Exposing a Network of Powerful Christians
A new book claims that the "Fellowship" influences key decision makers
By Jay Tolson
May 28, 2008
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.
Author Jeff Sharlet.
(Courtesy of HarperCollinsPublishers)
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
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.
Sharlet situates the Fellowship in the long history of American evangelical Christianity, starting with the 18th-century Congregationalist minister and theologian Jonathan Edwards, whose fierce and vivid preaching sparked the first Great Awakening. Yet he seems to think that the Fellowship, and fundamentalism in general, are largely synonymous with evangelicalism, when in fact fundamentalism was a strongly anti-intellectual strain within the larger movement—and one that called for disengagement from the larger society, not active engagement with it. Fundamentalists eventually began to reconnect with society and politics in the mid-20th century, with figures like Billy Graham setting one path and others like Falwell and Robertson blazing a more stridently political trail. Fellowship networkers have been so intermingled with these and other recovering fundamentalists that it is hard, even impossible, to set them apart and claim that they had a special, decisive hand in shaping the conservative political agenda. The less exciting reality is that Coe and the Fellowship people are in harmony with the political goals that prominent members of the religious right have publicly and successfully worked for.
Sharlet is on to something in his treatment of the international influence of the Fellowship, particularly in post-World War II Germany: Vereide and friends may well have had a role in expediting the rehabilitation of certain German captains of industry who should have been subjected to closer scrutiny because of their Nazi ties. But in general, political realism—and particularly the fear of communism—were far more decisive than Fellowship back-channel work in making U. S. leaders tolerate and often support unsavory authoritarian rulers around the world.
There is another problem. Some politicians supposedly under the sway of the Fellowship have often worked for goals abroad that even liberals would praise. Brownback's legislative efforts to combat the slave trade and other abuses of human rights around the world have distinguished his political career. And as Wooldridge notes in his World Affairs article, Coe himself has often used his network of international friends to help resolve conflicts between and within nations in Africa, notably within Sudan.
Sharlet's book has received advance praise from many leading thinkers and writers on the left. Thomas Frank, a Wall Street Journal columnist and author of What's the Matter With Kansas? calls it, of all studies of the American right, "undoubtedly the most eloquent" and "quite possibly the most terrifying."
But to Washington insiders who know the evangelical players and activists in the city, Sharlet's picture of the Coe and the Fellowship is absurdly overblown.
Calling the Fellowship politically harmless may be too strong a denial of its influence in the halls of power. The Fellowship has unquestionably provided an important spiritual support group for mostly conservative politicians, activists, and business people. But even if its purposes are primarily spiritual, this network has facilitated communication and cooperation among people who also share large worldly interests, including money and power. But is this network a quietly decisive force in the larger conservative movement? The case remains unproved.