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'Family': Fundamentalism, Friends In High Places

In the September 2007 <em>Mother Jones,</em> Sharlet and Kathryn Joyce reported that Hillary Clinton (pictured at the 2009 National Prayer Breakfast) has been active in Bible-study and prayer circles affilated with the Family. Writing in <em>The Nation</em>, Barbara Ehrenreich reported that Clinton described Family leader Doug Coe as "a unique presence in Washington: a genuinely loving spiritual mentor and guide to anyone, regardless of party or faith, who wants to deepen his or her relationship with God."
Saul Loeb / AFP / Getty Images
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AFP / Getty Images
In the September 2007 Mother Jones, Sharlet and Kathryn Joyce reported that Hillary Clinton (pictured at the 2009 National Prayer Breakfast) has been active in Bible-study and prayer circles affilated with the Family. Writing in The Nation, Barbara Ehrenreich reported that Clinton described Family leader Doug Coe as "a unique presence in Washington: a genuinely loving spiritual mentor and guide to anyone, regardless of party or faith, who wants to deepen his or her relationship with God."

In the book The Family: The Secret Fundamentalism at the Heart of American Power, author Jeff Sharlet examines the power wielded by a secretive Christian group known as the Family, or the Fellowship.

Founded in 1935 in opposition to FDR's New Deal, the evangelical group's views on religion and politics are so singular that some other Christian-right organizations consider them heretical

The group also has a connection to a house in Washington, D.C., known as C Street. Owned by a foundation affiliated with the Family, C Street is officially registered as a church; in practice, it serves as a meeting place and residence for politicians like South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford, Nevada Sen. John Ensign and Oklahoma Sen. Tom Coburn.

The Family, Sharlet writes, is responsible for founding the annual National Prayer Breakfast, a supposedly ecumenical — but implicitly Christian — event attended by the president, members of Congress and dignitaries from around the world. These foreign delegations are often led by top defense personnel, who use it as an opportunity to lobby the most influential people in Washington — and who repay the Family with access to their governments.

The group's approach to religion, Sharlet says, is based on "a sort of trickle-down fundamentalism," which holds that the wealthy and powerful, if they "can get their hearts right with God ... will dispense blessings to those underneath them."

Members of the group ardently support free markets, in which, they believe, God's will operates directly through Adam Smith's "invisible hand."

The Family was founded in 1935 by a minister named Abraham Vereide after, he claimed, he had a vision in which God came to him in the person of the head of the United States Steel Corporation.

The current leader, Doug Coe, shuns publicity but wields considerable political influence as a spiritual adviser. Sharlet says that when Sanford recently compared his struggles to those of the biblical King David — a central figure in Family theology — the author "could almost hear Doug Coe's voice" coming out of the South Carolina governor.

A religion expert and a journalist, Sharlet is a contributing editor for Harper's and Rolling Stone. He is editor of The Revealer, a review of religion and the press.

Copyright 2023 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.