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Family Values in Washington, DC, and the Need for Vigilance in Canada

July 31, 2009

The only interesting thing about the recent sex scandals involving US politicians John Ensign and Mark Sanford is the light they’ve incidentally thrown on the Family, a secretive quasi-Christian organisation to which both men are linked. American journalist Jeff Sharlet has devoted a lot of time to studying the group, also known as the Fellowship, and indeed published a book about them (which I haven’t read) well before news of the scandals broke.

The Family keeps a low public profile apart from holding a well-attended annual National Prayer Breakfast in Washington, DC. However, it also organises weekly breakfasts in both the Senate and the House of Representatives, and more generally maintains an informal network that seems to include many Republican politicians and at least a few Democrats. Members of the network apparently pray, talk and sometimes live together, and also work towards goals that – as Sharlet insists in this interview – are not so much conspiratorial as simply held in common by a group of powerful, like-minded people.

So what exactly are these goals? Sharlet got at least some insight into the Family’s thinking when he spent a month living in a residence that they operate in Virginia. He described an intense, almost cult-like group whose leaders – Doug Coe, and his son and heir David – talked about Jesus and the power of prayer but also about the virtues of strong leadership and unquestioning loyalty:

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.

According to Sharlet, the Family has historically endeavoured to change the world in highly specific ways. The Family was founded in Seattle in 1935 as a group of businessmen who were “convinced that Jesus alone could redeem Seattle and crush the radical unions”. This combination of intense religiosity and militant capitalism continued through the following decades, as the Family battled communism and promoted Jesus through influential friends in the US and around the world. Sharlet described a morning when the ambassadors of Benin and Rwanda dropped by for breakfast, and of course a prayer.

What about Canada? Former Bush administration official David Kuo apparently wrote that “…the Family’s reach into governments around the world is impossible to overstate or even grasp.” If this is even partially true, the Family’s “reach” presumably extends north of the 49th parallel to some degree. Indeed it’s hard not to suspect that Stephen Harper’s faith-friendly, free-marketeering, tight-lipped version of the Conservative Party might represent exceptionally fertile ground.

I’m no expert on US politics, but to me Sharlet sounds credible enough that I’d like some enterprising Canadian journalist to investigate the Family’s connections on Her Majesty’s side of the border. One piece briefly mentions Stockwell Day, but then, it has a distinct whiff of conspiracy-mongering about it. Couldn’t possibly be true. Could it?


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One Comment leave one →
  1. nmboudin permalink*
    August 27, 2009 6:08 pm

    The revelations about The Family are indeed interesting, but that is not the only aspect that is remarkable about this story.

    The fact that Sanford’s wife, Jennifer, has packed up the kids and walked is seemingly unprecedented behaviour for a political wife. To be sure, it is refreshing to see in a demographic that seems to have taken “Stand By Your Man” as the gospel.

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