C-Street-The Family-Commentary/ Book Review: “The Family”

This article comes from Buzzflash, a progressive newsblog.  The fights over health care, economics and war have brought light to the extreme right-wing Christian group known as “The Family”. The congressional prayer breakfast that we all thought of as an ecumenical event turns out to be sponsored and controlled by The Family. The Family is clear that it does not believe in democracy but is guided toward a Christian autocracy/dictatorship.



by Nikolas Kozloff

As the Republican Party implodes, the public is becoming aware of a secretive Christian society known as the Family or the Fellowship. The group was founded in 1935 in opposition to FDR’s New Deal and its adherents subscribe to a far right Christian fundamentalist and free market ideology. A minister named Abraham Vereide founded the Family after having a vision in which God visited him in the person of the head of the United States Steel Corporation (no, I’m not making this up). The Family has a connection to house on C Street in Washington, D.C., known simply as C Street. Officially registered as a church, the building serves as a meeting place and residence for conservative politicians.

Few members of the fellowship talk about the group’s mission. The organization organizes the annual National Prayer Breakfast that is attended by the president, members of Congress, and diplomats from around the world. Earlier this year, Obama presented his Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships at the event. According to Jeff Sharlet who wrote a book about the group, the Family’s philosophy is based on “a sort of trickle-down fundamentalism,” that believes that the wealthy and powerful, if they “can get their hearts right with God … will dispense blessings to those underneath them.” True believers in market orthodoxy, Family members think that God’s will operates directly through Adam Smith’s “invisible hand.”

The Family’s current leader Doug Coe is secretive but enjoys considerable political influence as a spiritual adviser. When South Carolina Governor Mark Sanford, himself a visitor and a kind of honorary alumni at C Street, compared his political difficulties involving his affair with an Argentine woman to those of biblical King David, the South Carolina politician was falling back on a central figure in Family theology. You could “almost hear Doug Coe’s voice” coming out of Sanford, Sharlet remarks.

C Street’s stately red brick, $1.1 million building is subsidized by secretive religious organizations and is located a mere stone’s throw away from the Capitol. Lawmakers who live there include Reps. Zach Wamp (R-TN); Bart Stupak (D-MI); Jim DeMint (R-SC); Mike Doyle (D-PA); and Sens. John Ensign (R-NV), Tom Coburn (R-OK), and Sam Brownback (R-KS). The lawmakers, all Christians, live in private rooms upstairs and pay an incredibly low rent — a paltry $600 — to live at C Street.

Tenants dine together once a week to talk about religion in their daily lives. Richard Carver, a member of the Fellowship’s board of directors who served as assistant secretary of the Air Force during the Reagan administration, says “Our goal is singular — and that is to hope that we can assist them in better understandings of the teachings of Christ, and applying it to their jobs.” Senator DeMint, a Presbyterian who moved into C Street less than a year ago, says that members are wont to share a verse or a thought in Bible Study “but mostly it’s more of an accountability group to talk about things that are going on in our lives, and how we’re dealing with them.”

It’s not uncommon for C Street residents to invite fellow congressmen to the lodging for spiritual bonding. Sanford, for example, turned to C Street for answers and support as his marriage crumbled apart. Now Sanford is joined in his troubles by another C Street member, John Ensign, who had a sexual relationship with a staffer. The Ensign affair has threatened to take down yet another C Street member, Tom Coburn. In February 2008, Coburn and Ensign’s former mistress’ husband confronted Ensign and urged him to end the affair. Reportedly, Ensign paid the woman more than $25,000 in severance when she stopped working for him in 2008.

Now comes word that that Ensign’s parents paid his mistress and her family almost $100,000 “out of concern for the well being of longtime family friends during a difficult time.” The severance payment could lead to campaign finance or ethics issues for Ensign. But the scandal is also damaging for Coburn who is said to have encouraged Ensign to compensate the couple and to help them relocate. Coburn has denied any knowledge of the payments.

Coburn, who is a physician, will not comment on the advice he provided Ensign saying his position as a doctor and ordained deacon required that he keep all information private. “I’m not going to go into that — that’s privileged communications,” the Senator from Oklahoma said. “I’m never going to talk about that with anybody. I never will, not to a court of law, not to an ethics committee, not to anybody — because that is privileged communication that I will never reveal to anybody.”

Projection of U.S. Power Abroad

When they’re not philandering and violating their own professed Christian morality, C Street members push for the projection of U.S. power abroad. As Obama went to Port of Spain, Trinidad for the Summit of the Americas in April, Ensign who criticized the president for shaking Hugo Chávez’s hand. “I think it was irresponsible for the president to be seen kind of laughing and joking with Hugo Chávez,” he said. Ensign, a big booster of corporate-style free trade, voted for the Central American Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA) in 2005. He also supports the coup government in Honduras and signed a letter to Secretary of State Clinton calling on the Obama Administration to revoke its support for deposed Honduran President Manuel Zelaya.

Coburn, an obstetrician, has advocated the death penalty for any of his peers who carry out abortions. In the foreign policy realm, he has stuck to a moralistic credo. He criticized a USAID program, for example, that sought to teach commercial sex workers in Central America about condom use to prevent HIV AIDS. An irate Coburn wrote President Bush to demand that the United States cease financing the preventative program, run by the non-profit Population Services International (PSI). Apparently the note had the desired effect and shortly after Coburn made his appeal, PSI received word that USAID was cutting off money for the program. When not working to defeat sexual education in Central America, Coburn supports free markets in the region, voting like his colleague Ensign to support CAFTA. He also supports the coup regime in Tegucigalpa.

C Street’s real free trade messiah is South Carolina native son Jim DeMint, who just chastised the White House for supporting Zelaya, thereby carrying out what he called “a slap in the face to the people” of Honduras. Hondurans “have struggled too long to have their hard-won democracy stolen from them by a Chávez-style dictator,” he remarked. The South Carolinian, a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, went even further and attacked the Organization of American States for “trampling” over the hopes and dreams of a “free and democratic people.” It’s hardly surprising that DeMint would come out for the military takeover in Honduras given that he’s been a long time booster of Central American free trade. In this sense, he shares the ideological views of newly installed Honduran President Roberto Micheletti, a former businessman and conservative politician who has supported CAFTA. DeMint has long been on the other side of the fence from the likes of Zelaya and Chávez. First elected to the House in 1998, he has been an eager promoter of far right-wing economic orthodoxy such as privatizing Social Security and abolishing the federal minimum wage.

Zach Wamp is another free trade zealot at C Street. Like his fellow Christian members, he supported CAFTA. At the time, Wamp conceded that America’s trade policies were unpopular but defended his vote remarking that the trade agreement was beneficial to his native Tennessee. In the never ending race to the bottom, Wamp said that “if we ever want to compete with China, we must build alliances in our region with countries – like these CAFTA partners – so we can preserve American jobs and not lose any more manufacturing jobs to China or the Pacific Rim.” The southerner then went on to explain his other reasons for supporting the trade agreement. “During this critical time in American history,” he declared, “we are facing multiple national security implications for U.S. leadership and the Western Hemisphere. The influences of communism and dictatorships are on the rise to our South.”

Warming to his theme, Wamp continued “in Venezuela, Hugo Chávez rules with an ‘iron fist’ and stands ready to team up with his mentor, Cuban dictator Fidel Castro, to expand their influence in these Central American countries. Countries such as Nicaragua and El Salvador impacted by CAFTA must see the United States as a partner — not the adversary — so this region can be stable and secure.” Raising the alarm bell, Wamp continued “instability in Central America might also jeopardize U.S. border security. Should the Communists succeed in spreading their philosophies and regimes throughout Central America, even more illegal aliens will want to flee their countries and cross our southern border.”

Wamp has also signed on as a co-sponsor to legislation that condemns former Honduran President Manuel Zelaya for carrying out unconstitutional moves. The resolution chastises Zelaya for forging close ties with Chávez and Cuban rulers Fidel and Raul Castro and for joining the Bolivarian Alternative of the Americas (ALBA), an anti-free trade initiative including Venezuela, Bolivia, Cuba and Nicaragua.

In their own personal lives, C Street members have made a mockery of the group’s Christian teachings. Yet when it comes to the far more important and consequential issue of foreign policy, these Republicans have stuck to their guns. From Chávez to Zelaya to free trade in Central America, they have been consistent in seeking to overturn progressive reform and working to maintain U.S. imperial hegemony.


Here is a book review about The Family, a book about The Family. Ben Daniel is a Presbyterian minister. He writes for UPI’s Religion and Spirituality Forum and lives in San José, California.

Book Review: “The Family” by Jeff Sharlet

by Ben Daniel

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.


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