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It seems like the premise for an awful B-movie thriller. A secretive religion organization calls itself "the Family;" it organizes members into cells and frequently expresses admiration for the management techniques of Hitler, Lenin, and the Cosa Nostra. The Family has massive real-estate and corporate holdings, its members include important business leaders, prominent members of the U.S. Congress and executive branch, and other government leaders from around the world—some of them not the nicest folks in the world. It regularly recruits up-and-comers to become members of the Family early in their careers. Former Attorney General Edwin Meese often leads prayer breakfasts in one of the Family's communal houses, in the Washington, D.C., suburbs.
In 2002, Jeffrey Sharlet, an award-winning reporter and writer on religion, infiltrated the Family and spent weeks living in one of its houses with other young "brothers." Unlike in that late-night cable movie, he didn't uncover a drug-running operation or have to fight his way out of a booby-trapped headquarters. But he learned how the Family operates, what its members believe, and some of the important and powerful who are associated with the intentionally shadowy group. His 12-page expose appeared in the March issue of Harper's, and he recently spoke to mediabistro.com about the Family, his experience there, and his article. (Sharlet is the editor and co-founder of Killing the Buddha, an online magazine about religion, and the co-author of Killing the Buddha: A Heretic's Bible, which will be published next year by the Free Press.)
How did you find this story?
It kind of found of me. I had a brother of a friend come up to me after September 11, and he was living at Ivanwald [the Family's home for young members] at the time. I don't want to name him. He and I met with each other, and he knew I wrote about religion, and he told me about Ivanwald, and I said, "Well, I'm not a fundamentalist Christian so I don't think that I would be interested in it." He said, "Oh no, it's not for fundamentalists at all. It's totally open and you should go and check it out." So I did really go just to see what it was about. Only as time went on, did I realize that it was something different, and in that way the story found me. I didn't go in there thinking that I was going to write some big political piece; I didn't even know they were involved in politics when I went. And even when I was there and saw how involved they were and heard their strange political theology, it wasn't until I left and came upon their archives that I realized just how deep the connections were.
How did you get into the Family?
The only way you get in is basically through recommendations. This guy recommended me, and I should emphasize that that part was not undercover. I wanted to go and check it out, and he thought I would benefit from it and thought I was a good guy and recommended me. So I went down there, spent a day working with the guys and talking with them, and then I was taken to an interview with this lawyer and I didn't hide anything. He asked me, "Are you a journalist?" and I said, "Yeah." And he said, "Well, what do you write about?" and I said, "Well, whatever comes along." In some ways they didn't some questions so I didn't have to answer them. If they had asked, "Do you support fundamentalist theocracy," I would have said no.
Would there be consequences for your friend who recommended you, if he was to be named?
I don't know, but I can tell you that ever since the article has come out, a lot of people have gotten in touch with me. Some former residents of Ivanwald, who will only speak anonymously because they're afraid of retaliation. Some have already experienced retaliation, people who are still working in this world. There's a whole range of corporations associate with the Family, and you might be working for this guy who's a part of it, and he hears that you've been causing trouble and so takes action. I've received an email saying that I would be dealt with as a traitor, vaguely threatening letters. Other people have gotten in contact with me hiding the fact that they were involved with the Family. And that's why I don't want to mention my friend. They could probably figure out if they tried. But that friend was also sincerely recommending it to me. It's very easy to be at Ivanwald and not know the full scope of what's going on, and I don't want to implicate him in that.
And how did you discover the larger scope of what is going on? Weren't they suspicious of your presence?
I didn't hide the fact that I was Jewish. I'm Jewish, and I'm interested in Jesus. They didn't know what to make of me or do with me: "He's Jewish, he's from New York, he's a writer, and he's not very good at basketball." And then one day they had this ritual where they trick you and another guy to get down on the floor and lie on your belly to arm-wrestle, and you're arm-wrestling to prove your manhood. And you start to do it, and they all jump on you and start beating you. It's called a "Fumble". So there's 15 people beating and hitting me, and by this time I had already been there a couple of weeks and thought this place was weird. When this beating happened, I just hit back with full force because I was really scared. And they liked that, they liked the fact that I hit back. That was their idea of manliness, so after that I was okay, despite the fact that I was a Jew from New York who wrote.
I started running into all these political figures there and hearing about how all these political negotiations had occurred at The Cedars, their private mansion headquarters. I was shown a video about the island of Fiji and their leader. And you can say, well, who cares about Fiji? Well, this is how they work, small country by small country. Fiji now is a theocracy. And they take credit for that. And I thought, this is quite messed up. I started asking questions, and started writing a journal of what was going on and looking around.
They talk about Hitler all the time, and I asked what the deal was with that, and they said, "Oh no, it's just his leadership skills that we like." When I left, I discovered their archives and there's seventy years of the Family making friends with the world's worst and nastiest of world leaders.
Was there a point where you decided that you were going to publicly write about this, and stopped asking questions that would make them doubt your agenda?
I went there for personal reasons, but at that time I was already working on the book Killing the Buddha. But I knew this wasn't really for the book, but it's the kind of thing I do. I went because I thought it was interesting, for the same reason I would visit a mosque or live with a cult commune. I was open with questions at first, but as time went on, I definitely became more cautious. After a week and a half there, we were told that we were under a lockdown because an L.A. Times reporter came down to this cul-de-sac and they were very upset and they had special prayer sessions to pray against "the evil of journalists." They knew I was a journalist, but there was also this weird lack of curiosity. No one ever asked me what I had written before, and I would have gladly told them if they had. It's sort of like they've been hiding in plain sight for so long without anyone asking too many questions and the political figures are never followed up on. For instance, while I was doing my research I found profiles of National Prayer Breakfast figures like John Ashcroft, and Ashcroft has been involved since 1981. No one's bothered to find out whether the National Prayer Breakfast and its weekly prayer meetings were part of a larger organization. And I don't think Ashcroft has ever had to lie about it, because I don't think anyone's ever asked him.
But what's wrong with prayer meetings? At what point do lines get crossed?
Finding out more and more about the group and its subtleties—it's sort of like peeling an onion. And that's what is so disingenuous about denying that the group even exists or denying the term "Family." Because when I was there, the distinctions were clearly made. There were people who were referred to as "Friends of the Family" and people as "Members of the Family". And there are further levels. Certainly going to the National Prayer Breakfast doesn't mean anything. And at the same time you could be going to prayer groups once a week with congressmen and it's still a pretty benign thing. It is nothing more this group of guys not talking about politics but about religion and what they can learn from Scriptures, and that's kind of admirable. That's most people's level of involvement. The group talks about a core in all their documents. There are different levels of information depending on how close you are to the core. For instance, I came across Al Gore saying, "[Family leader] Doug Coe is one of my personal heroes." And I don't want to let Al Gore off the hook, but I don't think he knows the extent of what's going. And that's how they do it, to keep an access to power. They much rather have a powerful person involved than having down-the-line true believers. And that's what makes them more sophisticated than the Christian Coalition. Christian Coalition—you have to sign on with the program 100 percent. This group—it's okay if you believe something different, because we have access to you now.
What is the Family's take on—or remake of—Christianity?
The beginning began with this vision that Christianity had wrongly focused on the "down and out." And the founder, in 1935, said that's not the point; we need to focus on the "up and out." The elite are the ones who can change the world. And this group has been at odds at times with other more traditional and conservative Christian groups because they don't really care about converting the masses. They just want to convert the leaders who will instate a Christian-led government. Does it matter whether you or I share their vision of Christ? No, not at all. As long as the leaders who support the Family are making the laws that we have to follow.
So what do you think is the end result that they're after? Is it only "power" in the abstract sense?
They state their goals in their private documents pretty explicitly. A world leadership led by Christ. Every single world leader and politician making every decision under Christ's will. And you could quibble over semantics, but I would say that worldwide theocracy is their goal.
Leslie Synn is an editorial intern at mediabistro.com