Mark Sanford’s move to position himself as the savior of the Republican Party—as the white knight who brings the GOP back to its authentic birthright as the immigration-friendly party of Big Business—may be complicated by more than just the hilarity (already picked up on by Trump) of his concealed affair with an Argentinian paramour.
Sanford’s affair, we recall, gave “hiking the Appalachian Trail” a whole new meaning. But as Kate Storey’s excellent reporting in Esquire points out, Sanford also has a long history with the shady global “Christian” network known as The Family, a.k.a. The Fellowship, a.k.a. The Most Powerful Organization You Never Heard Of. As it happens, the then-governor of South Carolina inadvertently gave many in the mainstream media their first scenting of The Family’s existence when he told reporters that he’d received “counseling” from members of the group in connection with his adultery. Storey’s piece also brings to light Sanford’s extensive role in the Family’s embrace of extremely unsavory global actors: butchers like Sudan’s al-Bashir and Indonesia’s Suharto.
All this makes me wonder whether Netflix executives now regret their failure to give the excellent new five-part miniseries on The Family more of a promotional boost. As someone who greatly admires Jeff Sharlet, whose books on the organization inspired the series, I’ve been peeved and somewhat puzzled that the streaming behemoth didn’t do a better job of bringing more eyeballs to what is really a blockbuster project. To take one example, a search for press materials on Netflix’s media center yielded no result. I’m still peeved (Reed Hastings lets me down, yet again), but I can’t say I’m really that puzzled the more I think about it. After all, as the film makes eminently clear, this is one Family you don’t want to mess with. Their humility and their devotion to Christ might get you killed. It may well be that Netflix is already getting some heat for presenting what some will erroneously call an “anti-Christian” show.
On one level “The Family” tells Jeff Sharlet’s own story, effectively dramatizing how he got to be an insider and how he gradually came to understand just what he was dealing with. But the miniseries is much more the story of a “nobody” from Oregon named Doug Coe who ended up serving as the outfit’s head honcho from 1969 until his death just two years ago at the age of 88.
I came away awed by Sharlet’s courage in infiltrating the group, but even more awed by Coe’s evident religious genius. By which I mean the special kind of charisma that only certain very remarkable uncharismatic people can project. One can’t help but be impressed by how Coe struck everyone as the real deal, as God’s true messenger, even as he was carefully developing the most pernicious example of fake Christianity the world has ever seen.
To be clear, I don’t mean “fake” in the sense that certain people (ahem) mean it in characterizing things they don’t agree with. I mean “fake” in the sense that the Rev. Eric Williams, who appears in the miniseries, means it when he insists that the test of Christian love is whether it moves people toward working for justice; otherwise it’s just not real. I’m on the same page as Rev. Williams.
Coe was not the founder of this vast fraud (more on The Founder later), but there’s no doubt that Coe perfected it. Under four decades of Coe’s leadership, The Fellowship (which, in keeping with his shape-shifting ways, later became known as The Family) gave to the world a Christianity which, as Sharlet explains, adheres to no actual theology. It’s a kind of cipher Christianity that was, and is, dedicated solely to the worship and service of authoritarian power. Coe made no secret of his admiration for the organizational strength of Mafiosi, Nazis, Maoists, Stalinists, and even Osama bin Laden’s followers. He wanted his network of prayer groups to have real heft and muscle in the world. His Jesus was no sissy.
Coe is seen in the film talking about the need to “take Jesus out of the religious wrapping” so as to make Him available for whatever purpose is required. And that’s exactly what The Fellowship was able to do. While always professing Christian ideals of selflessness, service, and fellowship they created a readily available platform for use by various dictators and haters and murderers of whatever stripe and whatever faith.
This is quite an achievement, you have to admit. In an early sequence, Jeff Sharlet is vetted to join a kind of Christian frat house called Ivanwald, essentially a youth indoctrination center maintained by The Fellowship in suburban Virginia. While there, Sharlet wonders why he and other initiates would care to be “cleaning the toilets of the powerful.” It turns out that this is exactly what The Fellowship does on a huge scale in the wider world: it cleans the toilets of the powerful. It makes their shit disappear. Praise Jesus.
I grew up in an evangelical milieu and I know the language of the tribe. I understand the immense appeal of belonging and also the immense appeal of the concept that we are all God’s “vessels” for service to our neighbors and the wider world. I was raised to respect the ethos, still taught by Family types, of “eradication of self,” of total surrender to God’s will. Older and wiser now, I also understand the danger of this presumed self-emptying and of the potential for immense hypocrisy when bad actors are able to cover their evil machinations by way of a falsified humility and piety: in short, the danger of wolves in sheep’s clothing.
The Fellowship takes St. Paul’s teaching that “all have sinned and come short of God’s glory” to an appallingly dangerous extreme. Acting upon the heretical principle that the powerful are God’s “chosen” vessels regardless of what they actually do (and here their go-to biblical prooftext is the story of King David’s rape of Bathsheba and subsequent murder of her husband), this many-tentacled global enterprise has embraced and and cultivated every kind of malefactor from Nixon minion Chuck Colson, to adulterer/hypocrite GOP grandees John Ensign and Mark Sanford, to Russian operatives Alexander Torshin and Maria Butina, to brutal dictator/murderers Muammar al-Gaddafi (Libya) and Muhammadu Buhari (Nigeria), to “kill the gays” instigators Yoweri Museveni and David Bahati (Uganda), and finally to our very own criminal-in-chief, Donald John Trump.
Homophobia, misogyny, and contempt for the poor (aka the un-chosen) are so very much taken for granted and accepted as “Christian” within The Family that its principals are able to say, with a perfectly straight face, that they have no political agenda when they support and subsidize authoritarian leaders around the world who exemplify and implement these hatreds.
As I say, there is a kind of genius in this. There’s also genius in the way they capitalized on two fraught moments in U.S. history to build their power. The Family’s original founder, a Norwegian immigrant named Abraham Vereide, used the panic engendered by a major 1935 West Coast strike to enlist a group of prominent Seattle business leaders to join him in promoting an anti-labor Christianity. And these good Jesus people didn’t just meet to pray away unionism; one of their number, a certain Arthur Langlie, went on to use state power to smash unions as mayor of Seattle and then governor of Washington State, declaring at the outset of his rise to power: “I am ready to let God use me!” From the beginning, in other words, the manly network that would become The Family evinced a very high comfort level with violence and brutality.
At another important juncture—at the height of the Cold War in 1953—this same Abraham Vereide persuaded President Eisenhower, who was initially reluctant to participate on First Amendment grounds, to show up and speak at the very first National Prayer Breakfast in Washington. Eisenhower, a cuss-ready Supreme Allied Commander who conveniently joined the Presbyterian Church after becoming president, was canny enough to realize that God could be weaponized to defeat the Soviet Menace.
How odd, then, that this ostensibly anticommunist Christian force later became the vessel of Russian skulduggery to undermine American democracy through its embrace of people like convicted Russian agent Butina.
But I digress.
Thanks to Doug Coe’s astonishing prestidigitation skills, it would seem that there’s really nothing to see here. Every last one of The Family’s supporters and apologists who speaks on camera swears on a stack of unread Bibles that there can’t be anything nefarious about just a bunch of guys (and it is almost all guys) getting together to pray and to fellowship (and yes, “fellowship” is a verb in evangelical-speak).
Do they really believe in their own innocence, or is this just their game face? My view, and I think Jeff Sharlet might agree, is that almost all of them—Coe, certainly—see themselves as guileless servants. To me, that’s one of the wonders of their system: they’re con men who believe their own con. What’s that old hymn say? “Now wash me and I will be whiter than snow.”
The supreme example of The Family’s invisibility remains its signature event, the National Prayer Breakfast, which they have managed to present year after year as though the sponsoring body was actually the Congress of the United States. Even today, which is to say even after considerable media exposure of The Family’s central organizing role, invitations to the week-long event are sent out under the names of Family “associates” who happen to be prominent Congressional leaders. And everyone who’s anyone shows up.
For space reasons I won’t go into The Family’s multiple abuses of the religious tax exemption. Many RD readers will be familiar with the story of their notorious townhouse on C Street in Washington, which for many years got away with being a tax-exempt “church” even though it actually functioned as a private club for powerful members of Congress who paid a nominal rent to live there.
But this abuse pales compared to the major crime of sucking up to authoritarian leaders regardless of record. Which brings us, naturally, to their embrace of Donald Trump, the nonpareil example of a “flawed” vessel who is nonetheless “chosen” by God simply because of his power and his lust for more of the same. It’s surely no coincidence that the Trump family’s favorite preacher, Norman Vincent Peale, the famed progenitor of “positive thinking,” was pals with old Abraham Vereide. Both worshipped wealth and power and both despised the un-chosen: the poor, the workers, and their unions.
In the Netflix series, the most chilling insight into what The Family really stands for comes when one of its agents asks a group of young initiates in Virginia, “So do you think Christ came for the sheep?” and goes on to explain that Christ is much more interested in cultivating the wolves and in capturing the “king wolf” in particular, because that’s where the real power is. The last episode is titled “Wolf King,” and Trump is of course its primary subject.
Claiming that Christ champions the wolves over the sheep represents a complete inversion of the gospel. I will say one last time that achieving this inversion reflects an impressive satanic genius. But I must also say that The Family’s skillful architects—Vereide, Coe, and a handful of others—were hardly the first to realize that treating Jesus as a kind of of “mascot” (to use the term suggested by Eric Williams, the progressive minister cited earlier) has always been relatively easy to do in the American context.
Recall that throughout our history, the expressions “This is a Christian nation” and “This is a white man’s country” have been used more or less interchangeably. That should tell you everything you need to know about hollowed-out Christianity and about the evil-advancing utility of The Family’s Jesus + Nothing formula.