It is an elite and secretive network of fundamentalist Christians that has been quietly pulling strings in America's highest corridors of power for more than 70 years. Or so claims Jeff Sharlet, author of a new exposé, The Family: The Secret Fundamentalism at the Heart of American Power. And in his telling, the group that calls itself the Fellowship operates at the very center of the vast, right-wing conspiracy that has promoted unfettered capitalism and dismantled liberal social policies at home, even while encouraging ruthless but America-friendly dictators abroad.
Sharlet, an associate research scholar at New York University's Center for Religion and Media, tells an intriguing story of an organization founded in 1935 by Norwegian immigrant pastor Abraham Vereide. Growing out of Vereide's early struggles against the radical labor movement on the West Coast, the group came to consist of religiously minded businessmen and sympathetic politicians who shared Vereide's mildly pro-fascist sentiments. Vereide is most widely known for launching in 1953 what is now a Washington institution, the National Prayer Breakfast, where movers and shakers come together to pray in an uplifting but blandly interfaith way.
But behind the scenes, Sharlet contends, Vereide and his key men worked with politicians and officials to advance unfettered, tooth-and-claw capitalism and engage in secret diplomacy with some of the world's least savory leaders, including, in the past, Indonesia's General Suharto and Haiti's François "Papa Doc" Duvalier. If all that weren't ominous enough, the group's leader since 1969, Doug Coe, has gained something of a reputation for invoking not only Jesus but also Hitler, Lenin, and Mao as models of effective leadership.
Sound sinister? To be sure. And Sharlet has done extensive reading in the Fellowship's archival materials to document what he calls "the secret history of Christian fundamentalism's most enduring and most powerful organization." Furthermore, he got started on the project after living in one of the Fellowship's Arlington, Va., homes, a kind of commune for well-off but somewhat undirected young men seeking Christian and worldly guidance from Fellowship elders. Sharlet, in other words, should know whereof he speaks.
But there are problems. Sharlet's ease of access to documents and people would seem to belie his characterization of the Fellowship as an obsessively secretive group. Other problems—including many overly broad and unsubstantiated charges—point to some of the larger difficulties that journalists, scholars, and commentators have had in understanding the nexus of religion and power in the post-9/11 world. Writing in the current issue of World Affairs, Adrian Wooldridge, Washington bureau chief for the Economist, describes the core problem succinctly: "In the aftermath of 9/11, however, we arguably have overcorrected—not underestimating the role of religion, as in years past, but exaggerating it. Exaggerating it in the sense of giving it undue emphasis, of turning it into a cartoon. The commentators who not that long ago were heedless of the role of religion and were theologically illiterate now see it everywhere (and remain theologically illiterate)."
Among his many claims, Sharlet asserts that Fellowship networkers have been far more successful in advancing the fundamentalists' political agenda than the more visible populist activists such as Pat Robertson or the late Jerry Falwell. How he assesses this greater degree of influence remains a mystery. Because Coe has been friends with a string of recent presidents and is close to lawmakers like Sen. Sam Brownback or Rep. Joe Pitts hardly proves that Coe and company deserve special credit for the appointment of conservative judges or the launching of faith-based social policy initiatives. Sharlet points correctly to connections between the elite Fellowship people and the more public and populist crusaders such as Focus on the Family's James Dobson. But he fails to demonstrate that the public crusaders take many of their ideas (including the idea of "biblical capitalism") and even their marching orders from the Fellowship.