Culture » August 12, 2008
'If God is dead, then everything is permitted,' Fyodor Dostoevsky once wrote. But if God is everything, then everything is still permitted, so long as it's done in the name of God.
In March 2007, Al Gore triumphantly returned to the Senate to testify before the Environmental Committee about the imperative of acting to stop global warming. It was mostly a calm and cordial affair until the infamous climate-change denier, Sen. James Inhofe (R-Okla.), received his time to ask questions. He used it to harass, harangue and pester Gore, demanding to know how global warming could be real when Oklahoma had just experienced a very cold winter.
Faced with this furious assault on reason, Gore extended an olive branch. “We’ve got a mutual friend in Doug Coe,” he told Inhofe. “I’d love to have breakfast with you. Just the three of us, without cameras and lights, and tell you why I feel so strongly about this.”
Unlike most of the media, which generally reported this exchange without comment, you might be wondering who Doug Coe is, what type of man could serve as the peaceful mediator between two such implacable opponents. If your first guess is that he must be some kind of businessman – the type of visionary CEO who all too frequently manages to forge the Beltway’s beloved “bipartisan consensus” – well, you’re half-right.
As journalist and religious scholar Jeff Sharlet explains in his new investigative exposé-slash-history, The Family: The Secret Fundamentalism at the Heart of American Power (HarperCollins, May), Coe is a spiritual adviser who heads a self-described “invisible” association of (almost all male) judges, oil executives, military contractors and political leaders, both foreign and domestic. Known as the Family – or alternately, the Fellowship – the group’s ostensible purpose is to regularly bring three or four such powerful “key men” together in “prayer cells.” The goal, in the words of a confidential mission statement that Sharlet has unearthed, is to realize their common “desire to see a leadership led by God.”
To crib writer Upton Sinclair: “This is no fairy tale and no joke.” In a journalistic coup, Sharlet managed to score an invite to live at the Family’s compound on a tree-lined cul-de-sac in Arlington, Va., for a month. By his count, at least 11 current U.S. senators are considered Family “members,” including Inhofe, Sam Brownback (R-Kans.), Bill Nelson (D-Fla.) and Mark Pryor (D-Ark.). (The Family considers many others, like Sen. Hillary Clinton, to be “friends.”)
Past U.S. members include the late Sen. Strom Thurmond (R-S.C.), the late Supreme Court Chief Justice William Rehnquist and former Defense Secretary Melvin Laird, while some of the foreign dignitaries welcomed into its prayer cells include such charming monsters as Indonesian leader Gen. Suharto, Somali dictator Siad Barre and Salvadoran Gen. Carlos Eugenios Vides Casanova, who a Florida jury held liable in 2002 for the torture of a science teacher, a physician and a church worker during that country’s civil war.
As you can probably imagine, the God who leads such blood-splattered “leadership” isn’t a bushy-bearded fella who gazes benevolently down upon us from the clouds. Or rather, he’s not only that. Indeed, one of the main characteristics of the Family’s bizarre theology is its flexibility, which can be maintained because of its all-encompassing conception of Jesus.
“Jesus plus nothing” is how Sharlet overhears Coe describe the philosophy during one of his “mentoring” sessions with a congressman. The implication is that of a “total Jesus,” who is everywhere, involved in all things and all actions, and who holds dominion over all things and actions.
For those who accept this, the next logical step is the recognition that everything that exists – the status quo (or what Coe calls the “social order”) – is perfect. (It’s all Jesus, after all.) The only exceptions to this perfect cosmogony are those who fail to fully embrace God’s social order.
“If God is dead, then everything is permitted,” Fyodor Dostoevsky once wrote. But if God is everything, then everything is still permitted, so long as it’s done in the name of God. And when everything is permitted, one section of society is going to come out ahead: the powerful.
Ultimately, Sharlet concludes, it’s power that is the sine qua non of the Family, and the powerful who are its ministered. And that has always been the case.
Sharlet traces the roots of the Family to its founder (and Coe’s predecessor as its head), a Norwegian immigrant named Abram Vereide who arrived in the United States in 1905. Vereide ended up in the Pacific Northwest, where he built up a modestly successful evangelical ministry. Though he had rather instrumentalist ideas about the masses – seeing them, Sharlet writes, as “blocks to be arranged neatly” – he nevertheless sought to provide them charity in the traditional vein of the “Social Gospel” that applies Christian ethics to social problems.
But in the mid-’30s, Vereide watched in horror as boisterous labor battles exploded on the streets of San Francisco and Seattle. In Sharlet’s telling, Vereide was particularly haunted by the longshoremen’s leader, Harry Bridges, who combined the organizing of the Reds with the playful, anti-dogmatism of the Wobblies. Sharlet sees the two men as perfect foils, “utopians in the American vein… [who] both believed in power. [But] Bridges wanted to see it redistributed. Abram wanted to see it concentrated.”
Abram began doing so by holding prayer meetings with Seattle’s wealthiest industrialists, whose station in life was evidence to Abram that they were “top men,” chosen by God to rule. Out of one such meeting came the top men’s chosen mayoral candidate, Arthur Langlie, a flirter with fascism who ran on a platform of punishing vice, cutting taxes, slashing budgets and letting the free market take care of the rest. He managed to win, after the liberal-left vote split between two candidates. Sound familiar?
Sharlet traces the rest of the Family’s history from there, documenting its dalliances with ex-Nazi businessmen after WWII and its embrace of some of the worst dictators of the late 20th century.
The Family is an ambitious book – perhaps at times overly so – and an argumentative one, making persuasive cases about the longevity and appeal of U.S. fundamentalism and rendering shrewd analyses about its elite and populist branches.
But one of Sharlet’s arguments hasn’t received sufficient attention: his indictment of the Cold War liberal establishment for making common cause with these elite fundamentalists when doing so would serve its imperial foreign policy aims. Abroad, fighting the godless Communists with these “allies” left hundreds of thousands of civilians dead in Vietnam, Indonesia and throughout Central and South America. Meanwhile, the same allies at home slowly ate away at liberalism’s own pillars of secularism and economic fairness, eroding them to the point of collapse.
Which brings us back to Gore’s visit to the Senate. If Gore ever wonders why so many politicians seem so unreasonable when it comes to acknowledging and acting to stop global warming, perhaps he should take a closer look at his “friend” Doug Coe – and in the mirror, at himself.
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Brian Cook was an editor at In These Times from 2003 to 2009. He now works on the editorial staff of Playboy magazine.