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 Power. Senior Editor Bill Wasik recently asked Sharlet six questions about his original piece and what he has learned since then.
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 minority control.”
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 new kingdom.”
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 the work.
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 with it.
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 betrayal?
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 READING.’”
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.