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Jesus Plus Nothing: The Political Right at Bible Study
Originally from Harpers Magazine, March 2003, by Jeffrey Sharlet, discusses 'the family' in Washington D.C.
Originally from Harper's Magazine, March 2003. By Jeffrey Sharlet. And a man's foes shall be they of his own household. —Matthew 10:36
This is how they pray: a dozen clear-eyed, smooth-skinned “brothers” gathered together in a huddle, arms crossing arms over shoulders like the weave of a cable, leaning in on one another and swaying like the long grass up the hill from the house they share. The house is a handsome, gray, two-story colonial that smells of new carpet and Pine-Sol and aftershave; the men who live there call it Ivanwald. At the end of a tree-lined cul-de-sac, quiet but for the buzz of lawn mowers and kids playing foxes-and-hounds in the park across the road, Ivanwald sits as one house among many, clustered together like mushrooms, all devoted, like these men, to the service of Jesus Christ. The men tend every tulip in the cul-de-sac, trim every magnolia, seal every driveway smooth and black as boot leather. And they pray, assembled at the dining table or on their lawn or in the hallway or in the bunk room or on the basketball court, each man's head bowed in humility and swollen with pride (secretly, he thinks) at being counted among such a fine corps for Christ, among men to whom he will open his heart and whom he will remember when he returns to the world not born-again but remade, no longer an individual but part of the Lord's revolution, his will transformed into a weapon for what the young men call “spiritual war.”
“Jeff, will you lead us in prayer?”
Surely, brother. It is April 2002, and I have lived with these men for weeks now, not as a Christian—a term they deride as too narrow for the world they are building in Christ's honor—but as a “believer.” I have shared the brothers' meals and their work and their games. I have been numbered among them and have been given a part in their ministry. I have wrestled with them and showered with them and listened to their stories: I know which man resents his father's fortune and which man succumbed to the flesh of a woman not once but twice and which man dances so well he is afraid of being taken for a fag. I know what it means to be a “brother,” which is to say that I know what it means to be a soldier in the army of God.
“Heavenly Father,” I begin. Then, “O Lord,” but I worry that this doesn't sound intimate enough. I settle on, “Dear Jesus.” “Dear Jesus, just, please, Jesus, let us fight for Your name.”
* * *
Ivanwald, which sits at the end of Twenty-fourth Street North in Arlington, Virginia, is known only to its residents and to the members and friends of the organization that sponsors it, a group of believers who refer to themselves as “the Family.” The Family is, in its own words, an “invisible” association, though its membership has always consisted mostly of public men. Senators Don Nickles (R., Okla.), Charles Grassley (R., Iowa), Pete Domenici (R., N.Mex.), John Ensign (R., Nev.), James Inhofe (R., Okla.), Bill Nelson (D., Fla.), and Conrad Burns (R., Mont.) are referred to as “members,” as are Representatives Jim DeMint (R., S.C.), Frank Wolf (R., Va.), Joseph Pitts (R., Pa.), Zach Wamp (R., Tenn.), and Bart Stupak (D., Mich.). Regular prayer groups have met in the Pentagon and at the Department of Defense, and the Family has traditionally fostered strong ties with businessmen in the oil and aerospace industries. The Family maintains a closely guarded database of its associates, but it issues no cards, collects no official dues. Members are asked not to speak about the group or its activities.
The organization has operated under many guises, some active, some defunct: National Committee for Christian Leadership, International Christian Leadership, the National Leadership Council, Fellowship House, the Fellowship Foundation, the National Fellowship Council, the International Foundation. These groups are intended to draw attention away from the Family, and to prevent it from becoming, in the words of one of the Family's leaders, “a target for misunderstanding.”  The Family's only publicized gathering is the National Prayer Breakfast, which it established in 1953 and which, with congressional sponsorship, it continues to organize every February in Washington, D.C. Each year 3,000 dignitaries, representing scores of nations, pay $425 each to attend. Steadfastly ecumenical, too bland most years to merit much press, the breakfast is regarded by the Family as merely a tool in a larger purpose: to recruit the powerful attendees into smaller, more frequent prayer meetings, where they can “meet Jesus man to man.”
In the process of introducing powerful men to Jesus, the Family has managed to effect a number of behind-the-scenes acts of diplomacy. In 1978 it secretly helped the Carter Administration organize a worldwide call to prayer with Menachem Begin and Anwar Sadat, and more recently, in 2001, it brought together the warring leaders of Congo and Rwanda for a clandestine meeting, leading to the two sides' eventual peace accord last July. Such benign acts appear to be the exception to the rule. During the 1960s the Family forged relationships between the U.S. government and some of the most anti-Communist (and dictatorial) elements within Africa's postcolonial leadership. The Brazilian dictator General Costa e Silva, with Family support, was overseeing regular fellowship groups for Latin American leaders, while, in Indonesia, General Suharto (whose tally of several hundred thousand “Communists” killed marks him as one of the century's most murderous dictators) was presiding over a group of fifty Indonesian legislators. During the Reagan Administration the Family helped build friendships between the U.S. government and men such as Salvadoran general Carlos Eugenios Vides Casanova, convicted by a Florida jury of the torture of thousands, and Honduran general Gustavo Alvarez Martinez, himself an evangelical minister, who was linked to both the CIA and death squads before his own demise. “We work with power where we can,” the Family's leader, Doug Coe, says, “build new power where we can't.”
At the 1990 National Prayer Breakfast, George H.W. Bush praised Doug Coe for what he described as “quiet diplomacy, I wouldn't say secret diplomacy,” as an “ambassador of faith.” Coe has visited nearly every world capital, often with congressmen at his side, “making friends” and inviting them back to the Family's unofficial headquarters, a mansion (just down the road from Ivanwald) that the Family bought in 1978 with $1.5 million donated by, among others, Tom Phillips, then the C.E.O. of arms manufacturer Raytheon, and Ken Olsen, the founder and president of Digital Equipment Corporation. A waterfall has been carved into the mansion's broad lawn, from which a bronze bald eagle watches over the Potomac River. The mansion is white and pillared and surrounded by magnolias, and by red trees that do not so much tower above it as whisper. The mansion is named for these trees; it is called The Cedars, and Family members speak of it as a person. “The Cedars has a heart for the poor,” they like to say. By “poor” they mean not the thousands of literal poor living barely a mile away but rather the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom: the senators, generals, and prime ministers who coast to the end of Twenty-fourth Street in Arlington in black limousines and town cars and hulking S.U.V.'s to meet one another, to meet Jesus, to pay homage to the god of The Cedars.
There they forge “relationships” beyond the din of vox populi (the Family's leaders consider democracy a manifestation of ungodly pride) and “throw away religion” in favor of the truths of the Family. Declaring God's covenant with the Jews broken, the group's core members call themselves “the new chosen.”
The brothers of Ivanwald are the Family's next generation, its high priests in training. I had been recommended for membership by a banker acquaintance, a recent Ivanwald alumnus, who had mistaken my interest in Jesus for belief. Sometimes the brothers would ask me why I was there. They knew that I was “half Jewish,” that I was a writer, and that I was from New York City, which most of them considered to be only slightly less wicked than Baghdad or Amsterdam. I told my brothers that I was there to meet Jesus, and I was: the new ruling Jesus, whose ways are secret.
* * *
At Ivanwald, men learn to be leaders by loving their leaders. “They're so busy loving us,” a brother once explained to me, “but who's loving them?” We were. The brothers each paid $400 per month for room and board, but we were also the caretakers of The Cedars, cleaning its gutters, mowing its lawns, whacking weeds and blowing leaves and sanding. And we were called to serve on Tuesday mornings, when The Cedars hosted a regular prayer breakfast typically presided over by Ed Meese, the former attorney general. Each week the breakfast brought together a rotating group of ambassadors, businessmen, and American politicians. Three of Ivanwald's brothers also attended, wearing crisp shirts starched just for the occasion; one would sit at the table while the other two poured coffee.
The morning I attended, Charlene, the cook, scrambled up eggs with blue tortillas, Italian sausage, red pepper, and papaya. Three women from Potomac Point, an “Ivanwald for girls” across the road from The Cedars, came to help serve. They wore red lipstick and long skirts (makeup and “feminine” attire were required) and had, after several months of cleaning and serving in The Cedars while the brothers worked outside, become quite unimpressed by the high-powered clientele. “Girls don't sit in on the breakfasts,” one of them told me, though she said that none of them minded because it was “just politics.”
The breakfast began with a prayer and a sprinkle of scripture from Meese, who sat at the head of the table. Matthew 11:27: “No one knows the Son except the Father, and no one knows the Father except the Son and those to whom the Son chooses to reveal him.” That morning's chosen introduced themselves. They were businessmen from Dallas and Oregon, a Chinese Christian dissident, a man who ran an aid group for Tibetan refugees (the Dalai Lama had been very positive on Jesus at their last meeting, he reported). Two ambassadors, from Benin and Rwanda, sat side by side. Rwanda's representative, Dr. Richard Sezibera, was an intense man who refused to eat his eggs or even any melon. He drank cup after cup of coffee, and his eyes were bloodshot. A man I didn't recognize, whom Charlene identified as a former senator, suggested that negotiators from Rwanda and Congo, trapped in a war that has slain more than 2 million, should stop worrying about who will get the diamonds and the oil and instead focus on who will get Jesus. “Power sharing is not going to work unless we change their hearts,” he said.
Sezibera stared, incredulous. Meese chuckled and opened his mouth to speak, but Sezibera interrupted him. “It is not so simple,” the Rwandan said, his voice flat and low. Meese smiled. Everyone in the Family loves rebukes, and here was Rwanda rebuking them. The former senator nodded. Meese murmured, “Yes,” stroking his maroon leather Bible, and the words “Thank you, Jesus” rippled in whispers around the table as I poured Sezibera another cup of coffee.
The brothers also served at the Family's four-story, redbrick Washington town house, a former convent at 133 C Street S.E. complete with stained-glass windows. Eight congressmen—including Senator Ensign and seven representatives—lived there, brothers in Christ just like us, only more powerful. We scrubbed their toilets, hoovered their carpets, polished their silver. The day I worked at C Street I ran into Doug Coe, who was tutoring Todd Tiahrt, a Republican congressman from Kansas. A friendly, plainspoken man with a bright, lazy smile, Coe has worked for the Family since 1959, soon after he graduated from college, and has led it since 1969.
Tiahrt was a short shot glass of a man, two parts flawless hair and one part teeth. He wanted to know the best way “for the Christian to win the race with the Muslim.” The Muslim, he said, has too many babies, while Americans kill too many of theirs.
Doug agreed this could be a problem. But he was more concerned that the focus on labels like “Christian” might get in the way of the congressman's prayers. Religion distracts people from Jesus, Doug said, and allows them to isolate Christ's will from their work in the world.
“People separate it out,” he warned Tiahrt. “'Oh, okay, I got religion, that's private.' As if Jesus doesn't know anything about building highways, or Social Security. We gotta take Jesus out of the religious wrapping.”
“All right, how do we do that?” Tiahrt asked.
“A covenant,” Doug answered. The congressman half-smiled, as if caught between confessing his ignorance and pretending he knew what Doug was talking about. “Like the Mafia,” Doug clarified. “Look at the strength of their bonds.” He made a fist and held it before Tiahrt's face. Tiahrt nodded, squinting. “See, for them it's honor,” Doug said. “For us, it's Jesus.”
Coe listed other men who had changed the world through the strength of the covenants they had forged with their “brothers”: “Look at Hitler,” he said. “Lenin, Ho Chi Minh, Bin Laden.” The Family, of course, possessed a weapon those leaders lacked: the “total Jesus” of a brotherhood in Christ.
“That's what you get with a covenant,” said Coe. “Jesus plus nothing.”
* * *
To the Family, Jesus is not just a name; he is also a real man. “An awesome guy,” a Family employee named Terry told the brothers over breakfast one morning. “He excelled in every activity. He was a great teacher, sure, but he was also a real guy's guy. He would have made an excellent athlete.”
On my first day at Ivanwald, on an uneven court behind the house, I learned to play a two-ball variant of basketball called “bump” that was designed to sharpen both body and soul. In bump, players compete at free throws, each vying to sink his own before the man behind him sinks his. If he hits first then you're out, with one exception: the basket's net narrows at the chute so that the ball sometimes sticks, at which point another player can hurl his ball up from beneath, knocking the first ball out. In this event everyone cries “Bu-u-ump,” with great joy.
Bengt began it. He was one of the house's leaders, a twenty-four-year-old North Carolinian with sad eyes and spiky eyebrows and a loud, disarming laugh that made him sound like a donkey. From inside the house, waiting for a phone call, he opened a second-floor window and called to Gannon for a ball. Gannon, the son of a Texas oilman, worked as a Senate aide; he had blond hair and a chin like a plow, and he sang in a choir. He tossed one up, which Bengt caught and dispatched toward the basket. “Nice,” Gannon drawled as the ball sank through.
As soon as the ball bounced off the rim, Beau was at the free-throw line, taking his shot. Beau was a good-natured Atlantan with the build of a wrestler; as a bumper he was second only to Bengt.
“It's okay if you bump into the other guys, too,” Gannon told me as my turn approached. “The idea's kinda to get that tension building.” Ahead of me Beau bent his knees to take another shot. The moment the ball rolled off his fingers, Wayne, also from Georgia, jumped up and hurled his own ball over Beau's head. As he returned to earth, his elbow descended on Beau's shoulder like a hammer. “Bump that,” he said.
Bump was designed to bring out your hostilities. The Family believes that you can't grow in Jesus unless you “face your anger,” and then abandon it. When bump worked right, each man was supposed to lose himself, forgetting even the precepts of the game. Sometimes you wanted to get the ball in, sometimes you wanted to knock it out. In, out, it didn't matter. Your ball, his, who cared? Bump wasn't horseplay, it was a physicalized theology. It was to basketball what the New Testament is to the Old: stripped down to one simple story that always ends the same. Bump, Jesus. Bump, Jesus.
I stepped to the line and, after missing, moved in for a layup. Wayne jumped to the line and shot. “Dude!” he shouted. I looked up. His ball, meant to hit mine, slammed into my forehead. Bu-u-ump! the boys hollered. They had bumped me with Christ.
Bengt bumped. Beau bumped. Gannon bumped. I was out of contention. Gannon joined me, then Beau. The game was down to Bengt and Wayne. When Wayne threw from behind Bengt, he hurled the ball with such force that it sent Bengt chasing his ball into the neighboring yard. “Tenacious Wayne!” Gannon roared. Wayne scooped up his own ball, leapt, and slam-dunked Bengt out. “That's yo motha!” he hollered.
Trotting back to the court, Bengt shook his head. “You the man, Wayne,” he said. “Just keep it calm.” Wayne was ready to burst.
“Huddle up guys,” said Bengt. We formed a circle, arms wrapped around shoulders. “Okay,” he said. “We're gonna pray now. Lord, I just want to thank you for bringing us out here today to have fellowship in bump and for blessing this fine day with a visit from our new friend Jeff. Lord, we thank you for bringing this brother to us from up north, because we know he can learn to bump, and just—love you, and serve you and Lord, let us all just—Lord, be together in your name. Amen.”
* * *
The regimen was so precise it was relaxing: no swearing, no drinking, no sex, no self. Watch out for magazines and don't waste time on newspapers and never watch TV. Eat meat, study the Gospels, play basketball: God loves a man who can sink a three-pointer. Pray to be broken. O Heavenly Father. Dear Jesus. Help me be humble. Let me do Your will. Every morning began with a prayer, some days with outsiders—Wednesdays led by a former Ivanwald brother, now a businessman; Thursdays led by another executive who used tales of high finance to illuminate our lessons from scripture, which he supplemented with xeroxed midrash from Fortune or Fast Company; Fridays with the women of Potomac Point. But most days it was just us boys, bleary-eyed, gulping coffee and sugared cereal as Bengt and Jeff Connolly, Bengt's childhood friend and our other house leader, laid out lines of Holy Word across the table like strategy.
The dining room had once been a deck, but the boys had walled it in and roofed it over and unrolled a red Persian carpet, transforming the room into a sort of monastic meeting place, with two long tables end to end, ringed by a dozen chairs and two benches. The first day I visited Ivanwald, Bengt cleared a space for me at the head of the table and sat to my right. Beside him, Wayne slumped in his chair, his eyes hidden by a cowboy hat. Across from him sat Beau, still wearing the boxers and T-shirt he'd slept in. Bengt alone looked sharp, his hair combed, golf shirt tucked tightly into pleated chinos.
Bengt told Gannon to read our text for that morning, Psalm 139: “'O Lord, you have searched me and you know me.'” The very first line made Bengt smile; this was, in his view, an awesome thing for God to have done. Bengt's manners and naive charm preceded him in every encounter. When you told him a story he would respond, “Goll-y!” just to be nice. When genuinely surprised he would exclaim, “Good ni-ight!” Sometimes it was hard to remember that he was a self-professed revolutionary.
He asked Gannon to keep reading, and then leaned back and listened.
“'Where can I go from your Spirit? Where can I flee from your presence? If I go up to the heavens, you are there; if I make my bed in the depths, you are there.'”
Bengt raised a hand. “That's great, dude. Let's talk about that.” The room fell silent as Bengt stared into his Bible, running his finger up and down the gilded edge of the page. “Guys,” he said. “What—how does that make you feel?”
“Known,” said Gannon, almost in a whisper.
Bengt nodded. He was looking for something else, but he didn't know where it was. “What does it make you think of?”
“Jesus?” said Beau.
Bengt stroked his chin. “Yeah . . . Let me read you a little more.” He read in a monotone, accelerating as he went, as if he could persuade us through a sheer heap of words. “'For you created my inmost being; you knit me together in my mother's womb,'” he concluded. His lips curled into a half smile. “Man! I mean, that's intense, right? 'In my mother's womb'—God's right in there with you.” He grinned. “It's like,” he said, “it's like, you can't run. Doesn't matter where you turn, 'cause Jesus is gonna be there, just waiting for you.”
Beau's eyes cleared and Gannon nodded. “Yeah, brother,” Bengt said, an eyebrow arched. “Jesus is smart. He's gonna get you.”
Gannon shook his head. “Oh, he's already got me.”
“Me, too,” Beau chimed, and then each man clasped his hands into one fist and pressed it against his forehead or his chin and prayed, eyes closed and Jesus all over his skin.
* * *
We prayed to be “nothing.” We were there to “soften our hearts to authority.” We instituted a rule that every man must wipe the toilet bowl after he pisses, not for cleanliness but to crush his “inner rebel.” Jeff C. did so by abstaining from “shady” R-rated movies, lest they provoke dreams of women. He was built like a leprechaun, with curly, dark blond hair and freckles and a brilliant smile. The Potomac Point girls brought him cookies; the wives of the Family's older men asked him to visit. One night, when the guys went on a swing-dancing date with the Potomac Pointers, more worldly women flocked to Jeff C., begging to be dipped and twirled. The feeling was not mutual. “I just don't like girls as much as guys,” he told me one day while we painted a new coat of “Gettysburg Gray” onto Ivanwald. He was speaking not of sex or of romance but of brotherhood. “I like”—he paused, his brush suspended midstroke—“competence.”
He ran nearly every day, often alone, down by the Potomac. On the basketball court anger sometimes overcame him: “Shoot the ball!” he would snap at Rogelio, a shy eighteen-year-old from Paraguay, one of several international brothers. But later Jeff C. would turn his lapse into a lesson, citing scripture, a verse we were to memorize or else be banished, by Jeff C. himself, to a night in the basement. Ephesians, chapter 4, verses 26–27: “'In your anger do not sin': Do not let the sun go down while you are still angry, and do not give the devil a foothold.”
Jeff C.'s pride surfaced in unexpected ways. Once, together in the kitchen after lunch, I mentioned that I'd seen the soul singer Al Green live. Jeff C. didn't answer. Instead he disappeared, reemerged with a Green CD, and set it in the boom box. He pressed play, and cracked his knuckles and his neck bones. His hands balled into fists, his eyes widened, and his torso became a jumping bean as his chest popped out on the downbeat. He heard me laughing, applauding, but he didn't stop. He started singing along with the Reverend. He grabbed his crotch and wrenched his shirt up and ran his hand over his stomach. Then he froze and dropped back to his ordinary voice as if narrating.
“I used to work in this pizza parlor,” he said. “It was, like, a buncha . . . I dunno, junkies. Heroin.” He grinned. “But man, they loved Al Green. We had a poster of him. He was, he was . . . man! Shirtless, leather pants. Low leather pants.” Jeff C. tugged his waistband down. “Hips cocked.” He shook his head and howled. Moonwalking away, he snapped his knees together, his feet spread wide, his hands in the air, testifying.
Jeff C. figured I had a thing against Southerners. Once, he asked if I thought the South was “racist.” I got it, I tried to tell him, I knew the North was just as bad, but he wouldn't listen. He told me I could call him a redneck or a hillbilly (I never called him either), but the truth was that he was “blacker” than me. He told me of his deep love for black gospel churches. Loving black people, he told me, made him a better follower of Christ. “Remember that story Cal Thomas told?” he asked. Thomas, a syndicated columnist, had recently stopped by Ivanwald for a mixer with young congressional staffers. He had regaled his audience with stories about tweaking his liberal colleagues, in particular about when he had addressed a conference of nonbelievers by asking if anyone knew where to buy a good “negro.” Jeff C. thought it was hilarious but also profound. What Thomas had meant, he told me, was that absent the teachings of Jesus there was no reason for the strong not to enslave the weak.
* * *
Two weeks into my stay, David Coe, Doug's son and the presumptive heir to leadership of the Family, dropped by the house. My brothers and I assembled in the living room, where David had draped his tall frame over a burgundy leather recliner like a frat boy, one leg hanging over a padded arm.
“You guys,” David said, “are here to learn how to rule the world.” He was in his late forties, with dark, gray-flecked hair, an olive complexion, and teeth like a slab of white marble. We sat around him in a rough circle, on couches and chairs, as the afternoon light slanted through the wooden blinds onto walls adorned with foxhunting lithographs and a giant tapestry of the Last Supper. Rafael, a wealthy Ecuadoran who'd been a college soccer star before coming to Ivanwald, had a hard time with English, and he didn't understand what David had said. So he stared, lips parted in puzzlement. David seemed to like that. He stared back, holding Raf's gaze like it was a pretty thing he'd found on the ground. “You have very intense eyes,” David said.
“Thank you,” Raf mumbled.
“Hey,” David said, “let's talk about the Old Testament. Who would you say are its good guys?”
“David,” Beau volunteered.
“King David,” David Coe said. “That's a good one. David. Hey. What would you say made King David a good guy?” He was giggling, not from nervousness but from barely containable delight.
“Faith?” Beau said. “His faith was so strong?”
“Yeah.” David nodded as if he hadn't heard that before. “Hey, you know what's interesting about King David?” From the blank stares of the others I could see that they did not. Many didn't even carry a Hebrew Bible, preferring a slim volume of just the New Testament Gospels and Epistles and, from the Old, Psalms. Others had the whole book, but the gold gilt on the pages of the first two thirds remained undisturbed. “King David,” David Coe went on, “liked to do really, really bad things.” He chuckled. “Here's this guy who slept with another man's wife—Bathsheba, right?—and then basically murders her husband. And this guy is one of our heroes.” David shook his head. “I mean, Jiminy Christmas, God likes this guy! What,” he said, “is that all about?”
The answer, we discovered, was that King David had been “chosen.” To illustrate this point David Coe turned to Beau. “Beau, let's say I hear you raped three little girls. And now here you are at Ivanwald. What would I think of you, Beau?”
Beau shrank into the cushions. “Probably that I'm pretty bad?”
“No, Beau. I wouldn't. Because I'm not here to judge you. That's not my job. I'm here for only one thing.”
“Jesus?” Beau said. David smiled and winked.
He walked to the National Geographic map of the world mounted on the wall. “You guys know about Genghis Khan?” he asked. “Genghis was a man with a vision. He conquered”—David stood on the couch under the map, tracing, with his hand, half the northern hemisphere—“nearly everything. He devastated nearly everything. His enemies? He beheaded them.” David swiped a finger across his throat. “Dop, dop, dop, dop.”
David explained that when Genghis entered a defeated city he would call in the local headman and have him stuffed into a crate. Over the crate would be spread a tablecloth, and on the tablecloth would be spread a wonderful meal. “And then, while the man suffocated, Genghis ate, and he didn't even hear the man's screams.” David still stood on the couch, a finger in the air. “Do you know what that means?” He was thinking of Christ's parable of the wineskins. “You can't pour new into old,” David said, returning to his chair. “We elect our leaders. Jesus elects his.”
He reached over and squeezed the arm of a brother. “Isn't that great?” David said. “That's the way everything in life happens. If you're a person known to be around Jesus, you can go and do anything. And that's who you guys are. When you leave here, you're not only going to know the value of Jesus, you're going to know the people who rule the world. It's about vision. 'Get your vision straight, then relate.' Talk to the people who rule the world, and help them obey. Obey Him. If I obey Him myself, I help others do the same. You know why? Because I become a warning. We become a warning. We warn everybody that the future king is coming. Not just of this country or that, but of the world.” Then he pointed at the map, toward the Khan's vast, reclaimable empire.
* * *
One night I asked Josh, a brother from Atlanta who was hoping to do mission work overseas, if I could look at some materials the Family had given him. “Man, I'd love to share them with you,” he said, and retrieved from his bureau drawer two folders full of documents. While my brothers slept, I sat at the end of our long, oak dining table and copied them into my notebook.
In a document entitled “Our Common Agreement as a Core Group,” members of the Family are instructed to form a “core group,” or a “cell,” which is defined as “a publicly invisible but privately identifiable group of companions.” A document called “Thoughts on a Core Group” explains that “Communists use cells as their basic structure. The mafia operates like this, and the basic unit of the Marine Corps is the four man squad. Hitler, Lenin, and many others understood the power of a small core of people.”
Another document, “Thoughts and Principles of the Family,” sets forth political guidelines, such as
21. We recognize the place and responsibility of national secular leaders in the work of advancing His kingdom.
23. To the world in general we will say that we are “in Christ” rather than “Christian”—“Christian” having become a political term in most of the world and in the United States a meaningless term.
24. We desire to see a leadership led by God—leaders of all levels of society who direct projects as they are led by the spirit.
and self-examination questions:
4. Do I give only verbal assent to the policies of the family or am I a partner in seeking the mind of the Lord?
7. Do I agree with and practice the financial precepts of the family?
13. Am I willing to work without human recognition?
When the group is ready, “Thoughts on a Core Group” explains, it can set to work:
After being together for a while, in this closer relationship, God will give you more insight into your own geographical area and your sphere of influence—make your opportunities a matter of prayer. . . . The primary purpose of a core group is not to become an “action group,” but an invisible “believing group.” However, activity normally grows out of agreements reached in faith and in prayer around the person of Jesus Christ.
Long-term goals were best summarized in a document called “Youth Corps Vision.” Another Family project, Youth Corps distributes pleasant brochures featuring endorsements from political leaders—among them Tsutomu Hata, a former prime minister of Japan, former secretary of state James Baker, and Yoweri Museveni, president of Uganda—and full of enthusiastic rhetoric about helping young people to learn the principles of leadership. The word “Jesus” is unmentioned in the brochure.
But “Youth Corps Vision,” which is intended only for members of the Family (“it's kinda secret,” Josh cautioned me), is more direct.
The Vision is to mobilize thousands of young people world wide—committed to principle precepts, and person of Jesus Christ. . . . A group of highly dedicated individuals who are united together having a total commitment to use their lives to daily seek to mature into people who talk like Jesus, act like Jesus, think like Jesus. This group will have the responsibility to: —see that the commitment and action is maintained to the overall vision; —see that the finest and best invisible organization is developed and maintained at all levels of the work; —even though the structure is hidden, see that the family atmosphere is maintained, so that all people can feel a part of the family.
Another document—“Regional Reports, January 3, 2002”—lists some of the nations where Youth Corps programs are already in operation: Russia, Ukraine, Romania, India, Pakistan, Uganda, Nepal, Bhutan, Ecuador, Honduras, Peru. Youth Corps is, in many respects, a more aggressive version of Young Life, a better-known network of Christian youth groups that entice teenagers with parties and sports, and only later work Jesus into the equation. Most of my American brothers at Ivanwald had been among Young Life's elite, and many had returned to Young Life during their college summers to work as counselors. Youth Corps, whose programs are often centered around Ivanwald-style houses, prepares the best of its recruits for positions of power in business and government abroad. The goal: “Two hundred national and international world leaders bound together relationally by a mutual love for God and the family.”
* * *
Between 1984 and 1992 the Fellowship Foundation consigned 592 boxes—decades of the Family's letters, sermons, minutes, Christmas cards, travel itineraries, and lists of members—to an archive at the Billy Graham Center of Wheaton College in Illinois. Until I visited last fall, the archive had gone largely unexamined.
The Family was founded in April 1935 by Abraham Vereide, a Norwegian immigrant who made his living as a traveling preacher. One night, while lying in bed fretting about socialists, Wobblies, and a Swedish Communist who, he was sure, planned to bring Seattle under the control of Moscow, Vereide received a visitation: a voice, and a light in the dark, bright and blinding. The next day he met a friend, a wealthy businessman and former major, and the two men agreed upon a spiritual plan. They enlisted nineteen business executives in a weekly breakfast meeting and together they prayed, convinced that Jesus alone could redeem Seattle and crush the radical unions. They wanted to give Jesus a vessel, and so they asked God to raise up a leader. One of their number, a city councilman named Arthur Langlie, stood and said, “I am ready to let God use me.” Langlie was made first mayor and later governor, backed in both campaigns by money and muscle from his prayer-breakfast friends, whose number had rapidly multiplied. Vereide and his new brothers spread out across the Northwest in chauffeured vehicles (a $20,000 Dusenburg carried brothers on one mission, he boasted). “Men,” wrote Vereide, “thus quickened.” Prayer breakfast groups were formed in dozens of cities, from San Francisco to Philadelphia. There were already enough men ministering to the down-and-out, Vereide had decided; his mission field would be men with the means to seize the world for God. Vereide called his potential flock of the rich and powerful, those in need only of the “real” Jesus, the “up-and-out.”
Vereide arrived in Washington, D.C., on September 6, 1941, as the guest of a man referred to only as “Colonel Brindley.” “Here I am finally,” he wrote to his wife, Mattie, who remained in Seattle. “In a day or two—many will know that I am in town and by God's grace it will hum.” Within weeks he had held his first D.C. prayer meeting, attended by more than a hundred congressmen. By 1943, now living in a suite at Colonel Brindley's University Club, Vereide was an insider. “My what a full and busy day!” he wrote to Mattie on January 22.
The Vice President brought me to the Capitol and counseled with me regarding the programs and plans, and then introduced me to Senator [Ralph Owen] Brewster, who in turn to Senator [Harold Hitz] Burton—then planned further the program [of a prayer breakfast] and enlisted their cooperation. Then to the Supreme Court for visits with some of them . . . then back to the Senate, House. . . . The hand of the Lord is upon me. He is leading.
By the end of the war, nearly a third of U.S. senators attended one of his weekly prayer meetings.
In 1944, Vereide had foreseen what he called “the new world order.” “Upon the termination of the war there will be many men available to carry on,” Vereide wrote in a letter to his wife. “Now the ground-work must be laid and our leadership brought to face God in humility, prayer and obedience.” He began organizing prayer meetings for delegates to the United Nations, at which he would instruct them in God's plan for rebuilding from the wreckage of the war. Donald Stone, a high-ranking administrator of the Marshall Plan, joined the directorship of Vereide's organization. In an undated letter, he wrote Vereide that he would “soon begin a tour around the world for the [Marshall Plan], combining with this a spiritual mission.” In 1946, Vereide, too, toured the world, traveling with letters of introduction from a half dozen senators and representatives, and from Paul G. Hoffman, the director of the Marshall Plan. He traveled also with a mandate from General John Hildring, assistant secretary of state, to oversee the creation of a list of good Germans of “the predictable type” (many of whom, Vereide believed, were being held for having “the faintest connection” with the Nazi regime), who could be released from prison “to be used, according to their ability in the tremendous task of reconstruction.” Vereide met with Jewish survivors and listened to their stories, but he nevertheless considered ex-Nazis well suited for the demands of “strong” government, so long as they were willing to worship Christ as they had Hitler.
In 1955, Senator Frank Carlson, a close adviser to Eisenhower and an even closer associate of Vereide's, convened a meeting at which he declared the Family's mission to be a “worldwide spiritual offensive,” in which common cause would be made with anyone opposed to the Soviet Union. That same year, the Family financed an anti-Communist propaganda film, Militant Liberty, for use by the Defense Department in influencing opinion abroad. By the Kennedy era, the spiritual offensive had fronts on every continent but Antarctica (which Family missionaries would not visit until the 1980s). In 1961, Emperor Haile Selassie of Ethiopia deeded the Family a prime parcel in downtown Addis Ababa to serve as an African headquarters, and by then the Family also had powerful friends in South Africa, Nigeria, and Kenya. Back home, Senator Strom Thurmond prepared several reports for Vereide concerning the Senate's deliberations. Former president Eisenhower, Doug Coe would later claim at a private meeting of politicians, once pledged secret operatives to aid the Family's operations. Even in Franco's Spain, Vereide once boasted at a prayer breakfast in 1965, “there are secret cells such as the American Embassy [and] the Standard Oil office [that allow us] to move practically anywhere.”
By the late sixties, Vereide's speeches to local prayer breakfast groups had become minor news events, and Family members' travels on behalf of Christ had attracted growing press attention. Vereide began to worry that the movement he had spent his life building might become just another political party. In 1966, a few years before he was “promoted” to heaven at age eighty-four, Vereide wrote a letter declaring it time to “submerge the institutional image of [the Family].” No longer would the Family recruit its powerful members in public, nor recruit so many. “There has always been one man,” wrote Vereide, “or a small core who have caught the vision for their country and become aware of what a 'leadership led by God' could mean spiritually to the nation and to the world. . . . It is these men, banded together, who can accomplish the vision God gave me years ago.”
* * *
Two weeks into my stay, Bengt announced to the brothers that he was applying to graduate school. He had chosen a university close enough to commute from the house, with a classics program he hoped would complement (maybe even renew, he told me privately) his relationship with Christ. After dinner every night he would disappear into the little office beside his upstairs bunk room to compose his statement of purpose on the house's one working computer.
Knowing I was a writer, he eventually gave me the essay to read. We sat down in Ivanwald's “office,” a room barely big enough for the two of us. We crossed our legs in opposite directions so as not to knock knees.
My formal education has been a progression from confusion and despair to hope, the essay began. Its story hewed to the familiar fundamentalist routine of lost and found: every man and woman a sinner, fallen but nonetheless redeemed. And yet Bengt's sins were not of the flesh but of the mind. In college he had abandoned his boyhood ambition of becoming a doctor to study philosophy: Nietzsche, Kierkegaard, Hegel. Raised in the faith, his ideas about God crumbled before the disciplined rage of the philosophers. “I cut and ran,” he told me. To Africa, where by day he worked on ships and in clinics, and by night read Dostoevsky and the Bible, its darkest and most seductive passages: Lamentations, Job, the Song of Songs. These authors were alike, his essay observed: They wrote about [suffering] like a companion.
I looked up. “A double,” I said, remembering Dostoevsky's alter egos.
Bengt nodded. “You know how you can stare at something for a long time and not see it the way it really is? That's what scripture had been to me.” Through Dostoevsky he began to see the Old Testament for what it is: relentless in its horror, its God a fire, a whirlwind, a “bear, lying in wait,” “a lion in secret places.” Even worse is its Man: a rapist, a murderer, a wretched thief, a fool.
“But,” said Bengt, “that's not how it ends.”
Bengt meant Jesus. I thought of the end of The Brothers Karamazov: the saintly Alyosha, leading a pack of boys away from a funeral to feast on pancakes, everyone clapping hands and proclaiming eternal brotherhood. In Africa, Bengt had seen people who were diseased, starving, trapped by war, but who seemed nonetheless to experience joy. Bengt recalled listening to a group of starving men play the drums. “Doubt,” he said, “is just a prelude to joy.”
I had heard this before from mainstream Christians, but I suspected Bengt meant it differently. A line in Dostoevsky's The Possessed reminded me of him: when the conservative nationalist Shatov asks Stavrogin, the cold-hearted radical, “Wasn't it you who said that even if it was proved to you mathematically that the Truth was outside Christ, you would prefer to remain with Christ outside the Truth?” Stavrogin, who refuses to be cornered, denies it.
“Exactly,” Bengt said. In Africa he had seen the trappings of Christianity fall away. All that remained was Christ. “You can't argue with absolute power.”
I put the essay down. Bengt nudged it back into my hands. “I want to know what you think of my ending.”
As I have read more about Jesus, it ran, I have also been intrigued by his style of interaction with other people. He was fascinated in particular by an encounter in the Gospel of John, chapter 1, verse 35–39, in which Jesus asks two men why they are following him. In turn, the men ask where Jesus is staying, to which he replies, “Come and see.” I am not sure how Jesus asks the question, Bengt had concluded, but from the response, it seems like he is asking, “What do you desire?”
“That's what it's about,” Bengt said. “Desire.” He shifted in his chair. “Think about it: 'What do you desire?'”
“That's the answer?” I asked.
“He's the question,” Bengt retorted, half-smiling, satisfied with his inversion by which doubt became the essence of a dogma. God was just what Bengt desired Him to be, even as Bengt was, in the face of God, “nothing.” Not for aesthetics alone, I realized, did Bengt and the Family reject the label “Christian.” Their faith and their practice seemed closer to a perverted sort of Buddhism, their God outside “the truth,” their Christ everywhere and nowhere at once, His commands phrased as questions, His will as simple to divine as one's own desires. And what the Family desired, from Abraham Vereide to Doug Coe to Bengt, was power, worldly power, with which Christ's kingdom can be built, cell by cell.
* * *
Not long after our conversation, Bengt put a bucket beside the toilet in the downstairs bunk room. From now on, he announced, all personal items left in the living room would go into the bucket. “If you're missing anything, guys,” Bengt said over dinner, “look in the bucket.”
I looked in the bucket. Here's what I found: One pair of flip-flops. One pocket-sized edition of the sayings of Jesus. One Frisbee. One copy of Executive Orders, by Tom Clancy, hardcover. One brown-leather Bible, well worn, beautifully printed on onion skin, given to Bengt Carlson by Palmer Carlson. One pair of dirty underwear.
When I picked up the Bible the pages flipped open to the Gospel of John, and my eyes fell on a single underlined phrase, chapter 15, verse 3: “You are already clean.”
* * *
Whenever a sufficiently large crop of God's soldiers was bunked up at Ivanwald, Doug Coe made a point of stopping by for dinner. Doug was, in spirit, Christ's closest disciple, the master bumper; the brothers viewed his visit as far more important than that of any senator or prime minister. The night he joined us he wore a crisply pressed golf shirt and dark slacks, and his skin was well tanned. He brought a guest with him, an Albanian politician whose pale face and ill-fitting gray suit made Doug seem all the more radiant. In his early seventies, Doug could have passed for fifty: his hair was dark, his cheeks taut. His smile was like a lantern.
“Where,” Doug asked Rogelio, “are you from, in Paraguay?”
“Asunción,” he said.
Doug smiled. “I've visited there many times.” He chewed for a while. “Asunción. A Latin leader was assassinated there twenty years ago. A Nicaraguan. Does anybody know who it was?”
I waited for someone to speak, but no one did. “Somoza,” I said. The dictator overthrown by the Sandinistas.
“Somoza,” Doug said, his eyes sweeping back to me. “An interesting man.”
Doug stared. I stared back. “I liked to visit him,” Doug said. “A very bad man, behind his machine guns.” He smiled like he was going to laugh, but instead he moved his fork to his mouth. “And yet,” he said, a bite poised at the tip of his tongue, “he had a heart for the poor.” Doug stared. I stared back.
“Do you ever think about prayer?” he asked. But the question wasn't for me. It wasn't for anyone. Doug was preparing a parable.
There was a man he knew, he said, who didn't really believe in prayer. So Doug made him a bet. If this man would choose something and pray for it for forty-five days, every day, he wagered God would make it so. It didn't matter whether the man believed. It wouldn't have mattered whether he was a Christian. All that mattered was the fact of prayer. Every day. Forty-five days. He couldn't lose, Doug told the man. If Jesus didn't answer his prayers, Doug would pay him $500.
“What should I pray for?” the man asked.
“What do you think God would like you to pray for?” Doug asked him.
“I don't know,” said the man. “How about Africa?”
“Good,” said Doug. “Pick a country.”
“Uganda,” the man said, because it was the only one he could remember.
“Fine,” Doug told him. “Every day, for forty-five days, pray for Uganda. God please help Uganda. God please help Uganda.”
On the thirty-second day, Doug told us, this man met a woman from Uganda. She worked with orphans. Come visit, she told the man, and so he did, that very weekend. And when he came home, he raised a million dollars in donated medicine for the orphans. “So you see,” Doug told him, “God answered your prayers. You owe me $500.”
There was more. After the man had returned to the United States, the president of Uganda called the man at his home and said, “I am making a new government. Will you help me make some decisions?”
“So,” Doug told us, “my friend said to the president, 'Why don't you come and pray with me in America? I have a good group of friends—senators, congressmen—who I like to pray with, and they'd like to pray with you.' And that president came to The Cedars, and he met Jesus. And his name is Yoweri Museveni, and he is now the president of all the presidents in Africa. And he is a good friend of the Family.”
“That's awesome,” Beau said.
“Yes,” Doug said, “it's good to have friends. Do you know what a difference a friend can make? A friend you can agree with?” He smiled. “Two or three agree, and they pray? They can do anything. Agree. Agreement. What's that mean?” Doug looked at me. “You're a writer. What does that mean?”
I remembered Paul's letter to the Philippians, which we had begun to memorize. Fulfill ye my joy, that ye be likeminded.
“Unity,” I said. “Agreement means unity.”
Doug didn't smile. “Yes,” he said. “Total unity. Two, or three, become one. Do you know,” he asked, “that there's another word for that?”
No one spoke.
“It's called a covenant. Two, or three, agree? They can do anything. A covenant is . . . powerful. Can you think of anyone who made a covenant with his friends?”
We all knew the answer to this, having heard his name invoked numerous times in this context. Andrew from Australia, sitting beside Doug, cleared his throat: “Hitler.”
“Yes,” Doug said. “Yes, Hitler made a covenant. The Mafia makes a covenant. It is such a very powerful thing. Two, or three, agree.” He took another bite from his plate, planted his fork on its tines. “Well, guys,” he said, “I gotta go.”
As Doug Coe left, my brothers' hearts were beating hard: for the poor, for a covenant. “Awesome,” Bengt said. We stood to clear our dishes.
* * *
On one of my last nights at Ivanwald, the neighborhood boys asked my brothers and me to play. There were roughly six boys, ranging in age from maybe seven to eleven, all junior members of the Family. They wanted to play flashlight tag. It was balmy, and the streetlight glittered against the blacktop, and hiding places beckoned from behind trees and in bushes. One of the boys began counting, and my brothers, big and small, scattered. I lay flat on a hillside. From there I could track movement in the shadows and smell the mint leaves planted in the garden. A figure approached and I sprang up and ran, down the sidewalk and up through the garden, over a wall that my pursuer, a small boy, had trouble climbing. But once he was over he kept charging, and just as I was about to vanish into the trees his flashlight caught me. “Jeff I see you you're It!” the boy cried. I stopped and turned, and he kept the beam on me. Blinded, I could hear only the slap of his sneakers as he ran across the driveway toward me. “Okay, dude,” he whispered, and turned off the flashlight. I recognized him as little Stevie, whose drawing of a machine gun we had posted in our bunk room. He handed the flashlight to me, spun around, started to run, then stopped and looked over his shoulder. “You're It now,” he whispered, and disappeared into the dark.
About the Author Jeffrey Sharlet is an editor of the online magazine KillingtheBuddha.com and a co-author of the forthcoming book Killing the Buddha: A Heretic's Bible (The Free Press).
Notes 1. The Los Angeles Times reported in September that the Fellowship Foundation alone has an annual budget of $10 million, but that represents only a fraction of the Family's finances. Each of the Family's organizations raises funds independently. Ivanwald, for example, is financed at least in part by an entity called the Wilberforce Foundation. Other projects are financed by individual “friends”: wealthy businessmen, foreign governments, church congregations, or mainstream foundations that may be unaware of the scope of the Family's activities. At Ivanwald, when I asked to what organization a donation check might be made, I was told there was none; money was raised on a “man-to-man” basis. Major Family donors named by the Times include Michael Timmis, a Detroit lawyer and Republican fund-raiser; Paul Temple, a private investor from Maryland; and Jerome A. Lewis, former CEO of the Petro-Lewis Corporation. [Back]
2. According to the Los Angeles Times, congressmen who have lived there include Rep. Mike Doyle (D., Pa.), former Rep. Ed Bryant (R., Tenn.), and former Rep. John Elias Baldacci (D., Maine). The house's eight congressman-tenants each pay $600 per month in rent for use of a town house that includes nine bathrooms and five living rooms. When the Times asked then-resident Rep. Bart Stupak (D., Mich.) about the property, he replied, “We sort of don't talk to the press about the house.” [Back]
3. Gannon worked for Senator Don Nickles, then the second-ranking Republican. The man who oversaw Ivanwald and interviewed us for admission was a lawyer named Steve South, who formerly had been Senator Nickles's chief counsel and was still a close associate. [Back]
4. The Family's “financial precepts” apparently amount to the practice of soliciting funds only privately, and often indirectly. This may also refer to what some members call “biblical capitalism,” the belief that God's economics are laissez-faire. [Back]
5. As Vereide recounted in a 1961 biography, Modern Viking, one union boss joined the group, proclaiming that the prayer movement would make unions obsolete. He said, “'I got down on my knees and asked God to forgive me . . . for I have been a disturbing factor and a thorn in Your flesh.'” A “rugged capitalist who had been the chairman of the employers' committee in the big strike” put his left hand on the labor leader's shoulder and said, “'Jimmy, on this basis we go on together.'”
This is Jesus Plus Nothing, a feature, originally from March 2003. It is part of Features, which is part of Harpers.org.
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