The Family

Review by John C. Snider © 2009

It is possibly the most influential organization you’ve never heard of.   They observe a fanatical devotion to the person of Jesus Christ, yet they are unrestrained by quaint notions of rule-based morality.  They are invited with open arms into the halls of power in Washington, DC.  Their members include congressmen, senators, governors, ambassadors, generals, captains of international industry, even ruthless dictators.  For half a century, no president has dared ignore their annual summons.  Their goal is no less than global theocracy dominated by America military, economic and cultural power.  Theirs is a  “long-term project of a worldwide government under God…more ambitious than Al Qaeda’s dream of a Sunni empire.”

The plot of Dan Brown’s latest novel?  The fever-dream of some crackpot conspiracy theorist?  You wish.  The Family (pub. by Harper Perennial, Jun 2009, 454 pp trade ppb, $$15.99) is the new nonfiction (I’ll repeat: nonfiction) book from journalist Jeff Sharlet.  Thanks to Sharlet’s book, finally people are beginning to take notice of this Christian fundamentalist organization, one that avoids the spotlight, surviving and thriving, embedded in the US political class, nearly unseen and unnoticed by the American public.

The Family (also called The Fellowship) might have continued operating in the shadows were it not for Sharlet’s work.  That, and a series of sex scandals involving their members–including South Carolina Governor Mark Sanford and Senator John Ensign (R-Nevada).  It wasn’t the sex scandals so much as the fact that, when the jig was up, both men fled to the Family’s C-Street dormitory for “counseling.”  And it wasn’t so much the counseling as the fact that the Family leadership didn’t really mind that these men had broken several of Christianity’s most revered Commandments.  You see, the Family (led by a mysterious, charismatic man named Doug Coe) believe that those in power are there because God wants them to be there: what matters is that they are ordained by Christ to lead, and if they break a few Commandments, or laws, along the way…well, King David was a petty, genocidal horn-dog, but the Bible says he was beloved of God.  (If you’re looking for a detailed exposé on the Sanford and Ensign scandals, you won’t find it in this book.  The Family was first published in 2008, and these stories didn’t come to light until 2009.)

Amazingly, Jeff Sharlet lived with the Family for a time, and wrote an article about it that appeared in Harper’s magazine.  Yet, The Family is not just a retelling of Sharlet’s undercover escapade: he uses his experience as a jumping-off point to explore the history of fundamentalism American-style, from colonial times to the present.

Although Sharlet is circumspect about using the label “fascist” when referring to the Family, the label fits.  The organization’s ideology is nearly indistinguishable from traditional fascism, except that the cult of personality is deflected from Doug Coe, residing instead in the “person” of Jesus Christ.  But this is not the iconoclastic, selfless Jesus as understood by most Christians, but rather a macho, masculine, can-do Jesus who wants to preserve conservative cultural stratification at home, and American hegemony abroad.  The Family fetishizes power, and is willing to shrug off the peccadilloes of affiliated Congressmen, and rub elbows with mass-murdering dictators, rationalizing that those in power are ordained by God (although Sharlet never fully explains why the Family doesn’t see Communist and socialist leaders as ordained by God).  This power fetish harks back to the Family’s origins, when the late Abram Vereide (a Norwegian immigrant and preacher) felt “called” to serve those whom the Lord had chosen, which meant politicians and captains of industry (Vereide said of his revelation: “To the big man went strength, to the little man went need.  Only the big man was capable of mending the world.”).  This led, all too naturally, to an anti-worker sentiment, which morphed quickly into anti-unionism and eventually to anti-socialism, anti-Communism and a deep empathy for the failed Third Reich.  Thus the Family stands in stark contrast to the charitable altruism that led so many Christians of the 19th and early 20th centuries to emphasize good works and the raising up of the downtrodden.

Doug Coe’s, and by extension the Family’s, ethos recognizes no laws and no code of morals other than an ostensible “love of Christ,” which the Family defines only as “obedience to Christ,” which means “do whatever Christ tells you to do today, Biblical teachings notwithstanding,” which ultimately means (however you want to color it) “do whatever Doug Coe thinks is best.”  So much for the objective morality touted by mainstream Christians.

The tentacles of the Family are wide-reaching.  Vereide–in a towering irony–coined the phrase “New World Order.”  The Family organizes the annual National Prayer Breakfast, which no president, including Barack Obama, has dared to miss since 1953.  One of the Family’s key monetary contributors was Clement Stone, “the man who financed the campaign to insert ‘under God,’ into the Pledge of Allegiance.”  A Bible study group founded by the Family in the 1970s to groom men of power eventually snagged George W. Bush (and we all know how that turned out).  In a bizarre footnote, the cheesy sci-fi classic The Blob came about through a chance meeting between a female screenwriter attending the National Prayer Breakfast and an evangelical filmmaker “looking to subliminally broadcast his message into the mainstream” and who “had backing for a full-length science fiction flick.”

Among those in the Family’s sphere of influence include Billy Graham; Konrad Adenaur (the first Chancellor of West Germany after World War II); Senator Mark Pryor (the Arkansas Democrat and Creationist waffler who famously told Bill Maher, in the documentary Religulous, that “you don’t have to pass an IQ test to be in the Senate”); and that darling of the liberal left, now-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.  It’s interesting to note that the Family is not strictly a Republicans-only club: they accept Republican and Democrat, American and foreigner, Christian and non-Christian alike, as long as they’re willing to meet “around the person of Jesus Christ.”

Sharlet echoes something Susan Jacoby emphasizes in her book Freethinkers: that while the American Constitution is a revolutionary, progressive document, it is something that is superimposed over a fundamentally conservative and religious society.  In other words, while America’s government might be secular, America really is a Christian nation.  The greatest mistake secularists have made over the centuries is to underestimate fundamentalism as either a fad that comes and goes, or to dismiss it as something embraced by uneducated “dupes, saps, or fools.”  As Sharlet neatly sums up, “the revivals that have been sweeping the nation with generational regularity since its inception are not flare-ups but the natural temperature fluctuations of American empire.”  What makes 21st evangelical fundamentalism all the more baffling is the fact that its adherents are solidly middle-class and mainstream, not poverty-stricken illiterates clutching at spiritual straws.  Nonetheless, modern megachurch influence is predicated on its sheep grazing on an essentially lazy theology, “followers with an uneven knowledge of scripture but a reverence for authority [who] are easily sold the idea of ‘biblical capitalism.'”

Jeff Sharlet’s The Family is not only a shocking, informative eye-opener; it’s also great literature.  It reads very much like a novel, especially the first section, in which Sharlet details the time he spent eating, sleeping, studying and praying with his “brothers.”

The Family was published in hardcover in 2008 and re-released in trade paperback in 2009.  Sharlet has been interviewed on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart, Real Time with Bill Maher (where you could have heard a pin drop, the audience was so enthralled), and National Public Radio.

The Family is available at and

Here’s Sharlet on The Daily Show:

The Daily Show With Jon Stewart Mon – Thurs 11p / 10c
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And here is is on Real Time:

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