Several years ago my son called me one day to say I had to read an article that he found really frightening and important. Since I tend to pay attention when he points me towards things (thus discovering the films Brazil and Pi and the joys of science fiction) I read – and shared his concern. That article was Jeff Sharlet’s piece Jesus plus nothing: Undercover among America’s Secret Theocrats in the March 2003 Harpers. Digby more recently has called it:
to this day one of the more chilling articles I’ve ever read about the intersection of politics and religion in this country. The facts in the article are true but they are so bizarre that I think people discounted it because it’s almost impossible to believe.
This week, Jeff Sharlet’s book on The Family: The Secret Fundamentalism at the Heart of American Power was published – and it is even more chilling – and more important.
Jeff is a contributing editor for Harpers and Rolling Stone and a founder of the recently retired Killing the Buddha and co-author of the book by the same name. His insatiable curiosity combines with a respect and appreciation of spiritual journeys in writing that never shies away from the hard truths yet never denigrates the believer.
Jesus plus nothing was an account of the time Jeff spent at Ivanwald, one of the houses in Washington DC run by the “Fellowship” where he was welcomed into their prayer community. His new book takes us beyond his stay to explore the historical roots of the Fellowship in the early American Awakening of the 1730s and the breadth of power the Fellowship has acquired.
The Fellowship is often called a “stealth church” and only catches the public eye once a year during the National Prayer Breakfasts which it hosts. Its leader, Doug Coe is described by Time magazine’s February 8, 2008 issue as one of The 25 Most Influential Evangelicals in America. These events – which use the trappings of the Presidential office and congress – are seen by outsiders as rather “bland” civic religion, stripped of denominational involvement (though at least one Jewish leader has commented on his surprise at the Christian focus given the setting). As Sharlet reports, the Prayer Breakfast movement is the one public face to a much deeper and more secretive organization.
While the Prayer Breakfasts are “nondenominational,” Coe and the Fellowship have a very specific goal. Sharlet describes it in his 2006 article God’s Senator on Sen Brownback as follows:
They were striving, ultimately, for what Coe calls "Jesus plus nothing" — a government led by Christ’s will alone. In the future envisioned by Coe, everything — sex and taxes, war and the price of oil — will be decided upon not according to democracy or the church or even Scripture. The Bible itself is for the masses; in the Fellowship, Christ reveals a higher set of commands to the anointed few. It’s a good old boy’s club blessed by God.
Founded in 1935 by Abraham Vereide, an anticommunist, antilabor crusader who saw evangelical fervor as the ideal organizing principle for defeating socialists, the organization is now headed by David Coe who is frequently described as “God’s Ambassador” by members of congress, the Pentagon and others in power.
And the number of those in power involved with the Fellowship is truly astonishing. Beginning with the election of President Eisenhower, members of the Fellowship have never been far from the centers of power. Ambassadors, generals, cabinet members and members of Congress all participate in a web of loyalty carefully nurtured by Coe and the Fellowship. As Sharlet quotes Rev Rob Schenk of Faith and Action’s description of the group’s methods:
The big Christian lobbying groups push and shout; the Family simply surrounds politicians with prayer cells. They don’t try to convert anyone. They don’t ask for anything. They’re as patient as a glacier. … Coe doesn’t demand doctrinal loyalty only a willingness to do business behind the scenes, and liberals are free to join him in the back room.
From the powerful we oppose like Sen. Brownback to those we proclaim our best allies like Al Gore, politicians and corporate leaders have met within this network of prayer groups and fellowship. The levels of involvement vary, the interplay of friendship and policy is hard to dissect. Yet this grand collaboration has played out in support for dictators and strongmen around the world – Suharto, Siad Barre of Somalia, the Phillipines’ Marcos and so many more. The alliances formed in the “private” realm of prayer and faith underpin a global “submerged” movement through which Coe and his elite followers move towards a world ruled by Jesus plus nothing at the hands of strong men with no accountability to any outside the network. As Sharlet notes:
Jesus plus nothing equals power, “invisible” power, the long, slow, building power of a few brothers and sisters.
The Fellowship has not gone completely unnoticed over the years. In 1974, Time Magazine identified it as “The God Network in Washington DC”:
The [Gerald] Ford group is only one of an intricate web of groups and individuals—almost an underground network—stretching well across religious and political boundaries, all of them part of a small but growing spiritual renaissance in Washington. It involves both those who have been hoisted to power through Watergate and those who were toppled by it.
One thoughtful supporter of the fellowship wonders whether it is too neutral on political questions. "Doug never raises issues," observes Wesley Michaelson, Hatfield’s legislative assistant. "The latent assumption is that the solution to political problems is to get people converted and committed to each other. [But] overseas some of the fellowship people are the same generals who carry out martial law." Still, Michaelson concedes that Coe’s personal, uncritical ministry has made him "the real chaplain of the House and Senate."
In the intervening years, Coe’s stealth strategy has worked and aside from a 2002 report in the L A Times it was not until Jeff’s reporting that the Fellowship’s power began to be fully exposed. While Jeff’s article last fall on Senator Clinton’s involvement with the Fellowship created a stir, the much broader and more essential story of the the Fellowship’s role in the most powerful circles of US government is the important story here. The Family tells that story and is critical reading for everyone who wants to understand the challenge we face in taking back our government.
Please welcome Jeff to Firedoglake – we all have a lot to learn from his work.