This is Part 7 of our journey in the series, “Democracy in Crisis: We’ve Been Headed Here for Decades.” A coming overthrow was predictable at least thirty years ago, unless we instituted a major course change. How could we have seen this and how can we save democracy?
To help understand this and save democracy, we must explore some of the Christian nationalist groups and their goals. This article begins that multi-part examination.
In the New York Times article “‘The Capitol Insurrection Was as Christian Nationalist as It Gets,’” Thomas B. Edsall, references Philip Gorski, a professor and the author of the book American Covenant: A History of Civil Religion From the Puritans to the Present. “Gorski described the Christian nationalist movement as a loose confederation of people and institutions that share…” [quoting Gorski]:
‘a certain narrative about American history. In rough outline: America was founded as a Christian nation; the Founding Fathers were evangelical Christians; the Nation’s laws and founding documents were indirectly based on “biblical” principles, or even directly inspired by God, Himself. America’s power and prosperity are due to its piety and obedience.’”
Why is this dangerous viewpoint rising again? The short answer is that there has been little accountability for the sin of genocide and slavery. In order for a nation to change its culture, its leaders have to acknowledge past faults and initiate actions to create pride in a new vision going forward and re-educate the public, asserting the nation’s new identity. In other words, America must redefine itself to make progress. Today, because this has not been done, we are experiencing once again a struggle for America’s identity, which was a factor of the Civil War.
Going beyond that, the longer explanation constitutes the basis of this entire series.
It’s important to remember that there will always be a group of individuals — oligarchs — who see themselves as superior (the “chosen”) and justified to rule over others. We can look at the robber barons of the Gilded Age and other elites of society in the past, even of religious organizations. These individuals persist in inventing new ways to maintain or gain more dominance whenever the populace and rival groups of the oligarchy make advances in their efforts to level the playing field or gain some power.
In their latest efforts to gain control of society, many different Christian nationalist leaders (oligarchs) and their groups began seeking power in the 20th century. Four of them require a close examination because of their massive influence on American culture; they are: (1) the Family, (2) the “Moral Majority,” (3) the Father of Christian Reconstructionism, and (4) the New Apostolic Reformation. Due to length, this article focuses on the first group, and the other three will be addressed subsequently.
The Family (The Fellowship)
I highly recommend watching the five-part Netflix documentary called The Family. It’s based on Jeff Sharlet’s 2008 book The Family: The Secret Fundamentalism at the Heart of American Power. Not only did Sharlet research the Family, but he also spent time living as a Family member. Understanding this group goes a long way to understanding Christian nationalists and the danger they pose.
The Family is one of the most influential religious groups in Washington. Most people probably haven’t heard of them, but this group is the stealth organization behind the National Prayer Breakfasts. The Family (also known as “The Fellowship”) operates like an octopus with secret tentacles reaching into all levels of government and aspects of American society — and beyond, including a loose network of non-profit corporations and prayer cells throughout the world. This group consists of politicians, business and military leaders, and other powerful people.
Sharlet says the Family is about power, obedience, and Jesus, not the Bible. Indeed, the Family hands out a subset of the Bible to its followers, which is simply titled, Jesus. Through this book and the group’s teachings, the Family promotes its own frightening totalitarian version of Jesus — one that desires total control over societies around the world. Because the Family requires strict obedience, its leaders teach that democracy is rebelliousness against Jesus. No surprise since they can’t control people within a democratic form of government. This is why Sharlet calls this group an anti-democratic movement.
The Family is where many fundamentalist groups come together in fellowship. Even though they may have their own takes on the Bible, they share common ideas.
How is the Family Organized?
The Family’s leaders teach their flock that Christ didn’t come to preach equally to everybody, but rather, to help his “chosen”, which are, according to the Family’s self-interests and jaded perspective, themselves. Their organizational structure reflects this belief. The Family’s organization consists of rings of power. Closest to the center are the people the Family calls “apostles,” who exercise authority and know the inner-most secrets of the sect, including its finances. The next closest ring contains the “disciples,” or followers. Outside the circle resides the public at large, who, according to the Family, can’t handle the “truth.”
What Is the Main Goal of this Group?
It would seem that a Christian organization, also known as the Fellowship Foundation, would have as its main goal the furtherance of Christian ideals and camaraderie. However, a document which is revealed in the aforementioned Netflix documentary states,
Main Goal: Protect the tax-exempt status of the Foundation.
The documentary also highlights a portion of the document that says,
Purpose: Implant within the minds of a select number of outstanding young men in our country the need for “a leadership led by God” on every level of our society.
People in high places, the Family teaches, are evidence of God’s blessing. So, it turns out that this Christian group is merely furthering a tangent of the “Prosperity Gospel,” discussed previously in this series. However, Sharlet says that the Family seeks to stay in power “pretty much by any means necessary” and calls the organization “the darkest expression of religious life that I’d found in 20 years.”
Like other fundamentalist groups, the Family is patriarchal. It trains select men to be leaders while female followers are taught to serve the men. Like other fundamentalists, the Family wants women to remain in the home. This is why they do not support paid childcare or other programs that strengthen women, encourage them to work, and give them a voice in society.
So, why would anyone want to join this group? To answer that, we must look at some other teachings of the Family.
The Family and Poverty
According to Sharlet, the Family teaches, that “Poverty is the result of the God-ordained economic system. Uh, you’re poor because God chose you to be poor.” The Family targets the rich and powerful as members, so they can gain even more power and get the rabble in line.
Lack of Accountability
The Family tolerates bad behavior from its “chosen” to justify corrupt conduct. They point out that, in the Old Testament, King David, who was chosen by God, was imperfect and sinned, yet God forgave him. The Bible teaches that David seduced Bathsheba, a married woman, and got her pregnant. When he couldn’t hide his sin, he successfully implemented a plan to kill Bathsheba’s husband. Then, merely because David repented, God took away his sin.
Following this line of thinking, the documentary highlights the case of Family member and former Nevada Senator John Ensign who had an affair with the wife of his aide, Doug Hampton, and tried to cover it up. In so doing, he was accused of several felonies, for which the Senate Ethics Committee concluded in May 2011 there was “substantial and credible evidence.”
Ensign was never held accountable for his transgressions, yet the aide, a less powerful person, who was also implicated in some of these felonies, was punished. The aide was a Family member himself, but he blew the whistle on Ensign, thereby breaking the Family’s loyalty oath. (Hampton is no longer a Family member.) While Hampton was prosecuted, the Department of Justice dropped the investigation of Ensign. Did the senator get special treatment because he is a Family member? That’s what the documentary suggests. How is it that he wasn’t held accountable despite his obvious immoral, unethical, and illegal actions?
When a group of people believe that only some individuals among them are charged with carrying out God’s will, the “chosen” become unaccountable. When a Family member is not charged for committing criminal behavior, this inaction on behalf of the group’s leaders breeds more bad behavior and creates a culture of corruption.
Time and time again, Family members did not admit to criminal behavior in the documentary, even if they were prosecuted. An expert on far-right Christians, whom I spoke with in 2019, said that the evangelical churches of the new millennium look like “a church without sin.” Indeed.
What is the Family’s History?
From the start, the Family’s goal has been power. In 1935, Abraham Vereide, a minister, hosted a prayer breakfast, inviting business leaders in Seattle to come together to solve a common crisis.
What was this crisis? The Great Depression had inspired workers to begin organizing to protest their miserable conditions due, in part, to corporate greed. The people didn’t want to wait for handouts from the powerful.
A year before, there had been a general strike up and down the West Coast. Troops and even warships were called in, and guerilla warfare had broken out.
Before the first prayer breakfast in 1935, Sharlet says [in the Netflix documentary],
[Vereide] concluded [that] labor unions are the agents of the enemy, that they are doing Satanic work. He gathers nineteen industrialists, nineteen business leaders. They are united in their belief that their wealth must be protected by force, and that the force will be most effective if it is backed up by God.
So, Vereide’s new purpose aimed to produce a Christian leadership. Vereide would later call it a “New World Order.” The group picked one among them to become governor, and this individual set out to crush labor. After the battle, Sharlet relays that, according to Vereide, God spoke, saying that Christianity had been focused on the poor and other lesser people for too long and “What we need to do is fortify men who will take the strong hand and restore law and order.” This is the very same “wolves” and “sheep” scenario that Thomas Jefferson warned in his 1787 letter that could destroy our democracy.
The Move to Washington & the Hitler Connection
A terror-State is the goal of the Family. They are a secretive organization with a frightening history of advancing their wolves and seeking wolf-kings, like Donald Trump and other despots. Tyrants, like Hitler, fascinated Vereide, who was interested in using Hitler’s playbook to create fundamentalist Christian theocracies in the U.S. and the world.
After WWII, Vereide moved to Washington, D. C., to influence the U.S. government in the hopes of merging religion with it. The State Department commissioned him to talk to high-level Nazi war criminals, seeking out men who would “switch out the Führer for the Father,” as Sharlet cites in the Netflix documentary. Their “Father” is a fascist totalitarian version of Jesus, and the documentary presents a document that calls this effort “A Worldwide Spiritual Offensive.”
Working with the government, Vereide got Nazi war criminals’ records expunged, and Nazis became ambassadors for Christianity. Highlighting one very senior Nazi war criminal named, Konstantin von Neurath, Sharlet says, “We go back in his record, and he says, ‘God has ordered us to hunt down the Jews.’” Neurath became a spiritual adviser to U.S. congressmen. This destruction of the doctrine on the separation of Church and State is also potentially part of a future holocaust planted on our soil in which the government is complicit.
The American people and the world have, for decades, been set up for totalitarian rulers like Hitler and Trump, both wolf-kings exploiting Christian nationalism to take over a nation.
Creating a Businessman’s Christianity
Continuing the weaponization of Christianity, Vereide and Norman Vincent Peele set out to create a businessman’s version. They basically merged Libertarianism, fundamentalist Christianity, and the “Prosperity Gospel.” Underscoring their belief that people in powerful positions are God’s “chosen,” Vereide, Peele, and others sought to cultivate their wolves (i.e., Christian business leaders) to help them bring the sheep in line.
National Prayer Breakfasts Created a Global Network
One of the steps Vereide took to support the wolves was to get the government to host the National Prayer Breakfasts. In 1953, President Eisenhower finally gave in to Vereide’s repeated requests during the height of the Cold War.
Today, the National Prayer Breakfasts involve up to a week-long series of gatherings intended to connect U.S. officials with right-wing lobbyists and foreign officials, especially dictators. Both Republican and Democratic members of the Family attend these events. On the surface, what could possibly be wrong with leaders sharing Christian values? In truth, this is a form of Christian fundamentalism operating behind the people in power in America. It’s been a principal operative and exporter of fascism and promoter of Christian nationalism around the globe.
Doug Coe and His Admiration of Brutality and Loyalty Oaths
After Vereide died in 1969, Doug Coe became the leader of the Family. In 2005, Time published “The 25 Most Influential Evangelicals in America,” and Doug Coe was among them. He’s called “The Stealth Persuader.”
Coe admired the strengths of totalitarians like Hitler, Mao Zedong, and Stalin. A video clip of Coe in the documentary shows him extolling the virtues of the loyalty oaths that Mao required of his followers. He recounts a story that, once, a young Chinese man’s parents were brought in, and the mother was placed on a butcher table with a basket at one end. Coe nonchalantly said the son cut off his own mother’s head to demonstrate his loyalty. Clearly, Coe values this type of loyalty.
How have the Family and other oligarchs been persuading Americans to fall in line with this type of thinking?
Creating Wedge Issues
I was elected to the U.S. Congress in my 20s , and as soon as I got to Washington, Newt Gingrich and I, we plotted and planned to take over the House. We’d talk of mobilizing Christians and creating what we call “wedge issues.” Abortion, tax reform, foreign policy, gun control. And we wanted to wedge and divide people, put those that are pro-Republican and conservative on our side, and get enough of them with enough wedges and turn them out to vote. However, we were so eager to take power, it’s like spirituality became a side anecdote to the process.
This is how the Family has been dividing and conquering America and the world for decades.
The Connection Between Fellowship & Radicalization
The expert on far-right Christians with whom I spoke in 2019 said that attendance and fellowship have become more important than reading the Bible in evangelical churches. This makes complete sense because reading the Bible can inspire people to question their religious leaders. Also, attendance (through collections and tithes) provides money to Christian churches and encourages acceptance of the church’s message.
The article “The Psychology of How Someone Becomes Radicalized” explains who is likely to become an extremist. Arie Kruglanski, a research psychologist at the University of Maryland, discusses a set of characteristics:
- People want their lives to mean something — to have significance (even if it means through group identity, like a gang or a cult)
- There is “the narrative,” giving people permission to use violence
- There is a community or a network of people who validate the first two items
Fellowship for extremists not only provides a social group with meaning and group identity, it also gives its participants permission to use extreme means, even violence, to further its cause. Regular attendance embeds the radical message in people’s minds, fortifying this altered reality and perverting Jesus’s message about universal love and compassion for all.
As long as its followers are loyal, the Family provides “unconditional” acceptance. Of course, in truth, it is conditioned, but the hope that others in the group will accept them and stand by them, like the Family stood by Senator Ensign, is very enticing for many. This is a cult, and a cult’s tactic is to condition its followers.
In the next article, we will examine the second principal Christian nationalist group who has greatly influenced the movement.
If you are wondering how we can possibly turn the tide and save democracy in the face of all this turmoil, it’s possible. As a start, we need a massive movement that takes to the streets and causes economic pain to the oligarchs of all types, besides bombarding Biden and Congress with our demands. However, defeating Christian nationalism and other fascists will require a multi-pronged strategy. We will examine more about that after we finish looking at all the oligarchic cabals.
First, however, I want to share a quote from Sun Tzu (544 BC – 496 BC), the great Chinese general, military strategist, writer, and philosopher, who wrote the book The Art of War, which is used in military academies, corporations, etc. In the book, he wrote,
If you know the enemy and know yourself, you need not fear the result of a hundred battles. If you know yourself but not the enemy, for every victory gained you will also suffer a defeat. If you know neither the enemy nor yourself, you will succumb in every battle.
As Americans, we must understand both ourselves and our “enemy” to save democracy, and that also requires understanding how we got here.
This is a Creative Commons article. The original version of this article appeared here.