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Jeff Sharlet is a contributing editor of
Harper’s Magazine. His first story for the magazine, “Jesus Plus
Nothing,” appeared in March 2003, and five
years later it has grown into a book, entitled The Family: The
Secret Fundamentalism at the Heart of American
Senior Editor Bill Wasik recently asked Sharlet
six questions about his original piece and what he has learned since
1. Your exposé on The Fellowship, aka “The Family,”
appeared five years ago. Has your understanding of the group changed?
When I was working on that story, I remember debating how much Hitler
we should put in the piece. That is, we wondered how fair it was to
dwell on The Family’s invocations of Hitler as a model of “total
commitment.” As it turns out, it was quite fair. After I left
Ivanwald, a team of researchers and I spent years combing through
hundreds of thousands of documents in archives around the country. We
discovered that as far back as the 1940s, when The Family began
organizing congressmen, the group’s founder, Abraham Vereide, was
praising Hitler’s “youth work” as a model to be adopted by Americans.
He denounced Hitler himself, but he admired fascism’s cultivation of
elites, crucial to what he saw as a God-ordained coming “age of
The Family has put that concept, which they call “Jesus plus nothing,”
into action for decades, from their early successes fighting the New
Deal in the 1930s and 40s to their recruitment of war criminals such
as Herman J. Abs, known as “Hitler’s banker,” into postwar European
leadership, to their facilitation of U.S. support for dictators
ranging from Papa Doc Duvalier of Haiti to Suharto of Indonesia to
Yoweri Museveni of Uganda, now their “key man” for Africa. The fetish
for strongman leadership has continued with Vereide’s successor, Doug
Coe, who leads the group today. Throughout his letters in the Billy
Graham Center Archive at Wheaton College, I found references to the
leadership model of Hitler. In one sermon, variations of which he’s given many times, Coe
says: “Jesus said ‘You got to put Him before
mother-father-brother-sister.’ Hitler, Lenin, Mao, that’s what they
taught the kids. Mao even had the kids killing their own mother and
father. But it wasn’t murder. It was for building the new nation. The
2. Given the unbelievable amount of influence brokered by the
Fellowship Foundation, and by Doug Coe, why have so few national media
outlets have picked up on the story?
The problem is that we just don’t have a press that really wants to
challenge power on issues they consider “personal.” Speaking at the
1985 Prayer Breakfast, Ronald Reagan said, “I wish I could say more
about it, but it’s working precisely because it’s private.” That
should have been an invitation for investigative reporting. Instead,
the media, then and now, tends to acquiesce to elite secretiveness,
not out of any conspiracy, but due to a culture of reverence for
established power, liberal or conservative. Most journalists believe
in meritocracy—not merely that it’s a good idea, but that it actually
exists. They know some politicians game the system, but they’re
committed to the idea that the system basically works. And it does, but
not in favor of democracy.
3. It seems like the National Prayer Breakfast, which The Family administers, is a big part of why the press doesn’t pick up
on the story. It seems inconceivable that a group that attracts so
many powerful public figures from around the world to its annual event
could be up to anything untoward.
It’s the Family’s only public event, but the few hours
that the press is allowed to attend are the dullest thing imaginable,
the blandest kind of ecumenical civil religion, with the main address
presented by some figure distinct from the Christian Right—Joe
Lieberman, or the Saudi Prince Bandar, or even Bono. How threatening
is that? But internal documents tell a different story. “Anything
could happen,” reads one, “the Koran could even be read, but JESUS is
there. He is infiltrating the world.”
4. What happened to the young men featured in “Jesus Plus Nothing”?
In the article, we get the sense that they are being groomed for
leadership, both in the Family and in the world.
The man who introduced me to The Family returned to a successful financial career. He’s not
a boldfaced name, but he’s doing well, and The Family has always
understood that there’s a lot of power to be found in the ranks of
middle management, the men and (a few) women who actually do most of
Gannon Sims went on to work as a State Department spokesman, and now
he’s training for a pulpit. One of the brothers called me after the
story appeared in Harper’s. To be honest, I’d hoped that they’d be as
dismayed as I was to learn what The Family was really up to, but this
brother—who asked that he not be identified—said, “I hope you don’t
think I didn’t know all that.” That is, he’d known about The Family’s
role in propping up dictators around the world, and he was just fine
In the book, I tell the story of another former Ivanwalder named Greg
Unumb, now an executive with Pride Foramer, a division of the oil
drilling company Pride International that takes care of business in
Brazil, Indonesia, South Africa, Ivory Coast, Angola, and India. Greg
had once held Bengt’s position, as leader of Ivanwald. “What’s secret
is the top guys working with the leadership,” he told me. “It’s not
unlike a business. Business is a network. This is a Christian network,
with a few people running it. There are two types of people at
Ivanwald. Sharp guys with leadership potential, and problem kids. The
sharp ones use Ivanwald to build their network. If they do become
successful, there’s an emphasis on maintaining contact.” And here was
Greg, contacting me.
As for myself, I also tell the story of a woman I call “Kate,” who
claimed to be a fan. She turned out to be a sister in The Family, this young, good-looking woman who had been sent, she said, by the Coes to “learn my heart.” That was sweeter than
the response from former Senator Dan Coats, who as ambassador to
Germany killed funds for a speaking gig I had in a series usually paid
for by the U.S. embassy. Fortunately, my hosts, the University of
Potsdam, made up the difference. They also told me that Coats had
declared me “an enemy of Jesus.”
5. I remember that when you were writing “Jesus Plus Nothing,” the
themes of secrecy and betrayal loomed very large in your mind. The
Family was a self-avowedly secret group, engaged in essentially
subversive acts of behind-the-scenes power-brokering. And you,
meanwhile, were learning all this undercover, fully prepared to betray
these young men with whom you lived. How do you look back on that
I used my real name, I took notes
openly, I told them I was a journalist and that I was working on a
book (my first), about unusual religious communities around the
country. I told them the title, too, Killing the Buddha. Maybe they
thought I meant it literally. Regardless, they had a pretty full
dossier on me. I even talked about writing and betrayal with them—I
tend to agree with Joan Didion’s assessment that “writers are always
selling somebody out.” It’s inherent in the process. “Undercover” is a funny word, in that many people think it means the journalist has some kind of secret identity, maybe a fake mustache. I didn’t—it wasn’t necessary. The Family couldn’t imagine that someone might learn to speak their language without sharing their beliefs.
That sentiment is reflected in a letter I found in The Family’s
archive, from an inner circle leader to a South African operative.
“The Movement,” he writes, “is simply inexplicable to people who are
not intimately acquainted with it.” The Family’s political
initiatives, he goes on, “have always been misunderstood by
‘outsiders.’” Then he talks about how whole projects have been hurt
when Family members leak information to the public. “Thus,” he writes,
in conclusion, “I would urge you not to put on paper anything relating
to any of the work that you are doing… [unless] you know the recipient
well enough to put at the top of the page, ‘PLEASE DESTROY AFTER
This is one of my favorite documents out of the hundreds of thousands
I reviewed because A, it’s funny—the recipient immediately wrote back
to say that he understood and he’d made multiple copies of the letter
for all of his associates, one of which I now have; B, it reveals the
sense of persecution and victimhood which undergirds so much of that
culture of secrecy on the right.
This secrecy is pragmatic—“The more you can make your organization invisible,” preaches Doug Coe, “the more influence it will have”—but it’s also a way for these very influential people to conceive of themselves as akin to the Christians of the first century, struggling nobly against a dominant culture of secularism. Family members imagine themselves as revolutionaries, even as they function as defenders of status quo power.
That kind of self-deception allows a writer only two real responses—deference, or betrayal.
6. So is your book a betrayal?
According to their belief in themselves as a “new chosen,” an anointed
elite that have replaced the Jews in God’s esteem, I am still a member
of The Family. And yet here I am, baring their secrets to the world.
Does that make me a journalist, or a traitor? You need to enter the
moral gray zone between those two terms if you’re going to really
explore the inner workings of power. You have to be an insider and an
outsider at the same time.
I remember one day Jeff C., one of the house leaders, said, “You
oughtta write a book about us. But nobody would believe it.” It was
like he was daring me, but he felt safe doing so because he didn’t
think the truths of The Family would translate to the outside world. They believe Christ had one message for those closest to him, and then another, diluted message for the rest of the twelve, and so on out to the masses.
One of the brothers called me up after we published “Jesus Plus Nothing” to explain to me that they weren’t upset by the details of what I’d written, all of which he thought were more or less accurate, but by the fact that I’d written anything at all. That, he said, was the betrayal—telling the truth about The Family.
More from Bill Wasik:
Lucas Mann on hope and change in a minor-league-baseball city
Minimum number of baboons forced to smoke crack in a 1989 study testing the efficacy of cigarettes as a drug delivery device:
A reduction in distrust toward atheists was documented among pious Canadians who are reminded of the Vancouver police.
A Missouri cinema apologized for hiring an actor dressed in body armor and carrying a fake rifle to appear at a screening of Iron Man 3.
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Winner of the 2012 Olivier Rebbot Award for best photographic reporting from abroad in magazines or books