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The Family: The Secret Fundamentalism at the Heart of American Power

Writer explores the historical roots of evangelical Christianity

By Paul F. McKenna

The Family: The Secret Fundamentalism at the Heart of American Power
By Jeff Sharlet
(Harper Morrow Group) $27.95

The thesis of this riveting book is that a particular form of Christian fundamentalism thrives at the core of American politics and influence. In The Family, he explores the historical roots of the evangelical enterprise with care.

The story begins at The Cedars, a mansion in Arlington, Va., and the unofficial headquarters of a fundamentalist group known alternatively as “the Family” or “the Fellowship.” Guests at The Cedars include politicians, business leaders and foreign dignitaries who arrive for prayer and piety and leave with the Family’s evangelical indoctrination. Sharlet gets a near-inside look at the goings on; he lives for several months at nearby Ivanwald house, a sort of boot camp for groups of young men seeking to deepen their faith through prayer and labour, keeping the grounds and serving the guests at The Cedars.

From The Cedars and Ivanwald, Sharlet leads his readers through an exploration of the growth and evolution of American fundamentalism and its important role in U.S. politics. His account of the Family’s omnipresence in the affairs of the American republic is riveting. In the same way Forrest Gump appears in all the pivotal events of the 1960s and ’70s, the Family influences many of the major events in recent American history.

From the early evangelical efforts of Jonathan Edwards in the 18th century, through the ministry of the Family’s founder, Abraham Vereide, in Seattle starting in the 1930s, to today’s efforts at channelling mainstream American politics by the Family’s current leader and Washington insider Doug Coe, there has been a solid and silent movement to foster a particular kind of obedience to God in America.

Sharlet presents a panorama of American history, with the Family working behind the scenes to influence policy and program in the Depression, the reclamation of former Nazi senior officers, the struggle over Vietnam, and the support of dubious leaders in Africa.

We hear much about the related work of former Watergate felon Chuck Colson, who has become extremely powerful following his prison conversion and the founding of his Prison Fellowship, through which George W. Bush discovered Christian fundamentalism in 1985. Hillary Clinton’s “friendship” with the Family is proof that fundamentalism continues to permeate the highest levels of political life in America.

Sharlet is a skilful writer who brings eloquence and a sense of wonder to this important story. Though he restrains himself from making judgments, his descriptive abilities encourage us to think carefully about the role of evangelical Christianity in this postmodern world, where everything and everyone is somehow connected. 

Paul F. McKenna is a Toronto writer.
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