What is the Family?
It’s the most well-connected religious organization that no one talks about. Formed in 1935 by an itinerant preacher, Norwegian immigrant Abraham Vereide, the Family has grown into “a veritable underground of Christ’s men all through government,” in the words of Family member and evangelical minister Charles Colson, the convicted Watergate conspirator. The Washington-based group counts many prominent politicians, mostly conservative Republicans, among its flock, and several members of Congress pay $600 a month to rent rooms in the group’s townhouse on C Street, near the U.S. Capitol. There are Family “prayer cells” in many federal agencies, including the Pentagon and the Justice Department. The Family tries to maintain a low profile (see below), but was thrust into the headlines in recent weeks when it emerged that three politicians embroiled in sex scandals—South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford, Nevada Sen. John Ensign, and former Mississippi Rep. Chip Pickering—are longtime members. Pickering, in fact, last week was accused in court papers of having trysts with his mistress in the C Street house.
Are all members politicians?
No. While members include Iowa Sen. Charles Grassley, former Secretary of State James Baker, and former Attorney General Edwin Meese, many business leaders and military officers are also involved. “We work with power where we can,” Doug Coe, 81, the group’s leader since 1969, said in a rare interview in 2002, “and build power where we can’t.” The Family’s only high-profile endeavor is the National Prayer Breakfast, at which world leaders gather each year in Washington for a morning of nondenominational worship; but the Family always stays in the background, and many participants have no idea that the group is even involved.
What does the Family believe?
Its theology is vague, elastic, and focused on power. The basic precepts came to Vereide in a vision in 1935, according to the group’s literature. Living in Seattle, he came to believe that union organizing in the city was communist-inspired. Jesus appeared to him in the form of the president of U.S. Steel, who told him to gather “key men”—prominent businessmen and political leaders—to beat back the unions in His name. Vereide’s recruiting efforts spread eastward, and in 1941 he arrived in Washington, where he began cultivating friendships with powerful people and setting up prayer groups. By then, Vereide was convinced that conventional Christianity had it backwards: Instead of ministering to the down-and-out, Jesus wanted believers to tend to the “up-and-out”—members of America’s elite who lacked intimacy with Jesus. In Vereide’s worldview, free-market capitalism is divinely ordained, and unions and regulations are a form of blasphemy.
What about personal morality?
It’s not the most important consideration. “The people involved in this association are the worst and the best,” Coe says. “Some are total despots, some are totally religious.” The mere fact that they are powerful means they have God’s favor, argues Coe, citing a line from St. Paul’s Epistle to the Romans: “The powers that be are ordained of God.” Scholar Jeff Sharlet, author of the authoritative book The Family: The Secret Fundamentalism at the Heart of American Power, explains the theology this way: As long as the powerful develop a close relationship with Jesus, “then they will dispense blessings to those underneath them. It’s a sort of trickle-down fundamentalism.” The theology stems from Vereide’s belief than only “key men” can change the world, and only with Jesus’ guidance will they change it for the better. The Family believes in a “total Jesus,” who pervades every thought and action.
Does the Family excuse adultery and other sins?
Not exactly, but it considers the powerful to be accountable only to God and their peers, not to their constituents or the Constitution. Coe speaks often of the biblical King David, who slept with another man’s wife, then ordered the cuckolded husband into battle, effectively sentencing him to death. Yet despite his personal failings, David was one of God’s chosen, and his reign was a blessing to the Israelites. When Gov. Sanford invoked King David to explain why he wouldn’t resign over his adulterous relationship with an Argentine woman, “you could almost hear Doug’s voice,” says Sharlet, who considers the Family’s disregard for conventional morality “potentially very dangerous,” because it “leads you away from accountability to the public.”
Is the Family a threat?
Few in Washington seem too worried. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has taken part in Family activities despite her liberal politics, and has called Coe “a genuinely loving spiritual mentor and guide to anyone who wants to deepen his or her relationship with God.” The first President Bush called Coe an “ambassador of faith.” Supporters also note that Family members helped convince President Jimmy Carter, Anwar Sadat, and Menachem Begin to call for a worldwide day of prayer to usher in the Camp David Peace Accords. And members helped broker a 2001 peace agreement between the Democratic Republic of Congo and Rwanda. Such successes, Family members say, demonstrate the group’s good intentions. “There’s nothing sinister here, no dark secrets,” says former Rep. Tony Hall of Ohio. “It’s the exact opposite of what Washington is about.”
Secrecy by design
Family members quickly learn that the first rule of the Family is not to talk about it. In 1966, Vereide, who referred to his following as an “invisible army,” decreed that the Family should “submerge the institutional image” of the group—a policy maintained by Coe. As Coe once said in a sermon, “the Family functions invisibly like the Mafia. The more you can make your organization invisible, the more influence it will have.” Family members organize themselves into small “cells” that are, in the group’s own words, “publicly invisible and privately identifiable.” Coe has expressed admiration for the way such leaders as Adolf Hitler, Ho Chi Minh, and Osama bin Laden organized followers into small groups that shared a “covenant.” With a covenant, he says, “two or three people can do anything.” Where those leaders went wrong, he says, was in not making their covenants in Jesus’ name.