Book Review: “The Family” by Jeff Sharlet

This column was first published on UPI’s Religion and Spirituality Forum on May 26, 2008.

Jeff Sharlet is the best journalist currently covering American religion. Among those who connect subject to predicate, there are few who do so with Sharlet’s grace, insight, or humor. His recently published book, The Family: The Secret Fundamentalism at the Heart of American Power (Harper Collins, 2008, $25.95 cloth) was every bit as good as I expected it to be. Often, while reading The Family I found myself interrupting the conversations of those around me to read aloud Jeff’s well-crafted insights.

The subject of Sharlet’s book is “The Family,” also called “The Fellowship,” a self-identified “Christian Mafia” which, for seven decades, has operated in the shadows of American power, exerting great influence without accountability or oversight. They are evangelists and powerbrokers with a theocratic agenda, a lust for power, and a strange fondness for such creeps of history as Adolf Hitler, Mao Tsedung, and Genghis Khan.

In 2003, Jeff Sharlet published an article in Harper’s Magazine called “Jesus Plus Nothing,” which tells the bizarre and troubling story of Sharlet’s month-long stay at Ivanwald, a Fellowship-run retreat house for young men in Arlington, Virginia. “Jesus Plus Nothing” remains one of the few mainstream media treatments of the Fellowship. The first part of The Family is an expanded version of “Jesus Plus Nothing,” and it is a great read, the part of the book to take on vacation.

If the first part of the book is most entertaining, the second part of the book is most informative. Drawing upon information gleaned from research in the Fellowship archives at the Wheaton College Library, Sharlet tells the Fellowship’s story from its beginnings as a group of business and political leaders banded together to fight the growing influence of unionized longshoremen in depression-era Seattle, through World War II and its aftermath, into the Cold War, when Fellowship operatives began to engage in what the earlier President Bush described as “quiet diplomacy” in the fight against communism. The story continues to the present day and to the Fellowship’s advocacy for the latter Bush’s policy of privatizing governmental assistance to the poor through the office of “Faith Based Initiatives.”

For me, the most disturbing of Sharlet’s revelations was the cataloging of rogues for whom, in Jesus name, members of the Fellowship have provided political favors in the form of access to American political and business leaders. The short list of those befriended by the Family includes Indonesia’s General Suharto, who is said to have killed more than a million people in Indonesia and East Timor, Francois “Papa Doc” Duvalier whose Touton Macoutes subverted traditional voodooism to terrorize Haiti’s population, killing more than 60,000 people in the process, and Eugenio Rios Mont from Guatemala, an Evangelical who killed more than ten thousand indigenous Guatemalans in the name of fighting communism. A longer list includes diabolical strongmen from Latin America, Southeast Asia, and Africa, as well as a host of lesser-known Nazis who benefited from the Family’s intercession in the wake of World War II.

In the third part of The Family Sharlet treats us to reprints of articles he published in Rolling Stone and Harper’s Magazine. Sharlet’s narratives take us to Colorado Springs to visit Ted Haggard’s congregation in the days before the president of the National Association of Evangelicals’ uncomfortable unmasking as a gay man. Later, we travel with Sharlet to New York City and to Portland, Oregon to visit hip young Evangelical Christians in their natural habitat. While this latter part of the book really isn’t about the Fellowship, Jeff is a good enough storyteller that most of us won’t care.

Readers of The Family who support and defend the Fellowship invariably will point out that some of the Fellowship’s work is positive and good by just about any measure. The Fellowship provides a safe place in which powerful people receive spiritual care. This is good for all of us. The Fellowship’s quiet diplomacy has made possible peace between Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of the Congo and helped to facilitate the Camp David Accords. This is good for the world. I am told that they also do significant work with the poor. They invited Bono to speak at the Presidential Prayer Breakfast, and how bad can that be?

“Why,” the Fellowship’s supporters will ask, “did Jeff Sharlet not cover the Fellowship’s various charitable endeavors in greater detail? Why did he rake so much muck when there is a wholesome side to the Fellowship?” Just last week, in a conversation with someone who is sympathetic to the Fellowship’s work, I learned about the Fellowship’s efforts to promote human rights around the world; my own fellowship mentor—from the days when I was a college-aged failure of a Fellowship recruit—has used his connections to finance the building of an hospital in Honduras. Fellowship members and supporters are quick to reference such evidence of Fellowship benevolence.

I don’t believe that the Fellowship’s good work excuses the kind of spiritual abuse described in the first part of The Family or the codling of dictators described in the book’s middle, but because the positive work is used to justify much of what I find to be creepy about the Fellowship’s existence, I hope Jeff will spend more time on this particular issue in his next book.

The Family may be the most important book written in a very long time about the intersection of religion and politics in America. It brings the Fellowship’s work out of the shadows and provides the kind of public accountability that heals spiritual wounds and keeps the republic strong.

But don’t take my word for it. Go buy the book. You won’t be sorry.

24 thoughts on “Book Review: “The Family” by Jeff Sharlet

  1. Pingback: Doug Coe, The Fellowship, Hillary Clinton and Why You Should Care at Ben Daniel's Left Coast Lions' Den

  2. I won’t be buying the book, but if it comes to my local library, I will read it.

    How does one deal with dictators and despots like Rios Montt? You may not know this, but he was converted by a group of Mendo folk who went to Guatemala after the great earthquake of the 70′s. The Light House ministries and the Lord’s Land sent “missionaries” to help with the clean up. They founded the Word Church which has many branches in Guatemala and Rios was one of their early converts. The sad part of this event was that the Word Church only preached the Good News and didn’t speak to the socio-political justice issues that plague the Guatemalan society. Rios rose through the church leadership chain and even taught a Bible Class. He was elected President with the help of the military and was responsible for the killing fields of Guatemala that treated the indigenous population as if they were Communist pawns because of their communal life and customs. The Indians….many of whom are Presbyterians…..spoke truth to power…and for this, they were killed. Even today, the Presbyterian Church USA still recruits North American Peace Advocates to go to Guatemala to ride shotgun with Indian pastors who have been the targets of many a government assasin.

    The USA government gave the go-ahead and support to Rios Montt, because he was anti-Communist. I don’t know what the Fellowship did for or with him, but somehow they were able to talk with him I hope they questioned his jihad among the Mayan Presbyterians. Someone will have to write a tell-all to fill in the “ministry” to Rios. We have to remember that during those days, if you could label someone a Communist, you could kill them with ecclesiastical blessing. Beware of labels…..they give liscense to defame, dismiss, expell and in some extreme cases, to kill. Witness the use of the words “terrorist”,”Right Wing”, “Liberal”, today.

  3. You might want to consider that perhaps “The Family” never had a real Christian agenda. Wayne Madsen has documented some of this well in his on line available articles. It came forcibly to my attention in 1987 that they had been holding “unity meetings” with key New Age leaders, the latest of which, at the time I learned, was October 23-25 at the Gold Lake Ranch Retreat Center. I have now learned beyond any shadow of a doubt that Doug Coe’s organization and the Institute of Noetic Sciences, one of the world’s foremost New Age operations, had a key interlocking directorate (they called it “core group” both at the Fellowship and in the New Age Movement) in the form of Paul N. Temple, the co-founder and long time president of the Institute of Noetic Sciences.

    Jim Jones was a long time New Ager but after his “kool aid” party, the New Agers tried to pass him off as a “dangerous fundamentalist.” As my 1972 and 1973 New Age directories show he was a fundamentalist, alright — a fundamentalist New Ager in all of its ramifications of: 1. New World Order (also spoken of from the beginning by Abram Vereide); 2. New World Religion; and 3. New Age “Messiah” who is definitely NOT Jesus in their book — the biblical test of Antichrist.

    Jesus warned there would be deception enough to deceive, if possible, even the elect. That is precisely the deception the Fellowship Foundation has offered — but thanks to the internet, just about everything hidden has been revealed.

    I very much enjoyed your articles. Thank you for your work!

    CONSTANCE E. CUMBEY

  4. Thanks, Constance. I also read about the conversations and meetings between the Fellowship and leaders within the New Age movement. It’s an odd chapter in their story to say the least!

    It is amazing how many angles there are to the Fellowship. Jeff Sharlet wrote an entire book on the subject–a really good book, as I have said in my review–and you and I both know that there is more to be said.

    My particular interest is in the ways the Fellowship engages in misogyny and spiritual abuse. You have mentioned the New Age connection. Other writers have written about other issues.

    The task isn’t over!

    Ben

  5. I’m reading the book, and I just feel confused. I keep waiting to turn a page and have a pop-up spring out and say “Just Kidding!”

  6. Lois,

    Thanks for the note. Unfortunately, there is no pop-up. In fact, I there’s so much to say about the Fellowship that Jeff Sharlet didn’t even cover it all.

    The closest thing you’ll get to a “just kidding” (not in Jeff’s book, but after an exhaustive study of the Fellowship) is that from time to time they have also been a force for good. There are folks in the Fellowship who use their connections to do good work.

    BUT (and I feel compelled to write this) there are lots of wonderful organizations that do wonderful, creative, and important work without being agents of of a cult-like, power-worshiping, secretive weirdness like the Fellowship.

    Ben

  7. I am a footsoldier in the family. I help publisize the Bakersfield Prayer Breakfast touted as the largest in the country besides the national breakfast. I am meeting with the “member” with the Washington connections in a couple weeks to disuss Sharlet’s book. I brought this up in our local “cell” bible study group and noone really wanted to know. Clearly doing “some good” tends to obscure any more overarching large scale policy of targeting the rich and powerful to do more “good”. My read is that being a respecter of persons in an effort to have a positive impact in the world is a subtle form of hereasy and not modeled by Jesus. With that said however I believe that most of us Christians in America cannot conceive of the idea that God could actually use real low people more and/or equally effectively as high people. I think this is what he said to both the rich young ruler and the lawyer who asked questions to defend their lack of faith and rationalized disobedinece ie. I’ve done all this from my youth and who is my neighbor. Jesus says – give up everything you have and then come and follow me and minister where you are put, not targeted. I have too admit I’m confused. I thought bringing the community together in the name of Christ in order to pray for leadership, labor, education, civil service,media etc. had to be a good thing. Now I’m not so sure.

    As a mediator I applaud the work of the family, but as a neutral myself, I don’t think it applies in all circumstances. There is a time to take a stand an separate light from darkness.

    I also am an affliate attorney with Pacific Justice Institute – Brad Dacus. A lot of good work is being done to protect freedoms for all Americans. Ed Meese is on the board – intimate family member.

    What is one to do? I for one believe in openess, frankness, and properly drawing the line between confidentiality, secrecy, conspiracy, covenant, trust, etc. etc.

    Rob Fairman Esq and Christian Conciliator

  8. Rob,

    Thanks for the post. It so happens that you are the first person with a current Family affiliation who has responded to my work or to the work of Jeff Sharlet with what seems like genuine introspection.

    Every other person I’ve spoken to or heard from address the issues raised by Jeff and by me by saying that Jeff is the one with the problem or that I am the one with the problem.

    It is said that Jeff is a sneak who gained access to Ivanwald through and later to the archives at Wheaton through deception; I’ve been told that I have unresolved anger issues left over from my brief affiliation with the Fellowship. The best anyone currently affiliated with the Family/Fellowship has ever been able to say about my work or Jeff’s is that our experience is far too limited.

    But you are willing to ask the questions that need to be asked, and because of that you have, I think, the key to preserving what is good in the Fellowship’s ministry.

    And there is good being done through the Fellowship. I am particularly fond of the organization International Justice Mission which is rooted in the Fellowship, and I know someone in the Fellowship who is doing good work with a Hospital in Guatemala. This is good stuff, but it won’t survive unless the Fellowship borrows some of your introspection and tries to root out what is rotten at its core: a lust for power and a tendency toward spiritual abuse.

    Anyway, keep asking those questions, and if you want to communicate offline, email me using the “contact me” function on my website.

    My best to you!

    Ben

  9. Recently, the more I learn about THE FAMILY and the people who make up this “Christian Fellowship” – the more I am convinced it is a
    tax free run Bordello. Will the IRS and FBI ever investigate
    the ‘goings on’ at C Street? easher

  10. Well, I don’t know about “bordello,” but it is an old boys’ club (with a few token women), and the tax issue is interesting. They are a 501(c)3 organization, but Jeff Sharlet’s research shows that they may have crossed the lines of what is legal and appropriate for such groups.

    Personally I’d like to see the activities of the group investigated by the house and/or senate ethics committees for possible violations of ethical behavior in the influencing of public policy.

    Ben

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  12. The author was on Bill Mahr’s show yesterday. It is very very scary for those of us might be labeled as non-Christian. The thought that they are quietly infiltrating our Military smells of dogma based Facism. When the guys with the guns and nukes are involved, it is the sort of thing that could lead to a new crusade or inquisition.

    The good news is we are aware of them and are watching every move they make including building mega churches on military bases. Be scared… very very scared but also be vocal and make others aware of their agenda. The only thing that separates us from the worst of the world is freedom of religion and a government separated from any bias or dogma.

  13. Jim,

    Thanks for the note. Like you, I’m glad this issue is getting some press. Doonesbury is featuring the Family this week. Religion that is secretive is never good. There’s too much opportunity for abuse, especially when this group has so much temporal power.

    Ben

  14. Thank God for Rachel Maddow. I would never have heard about “The Family” had she not done a piece on it and had Jeff Sharlet as her guest (several times now). Enjoyed your review also though. Very thorough and thought-provoking! Thanks!

  15. Charlene,

    Thanks for stopping by and giving my review a read. I’m very happy to say that I’m a footnote in Jeff Sharlet’s book, and this website is listed as a primary resource in his research. It’s good to be a part of bringing this organization into the light.

    Ben

  16. Morgan,

    When I get home I’ll recheck Jeff Sharlet’s book. The idea the Prince is part of the Fellowship/Family sounds familiar to me, but I cannot say for sure. Judging by Prince’s connections and the people with whom he has been involved I think you can bet good money that he is part of the Fellowship/Family.

    Ben

  17. I couldn’t find mention of Erik Prince in Jeff’s book. However, he gives money to Prison Fellowship (Colson’s “fellowship” for prisoners), and he supports lots of other groups supported by fellowship folks. So I’d be really surprised if he’s not involved at some level.

  18. Jeff Sharlett did an interview on Democracy Now! and they discussed Erik Prince . . .

    AMY GOODMAN: How does Erik Prince, or does he, fit into this picture? I mean, we’ve just had a major story with Jeremy Scahill, independent reporter, Democracy Now! correspondent, about this lawsuit against Prince by these two men who worked for what’s formerly known as Blackwater, now called Xe, one of them alleging that Prince, quote, “views himself as a Christian crusader tasked with eliminating Muslims and the Islamic faith from the globe.”

    JEFF SHARLET: Well, I think that’s something that we need to look more closely into. The Prince family has given money to Family initiatives in the past. The links aren’t terribly strong. I think what you’re really looking at there is almost sort of two different power bases within the American Christian right. The interesting thing about Prince is Prince is a certain kind of zealot. The Family doesn’t want to eliminate Muslims; it wants to do business with Muslims. It wants to—you know, they’ve always cultivated the leaders of oil-rich nations. That’s the kind of connection that they’re interested in.

    you can view the interview here:
    http://www.democracynow.org/2009/8/12/sharlet

  19. Pingback: Twitter Trackbacks for Book Review: “The Family” by Jeff Sharlet at bendaniel.org [bendaniel.org] on Topsy.com

  20. Pingback: C-Street-The Family-Commentary/ Book Review: “The Family” « The Marin Progressive

  21. Hi Ben,

    Have just started reading Sharlet’s fascinating work and was intrigued at the footnote mentioning you. I’m a fellow Presbyterian pastor in NJ. I was ordained in San Jose Presbytery and the first church I served, as co-pastor, with my first wife, was Gonzales Community Church, which I believe you later served before going to Foothill. For a time my ex also served as a part time associate at Foothill. And at our last Presbytery we approved a gal from Foothill who will be serving in Belvedere, I believe. Small world – keep up the good work at there in sunny CA. The stuff Sharlet writes about is scary, indeed!

  22. Rick,

    For two people who have never met, our lives have intersected quite a lot. I hope we meet in person someday. Thanks for the reading and for the good word.

    In your Presbytery there are two ministers I know well–Sarah Weisiger in Belevidere and Chad Rogers at Lower Valley in Caliphon.

    Take Care!

    Ben

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