In the book The Family: The Secret Fundamentalism at the Heart of American Power, author Jeff Sharlet examines the power wielded by a secretive Christian group known as the Family, or the Fellowship. Founded in 1935 in opposition to FDR's New Deal, the evangelical group's views on religion and politics are so singular that some other Christian-right organizations consider them heretical The group also has a connection to a house in Washington, D.C., known as C Street. Owned by a foundation affiliated with the Family, C Street is officially registered as a church; in practice, it serves as a meeting place and residence for politicians like South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford, Nevada Sen. John Ensign and Oklahoma Sen. Tom Coburn. The Family, Sharlet writes, is responsible for founding the annual National Prayer Breakfast, a supposedly ecumenical — but implicitly Christian — event attended by the president, members of Congress and dignitaries from around the world. These foreign delegations are often led by top defense personnel, who use it as an opportunity to lobby the most influential people in Washington — and who repay the Family with access to their governments. The group's approach to religion, Sharlet says, is based on "a sort of trickle-down fundamentalism," which holds that the wealthy and powerful, if they "can get their hearts right with God ... will dispense blessings to those underneath them." Members of the group ardently support free markets, in which, they believe, God's will operates directly through Adam Smith's "invisible hand." The Family was founded in 1935 by a minister named Abraham Vereide after, he claimed, he had a vision in which God came to him in the person of the head of the United States Steel Corporation.
So who is Doug Coe? He shuns almost all interview requests. But in hours of audiotape and videotape recordings obtained exclusively by NBC News, he frequently preaches the gospel of Jesus to followers and supporters. In one videotaped sermon from 1989, Coe provides this account of the atrocities committed under Chairman Mao in Communist China: "I've seen pictures of the young men in the Red Guardthey would bring in this young mans motherhe would take an axe and cut her head off. They have to put the purposes of the Red Guard ahead of father, mother, brother sister and their own life. That was a covenant, a pledge. That's what Jesus said."
In his preaching, Coe repeatedly urges a personal commitment to Jesus Christ. Its a commitment Coe compares to the blind devotion that Adolph Hitler demanded from his followers -- a rhetorical technique that now is drawing sharp criticism.
"Hitler, Goebbels and Himmler were three men. Think of the immense power these three men had, these nobodies from nowhere, Coe said.
Later in the sermon, Coe said: "Jesus said, You have to put me before other people. And you have to put me before yourself.' Hitler, that was the demand to be in the Nazi party. You have to put the Nazi party and its objectives ahead of your own life and ahead of other people."
Coe also quoted Jesus and said: One of the things [Jesus] said is 'If any man comes to me and does not hate his father, mother, brother, sister, his own life, he can't be a disciple. So I don't care what other qualifications you have, if you don't do that you can't be a disciple of Christ."
The sermons are little surprise to writer Jeff Sharlet. He lived among Coe's followers six years ago, and came out troubled by their secrecy and rhetoric.
We were being taught the leadership lessons of Hitler, Lenin and Mao. And I would say, Isnt there a problem with that? And they seemed perplexed by the question. Hitlers genocide wasnt really an issue for them. It was the strength that he emulated, said Sharlet, who is a Contributing Editor at Rolling Stone and is an Associate Research Scholar at the NYU Center for Religion and Media in New York.
Sharlet has now written about The Fellowship, also known to insiders as The Family, in a soon-to-be published book called The Family: The Secret Fundamentalism at the Heart of American Power.
Theyre notoriously secretive, Sharlet said. In fact, they jokingly call themselves the Christian Mafia. Which becomes less of a joke when you realize that they really are dedicated to being what they call an invisible organization.
Federal tax records for Coe's non-profit group shows it funds charitable programs around the world -- but that it is also a family business.
The 990 tax forms for 2005, the last tax year available, show that both of Coes sons were on the payroll, at $110,000 a year each. The organization also paid his wife, his daughter and his daughters-in-law.