this much evidence is impressive, considering the hidden nature of his subject. The Billy Graham Center Archives contains over 600 boxes of Fellowship material up to the early 1970s. But the collection’s abrupt end also reflects Coe’s deliberate decision at that time to make the network “invisible”. Their members now commit nothing to paper, their lone current public event is the annual National Prayer Breakfast, and one can only become a member through a trusted recommendation.
Through both good contacts and good fortune, Sharlet was able to join Ivanwald—a “training” house in Washington that the Family runs for young men with leadership potential—for a time shortly after 9/11. The first section of The Family is a reprisal of his 2003 Harper’s essay “Jesus Plus Nothing”; he documents his gradual discovery of Ivanwald’s purpose, the Family’s influence, and Coe’s absolutist vision (all of about which he was unaware when joining). In short, this is a subject that demanded unconventional reporting (as he wasn’t on assignment while at Ivanwald) and historical legwork. To his credit, Sharlet ably accomplishes both, demonstrating both thorough research skills and elegant—at times, outright beautiful—prose.
Where, then, does “populist” fundamentalism sit in relation to the elite faith of the Family? Sharlet contends that the two branches actually merge at points, creating a “Popular Front” in America’s culture wars. One point of convergence concerns “cells”, or small groups oriented around a set of common interests. The Family’s network is comprised of private political cells, where its members formulate insights and policy that favor their own elite status. Yet leaders such as Ted Haggard made cells an integral part of “free-market theology” within fundamentalist churches, which now commonly offer an array of small groups as a form of consumer “choice”.
Perhaps needless to say, this particular argument (as well as the book in general) will upset a lot of evangelicals. Most of evangelicalism does not view itself as fundamentalist, and it attempts to make that distinction clear. Therefore, it often embraces a narrow definition of what being a fundamentalist means. Sharlet, on the other hand, is arguing for a definition that is more wide-ranging. He finds that its tendencies can exist among American evangelicals who would claim otherwise. But they also are present within the ideology and actions of the Family, which isn’t really an evangelical network at all.
As a result, evangelical critiques of The Family will likely center on the idea that Sharlet is overgeneralizing. If they do, then two charges will be fairly predictable. The first is that Sharlet is using “fundamentalist” as a means of attack, or at least promoting attacks, upon evangelical belief systems. A second (and slightly more elaborate) variation is that he is cooking up a conspiracy that belies his political and religious bias. As an example, Books and Culture columnist Alan Jacobs essentially made both charges during a heated exchange with Sharlet last year.
These particular responses, regardless of where they originate, are flatly wrong. Sharlet’s observations about religion have been polarizing for quite some time, and he doesn’t hide his personal perspective as a leftist and a Jewish secularist. But his work certainly isn’t—and never has been—about grinding axes against religious belief, as Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens recently have done. Nor is he concerned with uncovering any sort of conspiracy, especially since he states more than once in the book that the Family isn’t a conspiracy at all.
Perhaps worse than such criticisms being wrong are that they miss the forest for the trees. A close reading indicates how The Family uses a twisted fundamentalism to justify a lust for power and blind eye for violence. It’s this application of the Idea for undemocratic ends, and its influence upon popular religion, that should be of most concern. The same is true regarding Doug Coe’s decision to “submerge” the network into secrecy; readers should then wonder about the theological and political implications of Sam Brownback being a member and Hillary Clinton a “friend”.
Finally, it’s important to remember that The Family is a challenge to liberals as much as conservatives, and nonbelievers as much as the faithful. Nowhere is this more evident than the concluding paragraph, where Sharlet calls for “not simply a different answer, secular myths opposed to fundamentalism’s, but a question.” This call to let go of easy assumptions, to be willing to fight for an open democracy and fair religious practices, is a fitting ending to a book that is simply outstanding in its research, narrative, and conclusions.