Evangelical control is about a secretive U.S. organization that has courted political leaders, and built an international influence-peddling network, while undermining the concept of a division of church and state. It is at the center of a new five-episode documentary series called “The Family.” The series, which is distributed by Netflix, investigates this group that is quietly building its influence on U.S. and global politics “in the name of Jesus.”
Since 1953, the National Prayer Breakfast has been a fixture in American politics. It boasts the attendance of every president since Dwight D. Eisenhower and it happens on the first Thursday of every February. The breakfast is hyped as an opportunity for the political elite of Washington, D.C., and invited international dignitaries, to put aside partisan differences and reflect on a higher purpose.
While the annual event is purportedly hosted by members of Congress, it is actually organized and run by an evangelical Christian organization called The Fellowship Foundation, or “The Family”. The evangelical control group this blog addresses.
“The Fellowship isn’t about faith, and it recruits very selectively. It’s about power,” said Jeff Sharlet, whose books, “The Family: The Secret Fundamentalism at the Heart of American Power,” and “C Street: The Fundamentalist Threat to American Democracy,” inspired the Netflix series.
“Internally, it is spoken of primarily as a ‘recruiting device’ with which to draw ‘key men’ into smaller prayer cells to ‘meet Jesus man to man’,” according to Sharlet. “Practically, the Prayer Breakfast has functioned from the very beginning as an unregistered lobbying festival.”
Abraham Vereide started the Fellowship in Seattle in 1935, when he hosted 19 business leaders with the aim of crushing local organized labor. The Prayer Breakfast, as a discreet Christian recruiting platform, was perfected under long-time leader Doug Coe, who was considered one of the most powerful influencers in the Washington Beltway before his death in 2017.
The Prayer Breakfast isn’t the only way the Fellowship has infiltrated the highest levels of the U.S. government. The Foundation also provided low-cost housing for prominent legislators, before news stories spurred by Sharlet’s book drew attention to its violation of congressional gift regulations.
“There is simply a great deal of hypocrisy, partiality, favoritism in D.C., (which are) all things Jesus’ life and teachings directly oppose,” claimed Douglas Hampton, a former associate of the Fellowship. “It’s become about power and position, not (public service) and what’s best for others,” he said. “One of Doug Coe’s beliefs was that if you lifted up the name of Jesus, that God would draw people in, all sorts of people from all over the world — thus the National Prayer Breakfast — that people would have a desire to learn and embrace the teachings of Jesus and come to Washington to support the breakfast.”
“Unlike most traditional evangelical Christian groups, which prioritize mobilizing as large a base as possible, the “Family” strategically keeps its membership purposely exclusive. Doug Coe very intentionally took the group underground. There was a recognition that they could do their best work anonymously.”
Citing 2006 documents, Sharlet estimates the number of dedicated organizers who handle recruitment at just 350. Those organizers, however, have built a network of prayer cells that the late Christian Right leader Chuck Colson pegged at 20,000-strong, calling it, “a veritable underground of Christ’s men all through government.”
Sometimes that has meant aligning with politicians who stray from Jesus’ example. In 2009, former South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford gave a press conference outside of C Street emphasizing his religious pedigree upon resurfacing after disappearing from his state for days to visit a mistress in Argentina.
So, while President Donald Trump may not have the most pious of track records, Sharlet says the Family has embraced the unique opportunity provided by the most fundamentalist Cabinet in recent American history to advocate evangelical policy.
The reach of the Fellowship has extended well beyond the confines of Washington. Politicians and businessmen affiliated with the group have met to pray and parlay with the likes of the late Libyan strongman Moammar Gadhafi, Indonesian despot Suharto and Haitian dictator Papa Doc Duvalier, Sharlet said.
I believe this Netflix series should be widely promoted, even though, I’m sure, the Foundation will use every power at its disposal to suppress it. It shows, only too well, how evangelical control / influence has penetrated the top levels of U.S. Government, and its policies.
I have written before about the fact that the U.S. Constitution does not specifically require the separation of Church and State. The Foundation is a frightening example of what that omission can produce.
My mailman in Colorado told me, the other day, that a neighbour, who has a bumper sticker which says, paraphrasing John Lennon, “Imagine no Religion”, would probably end up before a firing squad in a few years if Donald Trump wins the next election, dies, and Mike Pense, a fanatical evangelical, moves up from Vice President to President.
An over-reaction on Jeff’s part, definitely. Out of the realms of possibility, absolutely not. Evangelical control of Washington politics is frightening and real.