The Breakfast Club

Do the people who run the National Prayer Breakfast also run the nation?


Reviewed by Randall Balmer

Sunday, July 13, 2008; Page BW02


The Secret Fundamentalism at the Heart of American Power

By Jeff Sharlet

Harper. 454 pp. $25.95

In the film version of “All the President’s Men,” Deep Throat castigates Bob Woodward for his uncorroborated accusations against H.R. Haldeman. “You’ve done worse than let Haldeman slip away,” Deep Throat says. “You’ve got people feeling sorry for him. I didn’t think that was possible. . . . If you shoot too high and miss, everybody feels more secure.”

The same might be said about Jeff Sharlet’s book about a loose coalition of religiously conservative individuals and organizations that operates in and around the councils of power in Washington. This group, which goes by various names — Cornerstone, Fellowship Foundation or, more generically, “the Family” — is responsible for the National Prayer Breakfast, but it also functions as a religious, social and political network for generals and bureaucrats and politicians with surnames like Grassley, Inhofe, Colson, Brownback, Quayle, Pryor and Thune.

Sharlet finagled a month-long residence at the Family’s estate in Arlington, a combination seminary, boot camp and retreat center for the powerful and those who hope to join their ranks. “You guys,” one of the Family’s operatives told the residents, “are here to learn how to rule the world.” Sharlet, an engaging writer with a keen eye, passed himself off as a religious seeker. (He indicates that he did not lie about his intentions since, at the time, he was working on a book about religious communities and “had no thought of investigative reporting.”) In meetings at the estate and conversations with fellow aspirants, the author discovered a right-leaning political ideology informed by deference to capitalism, a weakness for foreign dictators and a fascination with the leadership techniques of Adolf Hitler; according to Sharlet, Fellowship members repeatedly cited Hitler’s rise as an example of the power of a “covenant” between a leader and his followers.

The book’s second section attempts to trace the historical origins of the Family, how it has “taken root directly at the center of American democracy.” Here, Sharlet points an accusatory finger at Jonathan Edwards and Charles Grandison Finney, the respective leaders of the First and Second Great Awakenings in the 18th and 19th centuries, whom he calls the “forebears” of American fundamentalism. But Edwards, arguably America’s greatest theologian, was notoriously oblivious to social and political interactions; he would be befuddled by the Family’s political machinations. Finney, who devoted his entire career to improving the lot of those at the margins of society, would be appalled by the kind of elitist, anti-union sentiments that Sharlet attributes to the Family. The author’s sophomoric attempt to associate Religious Right politics with Edwards and Finney would be akin to linking John Kerry or Joseph Biden to the anti-Semitic radio priest Charles E. Coughlin simply because all three men were Roman Catholics.As he carries his narrative into the 20th century, Sharlet increasingly teeters on the edge of paranoia. He exaggerates the influence of the Family, first by conflating it with all fundamentalists, then by conflating fundamentalists with evangelicals, ignoring the divisions within and among those camps. He has an explanation for why few outsiders recognize the Family’s power: Back in the mid-’60s, the core group behind the National Prayer Breakfast decided that its “business would be conducted on the letterhead of public men, who would testify that Fellowship initiatives were their own,” he writes ominously. “The Fellowship was going underground.” Adding to the air of mystery and intrigue, Sharlet claims that a “gorgeous blonde” unaccountably confessed at the end of a three-hour, wine-soaked lunch that “she’d been sent to spy on me” by the Family. But he directs most of his musings about secrecy and power at Doug Coe, the elusive — if not quite reclusive — head of the Family, whose aversion to publicity makes him, paradoxically, a target of speculation. (When I worked as an intern on Capitol Hill during the summer of 1975, I lodged with other interns at a sorority house on the University of Maryland campus that had been leased for that purpose by Coe’s group; the tenants invoked the name “Doug Coe” in hushed, almost worshipful tones, but as I recall he never materialized at this outpost of his empire.)

A generous reading of Coe’s elusiveness might be that, as a minister, he prefers to encourage others from behind the scenes rather than push himself into the limelight. But Sharlet brooks no such generosity; he sees portents of theocracy everywhere and asserts, without foundation, that “the Family’s long-term project of a worldwide government under God is more ambitious than Al Qaeda‘s dream of a Sunni empire.” When he encounters evidence that contradicts his meticulously fabricated schematic, Sharlet glosses over or tries to ignore it. Take, for example, former senators Mark O. Hatfield of Oregon and Harold E. Hughes of Iowa, who had close ties with Coe; both were distinguished liberals with little patience for dictators. Sharlet isn’t sure what to do with Hatfield, and he dismisses Hughes as “kooky.”

By the third section of the book, which appears to be a reworking of articles Sharlet has published in other venues, any vestige of coherence has dissipated. These essays — about Sen. Sam Brownback and the Rev. Ted Haggard, home schooling and the sexual abstinence movement — are interesting in their own right, but they add little to the book other than to serve as a reminder that Sharlet’s true métier is the journalistic feature rather than a sustained argument.

Are there reasons to be wary of an organization that seeks to insinuate its members into the highest echelons of government? Yes, perhaps so, although it’s not clear that the Family is any different in that regard from, say, the Council on Foreign Relations or the Yale secret society Skull and Bones. If Sharlet had confined his critique to specific policies, such as the attempts to frustrate action on global warming by Family associates Chuck Colson and James Inhofe, for example, or if he had focused on this ostensibly religious group’s fixation with temporal power, he might have produced a useful book.

Instead, he shoots too high. And misses. ·

Randall Balmer is professor of American religious history at Barnard College, Columbia University, and a visiting professor at Yale Divinity School. His latest book is “God in the White House: How Faith Shaped the Presidency from John F. Kennedy to George W. Bush.”