Imperial Jesus: ‘Family” author Jeff Sharlet on the secret history of the other Christian right


Jeff Sharlet’s The Family: The Secret Fundamentalism at the Heart of American Power may be the best book anyone has written about the politics of the Christian right. Certainly it’s the most surprising, and therein lies a catch: The Family is not about the “Christian right” we know, the popular fundamentalist evangelicalism of TV preachers and retail bloc-voting and abortion clinic standoffs. Its subject is an elite fundamentalist organization almost no one had heard of before Sharlet’s book, a quiet network of powerful people — “key men,” in the group’s phrase — at home and abroad built in the name of a strong-man Jesus who cares much more for power than piety, and prefers foreign affairs to domestic politicking.

In Born Again, his post-prison memoir, the old Nixon hand and Watergate convict Chuck Colson called the Family “a veritable underground of Christ’s men all through government.” To this day, the only public estimate of the Family’s size is the one Colson offered in that 1979 book: 20,000 or so worldwide. Today the group’s Washington insider membership (or the portion of it that’s publicly known) includes Colson, James A. Baker, John Ashcroft, Ed Meese, Sen. Sam Brownback (R-Kansas), Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa), Sen. John Thune (R-South Dakota), Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Florida), Sen. Mark Pryor (D-Arkansas), Rep. Joe Pitts (R-Pennsylvania), and Rep. Mike McIntyre (D-North Carolina). And their bipartisan list of “friends” includes Hillary Clinton, who has helped the Family pass several pieces of legislation, including the bill that made it legal for pharmacists to decline to fill birth-control pill prescriptions on moral grounds.

Sharlet caught on to the Family by accident in 2002 while staying at a boarding house/religious training center that turned out to be run by the group, whose only public profile is as sponsor of the annual National Prayer Breakfast. The trail Sharlet uncovered starts in the 1930s in Seattle. A Norwegian immigrant named Abram Vereide built a ministry there premised on giving succor to the region’s most powerful business leaders, and along the way helped them coordinate their efforts to fight the rising labor militancy of the day. By the 1940s Vereide had begun forging connections with national corporate titans and powerful members of Congress, and the organization’s interest turned mainly to foreign affairs, where it has remained ever since. (Though there are occasional forays into domestic politics: in the late 1960s, for instance, when Minnesota Rep. Al Quie led a Family-sanctioned attack on federal aid to public schools; and more recently, when Family insiders laid the conceptual foundation for George W. Bush’s “faith-based” social programs.)

The Family’s main role in practical politics, as Sharlet demonstrates in considerable detail, has been to foster ties between the US and tyrants abroad. Christ’s men in government, it turns out, are not really interested in the complexities of theology. According to the Family’s calculus, to love Jesus is to love worldly power, for there is no authority but of God (Romans 13) and hence the powerful of the Earth are God’s anointed ones. Through the decades the Family has reached across the waters to join hands with some of the world’s most repressive regimes: Suharto in Indonesia, Park in South Korea, Medici in Brazil, Duvalier in Haiti, Selassie in Ethiopia, Siad Barre in Somalia. In the view of Doug Coe, the group’s current leader, the 20th century figures who best exemplified a New Testament approach to power were Hitler, Stalin and Mao.

Last week I spoke to Sharlet about the roots and reach of the Family in an hour-long phone conversation that ranged from post-millennialist theology to the Family’s romance with fascism and ended on a note of caution for those who think the end of the Bush era means the end of the Christian right as a political force.

Minnesota Independent: The Family originated in Seattle-area anti-labor battles through the vision of a man named Abram Vereide whose theology was summed up in something he called The Idea. What was The Idea?

Jeff Sharlet: The Idea was that Christianity had gotten it wrong for 2,000 years. For 2,000 years, the best Christianity had focused on the poor, the suffering, the down and out. And one night in April 1935, Abram had what he believed was a revelation from God that told him that God wanted things reversed, that instead of helping the down and out, his ministry should be for the up and out. In other words, he should be taking care of the already powerful. That God had chosen the powerful, whether they were corporate leaders or political leaders, as his anointed. And that through them, good things will flow down to the people. What it amounted to was trickle-down fundamentalism.

MnIndy: The subtitle of the book refers to the “secret fundamentalism at the heart of American power,” and you demonstrate in detail the lengths to which they go to avoid publicity. Tell me about the scale of the Family. You write that there are about 350 core members and some 20,000 friends and fellow travelers. How much of the core membership is in the ranks of the US government, or near it?

Sharlet: It was actually Chuck Colson, the Watergate felon, who put the membership at around 20,000. They’re not interested in converting the masses. This is not a religion of big rallies. They’re interested only in elites. So 20,000 may sound big, but it’s actually small when we’re talking on a worldwide scale. And within that, the 350 actually refers to full-time associates. These are not actually people who are in government, but who are in ministry to people in government. This man Dick Foth, for instance, is a full-time associate. When John Ashcroft went to Washington, Foth, who was president of a Christian college, gave up his job and moved to Washington to, as he put it, “be a friend to John.” That’s his whole job. He’s going to be a friend to John Ashcroft. In other words, he’s going to be ministering to John Ashcroft and those around him, and being their liaison to the Family. So Ashcroft is one of those 20,000 members of the Family, and Foth is one of the 350 full-time associates.

In terms of the US government, that core idea they have is very important. They think of religion and power as working in concentric rings. As they interpret the Bible, and it’s an unorthodox interpretation, Jesus had one set of teachings for James and Peter, another set for the rest of the twelve, and another set for so on and so on, out to the masses. There’s an inner circle, and that’s gathered around the first brother, Doug Coe, and around the person of Jesus. There are congressmen at that level. Representative Joe Pitts is a core member. Sam Brownback is becoming a core member. Former attorney general Ed Meese, who’s still very much a mover and shaker in Washington — perhaps more so than when he was attorney general — is a core member.

Then you get down to the next ring of influence and power, and there you’re talking about people like Senator Jim Inhofe, Senator Chuck Grassley, conservative Republicans from Oklahoma and Iowa respectively. Both these guys are pretty involved and have been involved for a long time. You go another circle out, and you get into folks like Senator Mark Pryor, the conservative Democrat from Arkansas. Mark Pryor is probably not in the position of hearing that extreme rhetoric that talks about Hitler. But he is in a position to be influenced by them. I think Pryor said in an interview once that he had come to realize that the separation of church and state – he won’t go quite as far as the Christian right and say it’s a total myth – he said the separation of church and state exists but that it’s been terribly exaggerated by secularists. And this at a point when the separation of church and state is probably weaker than it’s ever been. He thinks it’s far too exaggerated.

And from that level it’s onward and outward to the outer circles.

MnIndy: I was struck in reading the book by how threadbare the Family seems doctrinally and philosophically. It all seems rooted in Romans 13 in one sense, in reverence for worldly authority. And particularly virulent strains of authority at that. You document their relations with tyrants in Indonesia, Brazil, South Korea, Haiti, Ethiopia, Somalia. Why the attraction to totalitarianism and fascism, do you think?

Sharlet: In some ways, they are the updates on the idea that we were speaking of at the beginning. You’ve got to remember these guys start out in the 1930s, at a time in world history and American history when a lot of people thought democracy had run its course. There were a number of US congressmen who — we forget that before World War II, it was a legitimate thing to take to the floor of Congress and talk about the pioneering methods of Mr. Hitler. Many congressmen did. A lot of them thought democracy was basically done. Fascism and communism were very powerful then.

This is a really key distinction: Abram didn’t want to be a fascist. He had a lot of friends who did, but he didn’t. So he comes up with this version of totalitarian Christianity as his alternative, his third way. What Abram called the “din of the vox populi” was something you wanted to avoid. So he comes up with this idea that God is going to work through strong men, essentially. One of the first guys he really admired was James A. Farrell of US Steel. He was also enamored with Henry Ford, though he believed that Ford was not sufficiently dedicated to their vision of power, which is a scary thought since Ford was pretty much an open admirer of Hitler.

That translates, when you get into the Cold War, into a reverence for strong men like Suharto in Indonesia and Selassie in Ethiopia. When they read the New Testament, and they read the story of Jesus, they’re looking for a manly Christ. They come out of this whole idea of muscular Christianity, the idea that the church is feminine and that’s why businessmen don’t want to be a part of it. So they go looking for this really macho, strong-guy Christ who makes hard decisions without being sentimental. A tough guy. And when they look around the world, they see that best reflected in dictators.

As Doug Coe, the current leader, says, the three leaders who understood the methods in the New Testament better than anyone else in the 20th century were Hitler, Stalin and Mao. They don’t admire the men, because they took the methods of the New Testament and put them to evil ends, but they did understand the methods of authority and the reverence for power. They don’t like the kind of power where I have to come with a club and say, Steve, give me your lunch money or else. They want you to so revere power that you’re asking to give the bullies your lunch money. They see that ideology reflected in these strong men. And it’s interesting when you bring it back home to the United States, because for all their reverence for strong men, they’re not quite ready to go down that road in America, because they enjoy the benefits of the pluralist democracy that they despise.

MnIndy: You write that they have emphasized international affairs in their initiatives through the years. Why is that, do you think? Is it an expression of the missionary impulse, or is it what you just mentioned about not wanting to eat what they’re serving?

Sharlet: You know from the book that in the beginning they weren’t interested in international affairs. They were talking about organized labor in the Northwest and then around the country. Their expansion into foreign affairs – and you know, one of the main arguments of the book is that I think a lot of us progressives when we look at the Christian right, we know that they care about abortion and gay rights and things like this and we says we’re going to fight them on these fronts. We tend to overlook the fact that they’re very invested in foreign affairs, and the Family tells us that they have been for a long time.

And that’s a function of a couple of different things. First of all, if you want to get into the wonky theology, it has to do with post-millennial versus pre-millennial. What pre-millennial means is that you believe in the Rapture. If you believe in the Rapture, you believe that Christ is coming back any day. Maybe tomorrow. And once he’s back, he’s going to rule for a thousand years. If you’re post-millennial, you think that Christ’s not going to come back until you’ve established a worldwide Christianized government for a thousand years. A thousand-year Reich of fundamentalist Christianity.

The Family is in that theological camp. It’s important to recognize that camp wasn’t always right-wing. The abolitionists in the 19th century were mostly post-millennialists. That’s what drove them to fight slavery, because Christ can’t come back to this world; he can’t come back to a world with slavery. We’ve got to get rid of slavery if we want Christ to come back. So it can lead to good impulses, or in the Family’s case, very authoritarian impulses.

So that’s part of it. I think part of it has to do with the fact these guys are elites, and they’re always interested in elite power. They’re insiders, not outsiders. And of course the real concern of elite power tends to be foreign affairs. The great game. The big world. So that’s where they define status, and that’s what they were drawn to. And then there’s that other element you mentioned, the missionary impulse. I think that’s really important.

There’s only so much you can put in a book, but one of the things you see at the end of the Jonathan Edwards chapter is that Jonathan Edwards, the author of the first Great Awakening, has this great religious revival, and then it kind of collapses. So what does he do at the end of his days? He goes out west – and west in those days was Stockridge, Massachusetts. And he starts working on converting native Americans. And the thinking was that, you know, the people in Boston think they’re very sophisticated, and they’re not going to have any kind of revival of religion. They’re not going to listen. But if I can surround them, if I can turn these savages into Christians, one day Boston’s going to wake up and they’re going to realize, hey, wait a minute. If those savages are Christians, then they’re going to be morally ashamed.

That’s been the logic of missionary Christianity for much longer than the Family has been around. Look, you can go and concentrate on these countries that nobody’s paying attention to, then one, we can have tremendous influence. The Family is just one organization among many, right? But if they can get a senator like James Inhofe to go to middle African countries, then… To you and me, somebody like Inhofe is a troublesome senator. But to a small African country, he’s the most powerful person who’s ever set foot on their territory. He is the highest-ranking American official. He is the agent of empire. And they listen. And Inhofe goes and they say we’re ready and we want to talk about trade and we want to talk about issues, and Inhofe says, no, no, no, I don’t want to talk about any of that, I just want to talk about Jesus. Inhofe can tell you, and he will, that that’s just his personal thing. He’s not setting it as American policy.

But of course that’s absurd. The country is going to interpret the words of the most powerful person they’ve ever seen from America to mean that America wants them to talk about Jesus. So they recognize they can have this tremendous influence and win over these little countries. And then, one of these days, we’re going to wake up and realize, you know what? It’s true that America’s a fundamentalist Christian country, and it’s surrounded by all these other fundamentalist Christian countries all around the world.

And if you look at the work of historians and sociologists, you notice [the spread of fundamentalist Christianity] is exactly what’s happening, and it’s having a rippling effect. If you look at older denominations like the Episcopal Church, which is actually quite a progressive church, it’s in real danger now because it’s being challenged all over the world by this militant right-wing fundamentalism that’s very anti-gay. And they are challenging the American Episcopal Church. And that was a big part of what the conservatives understood: We can go and recruit allies in these countries that no one is paying attention to, and ultimately we’ll have the numbers on our side.

MnIndy: You use a trickle-down metaphor to describe the way Abram Vereide thought his religion would work. I was struck by how consonant it is with a lot of what you see now in more popular fundamentalism in the last decade or two. There’s something very much like this power-Jesus that Vereide envisioned. You see churches all over the place extolling a Jesus who is about power, connections, success. You also see him in a lot of Christian self-help rhetoric, and the wealth-gospel fad of a few years ago. Did Vereide’s Jesus trickle down, or did popular fundamentalism arrive at something similar by a different path?

Sharlet: I look at it as a convergence. Some of it’s coming down from the elite fundamentalism and some of it’s coming from other sources. In the book I write about Bruce Barton, one of the founders of modern advertising. In 1925 he wrote a mega-bestseller called The Man Nobody Knows. And it’s really an early example of the Christian self-help books you mentioned. If you look at guys like Rick Warren or Joel Osteen, there’s a real element of that there as well. Hey, let’s make Christianity not about helping the poor and the weak. Let’s make Christianity about helping you. Let’s make Christianity about getting rich.

And a lot of that does come down, I think, from the Family. The Family really arose as a response to a very important movement every progressive should know about called the Social Gospel. This was sort of a radical left idea. There’s a lot of dimensions we could argue about and that not every liberal would agree with, but it was a real progressive force. The Family represented a reaction that was driven by the desire to get people to stop talking about radical challenges to capitalism and this sort of stuff.

And that impulse moved into the mainstream through the influence of guys like Frank Buchman, and then later through the National Prayer Breakfast. It created a civil religion that redefined religion not as helping the poor and suffering or standing by them in solidarity, but rather about leveraging the power of the state. The National Prayer Breakfast is about talking about America as power, not America as a place where we all live together.

Those ideas are fairly abstract, and they’re fairly distant from the experiences that most Christians have in their churches. But you see those ideas start trickling in [to mainstream fundamentalism]. I try to draw this out in the book in the chapter on Ted Haggard and his mega-church in Colorado Springs. There you see that the most important issue to him is free-market economics. That’s not something that churches talked about 30 years ago. That’s really come from the top down.

At the same time, you talk about the prosperity gospel, and that comes from a different place. That’s a right-wing version of populism – the idea that if you send your $10 to Pastor Rod Parsley, you’ll get $100 back somehow from God. That’s obviously a religion that’s not for rich people. It’s for poor people. You don’t bite that worm unless you have no other options. That’s an exploitation of debt, and it comes from a different place, a popular fundamentalism. What we have right now is a convergence of that right-wing populism and right-wing elitism coming together in not just the Family, but Joel Osteen, Rick Warren, the self-help talk. The idea of a church that is not about speaking truth to power but about gaining power for yourself.

MnIndy: Before I read the book, I assumed that the Bush administration would be an integral part of the story. But it really isn’t. Have the Bush crew and the Family reinforced each other to an important extent, or is the Bush administration more an exploitation of that popular fundamentalism?

Sharlet: I think they’ve reinforced one another. I think the Family enjoys a pride of place in the Bush administration. Certainly there was John Ashcroft in the first term, there was the whole faith-based initiatives idea. They were one of many influences on the Iraq War. You have to remember that we think mainly in terms of the democratic vision of America, but there is also the empire vision. The empire vision is made up of all sorts of little moving parts that seem to come together in a seamless machine. The empire vision of America rides on this wave of seeming inevitability. But it has a lot of moving parts, so I never want to claim for the Family that they’re at the head of this. They’re just one of many moving parts. We can also talk about the Rand Corporation, the neo-cons, AIPAC. The Family is just one of them – an important one, and one that hasn’t been looked at.

But the key to understanding [their relationship to] the Bush administration… there’s this scene in the book where David Coe comes around to give them this lesson about Genghis Khan, about how he was a spiritual conqueror. He was raising all that in the context not of dismissing Bush, but of warning everybody not to get too excited about Bush. The point was that he’s not the Messiah we’ve been waiting for; he’s a politician.

Now, I have to say that I’ve interviewed a lot of Christian right figures, not just the Family people. That’s what they all say. The fantasy of a perfect identification between Bush and the Christian right was a naïve projection of the left. A lot of us wanted to fool ourselves – I was there too – we all wanted to fool ourselves into thinking that this is a Christian fascist machine. The reason we wanted to fool ourselves is that that made us think we knew right where to hit back. It’ll be as easy as kaboom, one two three, and then we’re back to democracy.

It’s not that simple. One, because the Christian right has been around a lot longer than Bush has, and they’re pretty savvy about politics. They know they’re going to be around after Bush is gone. So yeah, they put some eggs in that basket, but they sure didn’t put them all there. That’s why the Bush administration doesn’t play such a big part in my book. Partly because, you know, there’s a lot of history here. And also because I wanted to take a deeper look. I want the progressives who read my book to think with a little more sense of history. I want us all to go a little bit deeper.

I’m not the only one out there saying, look, Bush-hatred has blinded us to the deeper problems. He’s not the only right-winger in America. And you know what? The right-wingers of America are not limited to the Republican party. There are Democrats among them too.

MnIndy: That leads us to Hillary Clinton, who is certainly the most curious figure in your book. And while you make clear that she is not of the elect in terms of the inner circles of the Family, she has been a good friend to them at times, including the sponsorship of legislation that’s had some horrid impact abroad. How do you peg her religious outlook? It seems to me she is clearly the most religious major candidate we’ve seen in a while.

Sharlet: Yeah. She really is. You know, I’ve written about Hillary twice, first in Mother Jones with my colleague Kathryn Joyce, one of the major observers of conservative religion. I also wrote about her and the other two candidates and their problem pastors for the New Republic. It’s called “Family Ties,” and it’s partly an adaptation from the book, but I get into a little more about Hillary. “Conservative” or “liberal,” these terms are not as useful in her case as establishmentarian. My colleague Kathryn and I spent a long time reading everything Hillary had ever written and going back talking to folks from her childhood.

And we went into this without any certainty about what we would find. I think we probably started assuming she would be more liberal. One of the most shocking moments for me, because I know American religious history, was when we discovered in an interview with a little Methodist newsletter back in the ‘90s that Hillary said, oh yeah, we’ve got to break with the social gospel. Her church, the Methodist Church, was always very strong on the social gospel, a great progressive church. She comes from the conservative wing of it, and rather than the social gospel, she wants evangelicalism. What that comes down to is that Hillary thinks the salvation of an individual soul is more important than the systemic address of injustice. The notion of the individual is what our liberty is based on, but then there are those who take it so much further that they are willing to forget about the power of community.

That doesn’t seem to make sense with Hillary, because she’s a communitarian, right? She does think in social terms. But she doesn’t think of community in terms of grassroots, as a bottom-up thing. I think she’s made it very clear she thinks in top-down terms. She’s nothing if not a technocrat. She knows better than us. She can tell us what we need, right? When you go back and look at her religious life, you see that a lot of that is rooted in her religious life. To her, it’s very important. I think one of the great frustrations of Hillary Clinton is that people don’t see she’s not as liberal as she’s thought to be, and they don’t see that she’s really a very religious person.

For a long time no one believed her. I think everyone believes her now, but as recently as 2007 when Katherine and I wrote about her religiosity for Harper’s Magazine, the most common response from both Hillary supporters and Obama supporters was, oh, give me a break. Everybody knows she’s just faking it to try to trick Christians. It was a contemptuous response. And it’s not true. Her religiosity is deep-seated. In the book I call it a Burkean conservatism, after Edmund Burke, the great 18th-19th century conservative. That’s where she has drawn from. She’s also drawn from late Neibuhr. And he was a great liberal, right? No, not in the late stages he wasn’t. He spent the end of his life renouncing much of his earlier liberalism. One of his last big issues was being pro-nuclear weapons. He wanted a muscular American power near the end of his life.

MnIndy: You write that in 1966, Doug Coe made a conscious decision to take the Family underground, and make them even more discreet than they had ever been. You cast that as mainly an ethical/doctrinal decision. But did practical factors like the looming Warren Court play in their decision too?

Sharlet: That’s a good observation, although I should say that Warren was an early guest at the National Prayer Breakfast, back in his more conservative days. Warren was originally a very conservative Republican. But yeah, there was a pragmatic note to it, and I think it’s really very much a response to the popular uprisings of the 1960s. Until then, the Family wasn’t terribly secretive, but there was really no scrutiny. They didn’t have to worry about it, because the press really didn’t mount many challenges to elite power. And that was of benefit to both parties. Everybody knew about JFK’s women, for instance. They just didn’t talk about it.

But in the 1960s there was this great upsurge of demand for accountability. That’s trouble for the Family. This is a group that defines itself in terms of working above the din of the vox populi. That was very much a part of what they were running away from. It’s no coincidence that around this time they moved their operations out of Washington DC and into the all-white suburb of Arlington. They became part of the white flight from Washington, drawing away from people who looked different from them, drawing away from urban spaces and embracing the worst vision of the suburbs.

MnIndy: They can’t be happy with you at this point. I found it curious they ever opened their archive to you, but they also closed it after a time. What sort of feedback have you gotten directly or indirectly since the book came out?

Sharlet: When the book came out, nothing. My first reading was down in Georgetown in Washington, DC. It’s in the Family’s neighborhood, and a number of people came from the neighborhood association. They were distressed with them because they really are bullies down to the level of the playground, literally. So this neighborhood group is fighting them very vigorously, but that’s really the only democratic challenge they’ve ever gotten. The American media isn’t interested. They don’t want to hear about it. And frankly I have to say, the left blogosphere is a terrible disappointment. We can’t deal with this when we have more theories to spin about how evil George W. Bush is. Enough. Let’s move on to some real strategy, okay?