The Family: America’s Taliban

“The Family: America’s Taliban” is a sermon delivered to the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Tuscaloosa, AL  on 10 January 2010 © by Rev. Fred L Hammond

Sinclair Lewis’s novel, It Can’t Happen Here published in 1935 tells the story of an American President who systematically strips the constitution of its democratic powers and becomes a fascist dictator. The belief that it can’t happen here is as much an icon of American mythology as the American Dream.

But there is another icon that is also steeped in the American mythos and is actively at work to ensure that it can indeed happen here even while proclaiming that it cannot. Jeff Sharlet, author of the controversial book: The Family: the Secret Fundamentalism at the Heart of American Power tells of a religious cult that is at once all American and also a dangerous religious movement that will, if allowed to prosper, dismantle what we have called American Democracy and replace it with a theocracy more powerful and perhaps even more regressive than the Taliban, the repressive Islamic cult that has ruled in Afghanistan.

The word Taliban in the United States has taken on iconic proportions as representing what can happen when a fundamentalist version of a religion takes control of a nation. In this regard, I am using the word Taliban as metaphor when I discuss the religious cult that has achieved today such power in the United States as an elite fundamentalist group.

Jeff Sharlet was invited to live at Ivanwald, a communal house run by the Family for young men who show promise of leadership. It is a boot camp of sorts where residents are indoctrinated into a faith with Jesus, who is as all American as apple pie. He writes, “Ivanwald is one house among many, clustered like mushrooms, nearly two dozen households devoted, like these men, to the service of a personal Jesus, a Christ who directs their every action.” 

 The Family which has also been known as The Fellowship has its roots in American Politics going back seventy years. Abram Vereide was a minister, a protégé of evangelist Billy Sunday in the 1920’s. His ministry was in the Pacific Northwest. He was a struggling minister. He received what he believed was a message from God to go to minister those who were the “up and out,” those in power who did not know Jesus. The vision was for God to use the powerful to restore the world to first century Christianity and establish the kingdom of God on earth. Above all else, God’s law was to be obeyed and the way to do this was by using those whom God had placed into power. “Every knee shall bow and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord” is not just a bible verse but a prophetic vision of what literally is meant to occur.

Abram under the command of his God, moves to Washington, DC and begins to meet people who knew people in places of power. He begins to pray with them and establishes the Fellowship around 1935 partly in response to FDR’s New Deal. Abram Vereide taught “that the poor, with their demands for government services—which he understood as a failure to trust that God would provide—were “the adversaries of the church.” 

This is the doctrine behind today’s fundamentalist’s adamant abhorrence to Health Care Reform, Welfare, Medicaid and other services to the poor. Trust God to provide, to seek support from the government means that ones faith in God is non-existent. It contradicts The Family’s belief that governments are God’s authority established on earth but sobeit.

His theology blends the theology of Puritan John Winthrop who wrote, “We shall be as a City upon a Hill, the eyes of all people are upon us.” This was a belief that America would be the seat of the New Jerusalem where the new kingdom of heaven would arise. The doctrine of Manifest Destiny that America had the divine right to claim the continent of North America for her self is part of this new Christian doctrine of America’s faith. It was further expanded in the Monroe Doctrine which declared that the Western Hemisphere was no longer available for European colonization and now under the growing influence of the United States. All we had to do was to claim our rightful place and the New Jerusalem would be established and usher in the Kingdom of Heaven.

Abram’s theology rooted in these doctrinal stances with a literal reading of the Old and New Testaments led him to establish a secretive, inner circle of believers. Abram claimed Jesus had done the same with the levels of teachings that he gave the multitudes versus those he gave to his disciples and those he only gave to Peter and John. The inner circle was much like the small groups that Hitler, Lenin, and Stalin used in wielding power; these would barter back room deals with politicians away from public spheres. It would allow for invisibility.

The theology that Abram Vereide and later his successor Doug Coe would embrace was one of dominionism. Blended with its own American brand of puritan envisioning, Manifest Destiny and Monroe Doctrine, this dominionism relied on the Bible to guide every decision from whom to marry to what tie to wear in the morning. Sharlet writes, “Unlike neo-evangelicals, who concern themselves chiefly with getting good with Jesus, dominionists want to reconstruct early Christian society, which they believe was ruled by God alone. They view themselves as the new chosen and claim a Christian doctrine of covenantalism, meaning covenants not only between God and humanity but at every level of society, replacing the rule of law and its secular contracts. Since these covenants are signed, as it were, in the Blood of the Lamb, they are written in ink invisible to nonbelievers.” 

The members of the family believe they are indeed chosen by God. This explains how South Carolina Governor Mark Sanford, a member of the Family, could so brazenly quote the King David story, quoted in our reading from Sharlet’s text today, as the reason why he would not step down as governor after his deceitful trips to cover up an extra-marital-affair. He is God’s chosen and therefore exempt from the ungodly laws of the land.

 Senator James Inhofe (R-OK) is another member of the Family who travels twice a year to Uganda to promote that country’s conversion to Jesus. He once boasted that because of his office he can meet with any leader in the world to preach about Jesus.  He has met with and presumably prayed with Family associate President Museveni. President Museveni since his rise to power in 1986 and his association with the Family has increasingly moved Uganda towards dictatorship and away from democracy. “Democracy”, Jeff Sharlet was told when he lived with the family at the Ivanwald house, was a form of “rebelliousness” against God. 

Uganda made the news recently, when Ugandan Family member proposed legislation that would execute people with HIV/AIDS and/or Gays and imprison those who harbor them. It is no secret that Senator Inhofe is against civil rights for sexual minorities. His rhetoric has been quite emphatic against homosexuals in this country. Only under increasing pressure did Inhofe publicly state he was against the proposed legislation but he has not taken any steps to actively advocate against this genocide proposal given his influence in Uganda.

His original response was much like Pastor Rick Warren’s, founder of the Saddleback Church and while not a member of the Family, Warren is also a frequent visitor to Uganda. Both stated that their role is not to get involved in the political struggles of a nation. Rick Warren has after receiving pressure did a video message to Uganda’s people condemning the proposed legislation as un-Christian. When your goal is to create God centered governments then you are involved in the political struggles of a nation. There is the added responsibility to be held accountable to one’s interference in another culture. “The Family renounces public accountability.” 

Uganda, since 1991, has held a National Prayer Breakfast modeled after the Family’s sponsored National Prayer Breakfast here in Washington. The US National Prayer Breakfast has been an annual event since President Eisenhower was elected to office. As a thank you to the evangelicals who helped get him elected he endorsed the first prayer breakfast created by Abram Vereide, the founder of the Family then called the International Christian Leadership.

The prayer breakfast is not simply a morning prayer with coffee and danish, it is a week long event with workshops on Christianity and government. The powerful from around the globe come in the hopes of meeting with the powerful in Washington. By praying together they form a bond, a doorway, that allows them access to meet unofficially, in the back rooms, with the elite chosen by god.  All leaders of countries are chosen by God according to Romans 13:1 “Let every person be subject to the governing authorities; for there is no authority except from God, and those authorities that exist have been instituted by God.”

This belief is held as literal fact by the members of the Family. Imagine what this belief would do to someone who is Governor of a state, a Senator or Congress person, or even President of the country. Imagine what this belief would do if you believe that the President of the country was not submitted to the will of God.

This year, it is expected that the sponsors of this heinous Uganda legislation will be at the US National Prayer Breakfast in February. The speaker this year will be President Obama. What will he say and more importantly what will he leave unsaid?

Now I try not to be an alarmist about things. I try to see the more positive side of things and I admit sometimes that causes me to stretch quite far in order to do this. But I am alarmed by the Family. I am alarmed when I read how deeply they have infiltrated the offices of government, not only here in the States but abroad. I am alarmed when I read that this is the goal of the Family.

Jeff Sharlet writes about a program of the Family known as “Youth Corps, whose programs are often centered around Ivanwald-style houses, prepares the best of its recruits for positions of power in business and government abroad. Its programs are in operation in Russia, Ukraine, Romania, India, Pakistan, Uganda, Nepal, Bhutan, Ecuador, Honduras, Peru, and other countries. The goal: ‘Two hundred national and international world leaders bound together relationally by a mutual love for God and the family.’” 

These recruits are then sent to these countries and while they may be working on legitimate tasks to benefit the country they are also seeking key volunteers to develop cell groups, we might call them covenant groups. These core groups become the cells that indoctrinate the individuals to lay down their lives to Jesus and to each other. They are taught to submit their wills to Jesus. Each member of the cell is committed to the other, and each member could veto the direction another life was going in if it was determined to be against the will of Jesus.

But they are not just being sent to other countries. They are being sent here as well. Gov. Mark Sanford, Senator James Inhofe, Representative Joseph Pitts, Representative Bart Stupak, Representative Mike Doyle, Senator Sam Brownback are all members of the Family. There are others. You might recognize the names of Stupak and Pitts. They are the bipartisan sponsors of the amendment to the Health Care reform act that limits insurance payments of abortions. 

 The Family is seeking to legislate their understanding of Biblical mandates into how our nation operates. It isn’t just happening now, it has been happening since the beginning of the Family when it was known as International Christian Leadership or the Fellowship.

Sharlet writes: “ ‘Under God’ was added to the Pledge of Allegiance, an initiative sponsored in the Senate by Homer Ferguson, a Republican I C L board member, and financed by ICLer Clement Stone, and ‘In God We Trust’ was added to the nation’s currency by a bill sponsored by a Dixiecrat congressman named Charles E. Bennett, also a member of the Fellowship’s inner circle.”

Our involvement in the atrocities that have taken place in Costa Rica, in Haiti, in Guatemala, in El Salvado, in Somalia, in Indonesia, in Rwanda, in Uganda are all with Family connections. Key people were sent there by the Family to set up prayer cells with the leaders in the hopes of swaying these countries towards being god-led governments. It did not matter that these countries were not democratic or honored human rights of their citizens, what mattered is that they obeyed the teachings of the Family brought to them by Family members who were in positions of power in the US. In exchange these governments received US financial aid and in some instances support for the genocides that took place there. “Jesus must rule every nation through the vessel of American power,” Sharlet writes regarding the Family’s goals.

It is the conviction of these politicians, Sharlet writes, “that more of God’s mandates and the teachings of the Nazarene must be written into current legislation.” 

Sharlet writes “One day, [Doug] Coe [leader of the Family] believes—not yet—America (and Old Europe, too, the Germans and French and Italians who drifted from Christ once their prosperity was assured) will wake up and find itself surrounded by a hundred tiny God-led governments: Fiji, a “model for the nations” under a theocratic regime after 2001, … and Uganda, made over as an experiment in faith-based initiatives by the Family’s favorite African brother, the dictator Yoweri Museveni; and Mongolia, where Coe traveled in the late 1980s to plant the seeds for that country’s post-communist laissez-faire regime. Nobody notices; nobody cares what happens in small places. This is what George H. W. Bush praised in 1992 as Coe’s ‘quiet diplomacy’”. 

 And this is how it can happen here, quietly, far from the lime light; far from the eyes of a press slowly growing cataracts blinding them to really see what is happening. Small groups of politicians meet for prayer and Bible study. They share the stresses of their positions, their infidelities, their pains, as well as their hopes and dreams. Here they are forgiven and embraced as the new chosen people of God. They work to pass bills into laws that reflect their interpretation of God’s laws. They believe they have been given the charge to create the New Jerusalem, a city upon a hill, a beacon to the world, the kingdom of heaven where Jesus can rule the world. Yet, in the process create a repressive regime that slips ever more closely to a theocratic fascism.

Sharlet compares Martin Luther King Jr. with Doug Coe. He writes: “King was a Christian like Coe. Like Coe, he believed in the “beloved community,” the Kingdom of God realized here on Earth, and like Coe, he was willing to work with those who didn’t share his beliefs. But that is where the similarities end. Coe preaches a personal, private submission; King fought and died in public for collective liberation. Coe believes Jesus has a special message for the powerful; King believed God has a special message for everyone. Most important, in 1968, as Coe was constricting the already narrow vision of the Fellowship, King was doing as he had done his whole life: broadening his dream. King died just as he was raising his voice to speak out not only for racial justice but also for economic justice. He would pursue it not through private prayer cells but through public solidarity.” 

If the true spirit and essence of the American experiment is to be fulfilled, it is here in the public arena where it will shine forth. The dream described in the Declaration of Independence was that all people are endowed with inalienable rights including the rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. May we shout loud and long in the public sphere that history’s long arc will always bend towards justice and liberty for all people, not just those in power, but for those oppressed.

I am reminded of Mahatma Gandhi’s words, “When I despair, I remember that all through history the ways of truth and love have always won. There have been tyrants, and murderers, and for a time they can seem invincible, but in the end they always fall. Think of it–always.” May these words offer us hope. Blessed Be.

Quotes unless biblical or otherwise stated are from Jeff Sharlet’s book The Family.

Resources:  Jeff Sharlet,  The Family: The Secret Fundamentalism at the Heart of American Power  Harper Collins e-books

NPR story “A Different perspective on ‘the Family’ and Uganda” aired December 22, 2009

Las Vegas Sun as found at http://www.lasvegassun.com/news/2009/jul/19/behind-closed-doors-c-street/

Pensito Review as found at http://www.pensitoreview.com/2009/11/25/the-family-c-street-group-tied-to-uganda-death-penalty-for-gays/

 http://www.quotationspage.com/quotes/Mahatma_Gandhi/)

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10 Comments

  1. […] preaching about Christian fundamentalism last week. My colleague Fred Hammond gave sermon entitled "The Family: America’s Taliban." It uses the work of Jeff Sharlet to explore the world of particular fundamentalism group.  […]


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