"If a man lies with a man as one lies with a woman, both of them have done what is detestable. They must be put to death; their blood will be on their own heads” (Leviticus 20:13).*
The news took the world by surprise. The Ugandan government was contemplating capital punishment for persistent homosexual activity. Capital punishment? Such as hanging? Though homosexual acts are already criminalized in Uganda, punishable in certain cases by up to 14 years in prison (which by Western standards seems barbaric enough, especially in the nations where gays can marry one another, adopt children, and join the military, the idea of condemning to death those who practice homosexuality shocked everyone. Many Westerners who oppose the gay lifestyle and gay rights were taken aback. Hanging adults for consensual sex seemed out of the twelfth, not the twenty-first, century.
The legislation, the Anti-Homosexuality Bill of 2009, would have imposed new and harsher penalties on homosexual acts, including not only life in prison but death. It would also force citizens to report homosexuals to authorities. Even more disturbing was that religious leaders in Uganda, Christians, favored the bill.
In fact, news reports linked the proposed legislation to the influence of some American Evangelical organizations, including the powerful Family. Though a spokesperson for The Family, also known as The Fellowship, eventually spoke out against the bill, this ugly episode (which at the time of this writing is not over) reveals the potential danger when Christians, no matter how good their intentions, link themselves deeply into the corridors of political power.
The Old “New Christian Right”
The best way, perhaps, to describe the Family would be to call it the Old Christian Right. Whereas the so-called “New” Christian Right could have been caricatured (and not unfairly either) as a bunch of Bible-thumping fundamentalists riding into Washington, D.C., in the 1980s—wads of offering money in one hand, the Bible in the other—proclaiming the wrath of God on anyone in Congress who didn’t vote Jesus’ position on military aid for Taiwan or support for the Strategic Defense Initiative (“Star Wars”), the Family is much more sophisticated, subtle, and quiet. All by design, too!
Abraham Vereide (left), founder of The Family, with President Dwight D. Eisenhower at the 1960 Presidential Prayer breakfast.
It’s not easy to get a grasp on The Family’s history because it doesn’t want to be well-known. It was founded, in its ur-incarnation, in 1935 by a Norwegian immigrant to America named Abraham Vereide, a traveling preacher who felt called by God to protect Seattle from the threat of a Communist takeover. Through connections with a wealthy friend, Vereide began a weekly prayer breakfast with Seattle business leaders. When the Communist threat apparently abated in Seattle, the idea of prayer breakfasts with local wealthy and influential political and business leaders caught on, spreading under Vereide’s leadership to cities around the country, including the nation’s capital. By the end of World War II, nearly a third of the United States senators attended one of the weekly prayer breakfasts. Today, The Family’s only public event is the National Prayer Breakfast, held the first Thursday of every February since 1953, hosting an amazing array of the nation’s, and world’s, political and business leaders.
The breakfast, held in the Hilton’s International Ballroom, attracts about 3,500 guests, including invitees from more than 100 countries. The breakfast is hosted by members of the United States Congress, but organized by The Family. Every president since Dwight D. Eisenhower has participated, along with a variety of congressional leaders, cabinet officials, foreign heads of state, and corporate bigwigs. Guest speakers have included, besides the president, Elizabeth Dole, Tony Blair, even Bono.
Who could imagine, even in the heyday of the “New” Christian Right, Jerry Falwell getting a group like that to Liberty University?
However public the National Prayer Breakfast might be, little else about The Family is. Again, that is by design. It calls itself an “invisible” association of like-minded men and women who fellowship, study the Bible, hold prayer meetings, and counsel together. It isn’t, though, your run-of-the-mill Christian fellowship. The membership includes a veritable Who’s Who of the Washington political establishment.
Jeff Sharlet, author of the best seller The Family: The Secret Fundamentalism at the Heart of American Power, and who spent time living at one of The Family’s local residences (Ivanwald, in Arlington, Virginia), wrote in a 2003 article: “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” (“Jesus Plus Nothing: Undercover Among America’s Secret Theocrats,” Harper’s Magazine, March 2003).
With names such as those The Family can and has indeed wielded political influence. It was credited, among other things, with helping the Carter administration organize a worldwide call to prayer with Menachem Begin and Anwar Sadat. In 2001 it helped broker a meeting between the warring leaders of the Congo and Rwanda, leading to a peace accord that, for now, seems to be holding. At the 1994 National Prayer Breakfast, Family leaders helped persuade South African Zulu chief Mangosuthu Buthelezi to back off from civil war with Nelson Mandela.
Hitler, Lenin, Mao—and Jesus
What’s wrong with an organization of Christians seeking to bring together the most powerful leaders for prayer, Bible study, and spiritual counseling? Considering the moral climate in Washington, D.C., throughout the decades—i.e., Watergate, the Tidal Basin Bombshell, Iran-Contra, Abscam, Monicagate, Duke Cunningham, Barney Frank and his male prostitute, Gary Hart’s “Monkey Business,” Jack Abramoff, William Jefferson’s $90,000 cash in the freezer, and on and on ad nauseam—one could argue that Washington, D.C., needs folk who could bring some biblical principles to the nation’s elite.
On the other hand, no matter how well-meaning the faithful, more often than not the machinations, power-grabbing, compromises, and subterfuge of politics influence them more than they do the politicians.
The Family is no exception, either. Prior to the 2010 prayer breakfast, the Obama administration was sent a letter by Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW) urging President Obama not to attend.
Douglas Coe (center), the present leader
of The Family.
"The National Prayer Breakfast uses the suggested imprimatur of the elected leaders who attend to give The Fellowship [The Family] greater credibility and facilitate its networking and fundraising," CREW executitve director Melanie Sloan siad in a statement. "The president and members of Congress should not legitamizethis cult-like group -- the head of which has praised the organizing abilities of Hitler and Bin Laden -- by attending the breakfast." (www.huffingtonpost.com/2010/02/01/crew-to-obama-skip-the-na_n_444408.html).
What CREW is referring to are often-quoted statements made by Douglas Coe, the present leader of The Family. Below are a few excerpts from the most controversial quotes, which can be found all over the Internet and in Jeff Sharlet’s book:
“You know Jesus said ‘You got to put Him before mother-father-brother sister’? Hitler, Lenin, Mao, that’s what they taught the kids. Mao even had the kids killing their own mother and father. But it wasn’t murder. It was for building the new nation. The new kingdom.”
Or this one:
“Jesus says, ‘You have to put Me before other people, and you have to put Me before yourself.’ Hitler, that was the demand of the Nazi Party. You have to put the Nazi Party and its objectives in front of your own life and ahead of other people!”
“I’ve seen pictures of young men in the Red Guard of China, a table laid out like a butcher table, they would bring in this young man’s mother and father, lay her on the table with a basket on the end, he would take an axe and cut her head off.
“They have to put the purposes of the Red Guard ahead of the mother-father-brother-sister—their own life!
“That was a covenant. A pledge. That was what Jesus said.”
However often these quotes have been, unfairly, taken out of context and made to sound as if Coe supported the policies of Hitler, Lenin, Mao, and the Red Guards (which he obviously does not), they are troubling enough even in the context that Coe meant them, which is that of total commitment to Jesus (their unofficial motto is, innocuously, “Jesus Plus Nothing”). That too is fine, except that it’s hard to recognize their Jesus—to whom they owe the kind of fealty that the Red Guards did to Mao—as the Jesus revealed in the Gospels.
Sharlet writes that David Coe, Doug’s son and heir apparent, proclaimed to Family members that they “‘are here to learn how to rule the world’” (The Family, p. 35). This rhetoric reflects Christian dominionism, a wing of fundamentalist Christianity that insists that Old Testament law should rule all areas of life. It’s a biblical version of Sharia law, something that Jesus, as revealed in the Gospels, never advocated.
Jesus Plus Nothing?
On the contrary, the Sermon on the Mount is a prescription more for political powerlessness than for power. Turning the cheek might give you moral suasion, and with that some political influence, but it’s hard to see this motif as an effective means of winning votes, twisting arms, and raising funds—the lingua franca of D.C. politics. And whatever Jesus meant by “Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth” (Matthew 5:5), only the most perverted and twisted exegesis could interpret that text as command to wield the kind of political power that, given David Coe’s quote, The Family aspires to.
Jesus in the Gospels says: “Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy, and where thieves break in and steal. But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where moth and rust do not destroy, and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also” (Matthew 6:19-21). Profound words; they have nothing to do with learning how to “rule the world,” though. Jesus also said: “You are the light of the world. A city on a hill cannot be hidden. Neither do people light a lamp and put it under a bowl. Instead they put it on its stand, and it gives light to everyone in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before men, that they may see your good deeds and praise your Father in heaven” (Matthew 5:14-16), a call for an openness and transparency that contradicts The Family’s a priori secretive modus operandi.
Jesus taught that His faithful followers would be victimized by those wielding political power, not that they would be the ones wielding that power. “Then you will be handed over to be persecuted and put to death, and you will be hated by all nations because of me” (Matthew 24:9). “But take heed to yourselves: for they shall deliver you up to councils; and in the synagogues ye shall be beaten: and ye shall be brought before rulers and kings for my sake, for a testimony against them” (Mark 13:9, KJV). “Blessed are they which are persecuted for righteousness’ sake: for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are ye, when men shall revile you, and persecute you, and shall say all manner of evil against you falsely, for my sake” (Matthew 5:10, 11, KJV).
Not only in the Gospels but also in the book of Revelation, those committed to Jesus are the victims of the political establishment, not the ones who run it (see Revelation 12-14). The archetypal follower of “Jesus Plus Nothing,” the apostle Paul, described his situation—a result of his passionate adherence to Jesus—like this: “Up to this moment we have become the scum of the earth, the refuse of the world. I am not writing this to shame you, but to warn you, as my dear children” (1 Corinthians 4:13, 14). With all due respect, how does Paul’s life square with the dominionist theology of the Family, a theology that led, almost deductively, to the Uganda gay fiasco?
The Uganda Gay Bill
Despite the rhetoric about “Jesus Pus Nothing,” given that The Family does not follow, or even pretend to follow, Jesus’ call to “let your light shine before men,” it’s hard to know how much influence it exerted, if any, in promoting Uganda’s Anti-Homosexuality Bill of 2009. However, was it coincidental (or providential?) that the chief sponsor of the bill, Ugandan member of parliament David Bahati, is a member of The Family, which according to news reports has been exerting influence in Uganda for years? According to Sharlet, Uganda’s president, once a strong supporter of the bill (but who has now distanced himself from it), has also had close ties to the group.
Once the bill made international headlines, even the most conservative Christian groups, including The Family, expressed disagreement. Bob Hunter, who helped build The Family’s relationship with Uganda, stated: “I know of no one involved in Uganda with The Fellowship [The Family] here in America, including the most conservative among them, that supports such things as killing homosexuals or draconian reporting requirements, much less has gone over to Uganda to push such positions” (http://wthrockmorton.com/tag/bob-hunter).
Though lawmakers in Uganda are backing away from the most draconian aspects of the legislation, the incident shows what happens when Christians, especially those influenced by dominionist theology, exert political power. Considering that the theocracy of ancient Israel decreed death for murder (Exodus 21:12), kidnapping (Exodus 21:16), bestiality (Exodus 22:19), adultery (Leviticus 20:10), homosexuality (Leviticus 20:13), and Sabbathbreaking (Numbers 15:32-35), it’s not surprising that the death penalty would be potentially enacted in a culture exceedingly intolerant of homosexuality to begin with.
Whatever the ultimate outcome of the Ugandan gay bill, when a religious group, no matter how well-meaning, gets too closely tied with political power, the results can be frightening. However sincere the ideal of “Jesus Plus Nothing” might be (not a quote of Jesus, by the way), Jesus did say, “Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s” (Mark 12:17, KJV). Knowing the difference between the two isn’t always easy.
*Unless otherwise noted, Bible texts in this article are from the Holy Bible, New International Version. Copyright © 1973, 1978, 1984, International Bible Society. Used by permission of Zondervan Bible Publishers.
Author: Clifford R. Goldstein
Clifford Goldstein writes from Mt. Airy, Maryland. A previous editor of Liberty, he now edits Bible study lessons for the Seventh-day Adventist Church.