In early July 2008 Senate Republicans voted, with astounding conformity, in favor of the controversial electronic surveillance FISA bill update that was condemned by American civil liberties advocates across a wide range of the US political spectrum; two GOP Senators, John McCain and Jeff Sessions, abstained from voting and so 95.9 % of Republicans voted "aye" on FISA. But there was one specialized subgroup within the Democratic Party that voted with almost as much uniformity in favor of the FISA bill - Senate Democrats who belonged both to the DLC and who were members or "friends" of a shadowy fundamentalist group that's been burrowing, since the Eisenhower years, into the Washington power establishment: The Family.
This is the first in a series which will explore, building off Jeff Sharlet's new book The Family: The Secret Fundamentalism at The Heart Of American Power (excerpt from book and a review), recent influence of The Family within American politics and especially within the Democratic Party. Future installments in this series will cover: (1) the birth of the DLC and the ties of key DLC founders to The Family, (2) treatments of specific DLC members with extensive Family associations (3) possible Family influence in the 2000 US Presidential election (4) methods by which The Family has advanced its ideological agenda, through legislation, supported by Republican-DLC coalitions, designed to attack New Deal and social welfare programs, attack church-state separation and advance other long-term Family goals.
As Constitutional Law expert Jonathan Turley put it, shortly before the July 2008 final U.S. Senate vote on the FISA bill which expanded the power of US presidents to conduct secret surveillance of American citizens, "What the Democrats are doing here with the White House is they're trying to conceal a crime that is hiding in plain view. ... It's like all those stories where someone is assaulted on the street and a hundred witnesses do nothing. In this case, the Fourth Amendment is going to be eviscerated tomorrow, and a hundred people are going to watch it happen because it's just not their problem". Based on data I've compiled, from the controversial FISA Senate vote, one could possibly predict, with some accuracy, upcoming Senate votes establishing various components of an emerging, wildly antidemocratic legal apparatus for an American national security state. Secret government surveillance was, of course, a hallmark of Soviet Russia and it is common to many authoritarian regimes. So FISA probably serves as a very good proxy - US Senators willing to cast their votes in favor of FISA will likely be willing to support just about any legislation that's antidemocratic, at least in spirit if not directly antagonistic to the US Constitution, to come up for a Senate vote.
Overall, only 56% of Senate Democrats voted against FISA. If they had voted with such uniformity as did Republicans on FISA, the bill would not likely have cleared the Senate. But 42% of Senate Democrats, 21 in total, peeled off to join Republicans in backing the FISA bill. A weak majority of Senate Democrats associated with the Democratic Leadership Council, 55%, supported the FISA bill and DLC Democrats comprised the core of Democratic Party FISA support: 71.4%.
Another distinct subgroup within the DLC and pro-FISA democrats supported the FISA bill with what approached the fervor of Senate Republicans; in the Senate, there are seven Democrats who are both Family members or "friends" and also in the DLC. And there is one independent Senator who shares both affiliations too - Joe Lieberman. So, Democrats with both affiliations went 85.7% for FISA and non-Republican Senators with both affiliations broke for FISA at an even higher percentage, 87.5%.
Here is my breakdown of the Family & DLC affiliation of Pro-FISA Senate Democrats who voted for the FISA bill and have either a DLC affiliation, a Family association, or both. Please be aware these lists are, especially in terms of Family membership/affiliation far from definitive, due to Family secrecy, so that the actual roster is likely to be higher.
Mark Pryor: DLC, Family "Friend" - Co-chaired National Prayer Breakfast
Diane Feinstein: DLC
Ken Salazar: DLC, Family "Friend" - Co-chaired National Prayer Breakfast
Thomas Carper: DLC
Bill Nelson: DLC, Family member. Wife, Grace Nelson has served on Family/Fellowship Board of Directors
Evan Bayh: DLC, Family "friend"
Mary Landrieu: DLC
Barbara Mikulski: DLC
Max Baucus: DLC
Ben Nelson: DLC, Family member, co-chaired National Prayer Breakfast
Kent Conrad: DLC, Family member
Tim Johnson: DLC
John Rockefeller: DLC
Herbert Kohl: DLC
Joseph Lieberman: DLC, Family "Friend", Co-Chaired National Prayer Breakfast.
The data set I have constructed for this simple statistical breakdown is derived in large part from lists of Family members and "friends" developed by Journalist Jeff Sharlet in the course of researching his new book "The Family: The Secret Fundamentalism at The Heart of American Power". By Sharlet's account he combed through some 60,000 pages of documents in the disorganized Family archives held at the Billy Graham Center in Wheaton, Illinois.
Since Sharlet's data-gathering expedition The Family has locked down its archives such that even Family members cannot access the records without a special letter from Family head Doug Coe. But the skeletal outline of the archive content, which contains a wealth of names and dates, is still available and by combing through those several dozen pages of records still public, and also by picking through news reports concerning The Family, I have added a few names to Sharlet's list. Only a few though, and that's indicative of the problem: though the Family wields astonishing influence at both the national and international level its keeps its membership lists secret. As Family head Doug Coe has noted, invisibility translates to influence wielded, well, invisibly.
Major ideological developments, over the past two decades, within the Democratic Party, have paralyzed the party and compromised its integrity, the basic ability of elected Democratic Party politicians to hold true to their oaths of office and to uphold their commitments to fairly represent their constituents.
A core narrative of this ongoing series will feature a basic reevaluation of the birth and rise of the Democratic Leadership Council, which has played a major role in moving Democratic Party ideology rightwards -- in light of new research on The Family. Although incisive accounts on the DLC's rise certainly exist none so far have incorporated this aspect of the political ascendancy of the "New Democrats" ; the DLC's political symbiosis with this fantastically influential Washington-based Christian fundamentalist group with a political agenda that's radically antidemocratic in at least several ways. Before Jeff Sharlet's research on The Family such a reevaluation was hardly possible.
Family members helped persuade Gerald Ford to pardon Richard Nixon, and for decades current Family head Doug Coe has been able to arrange private meetings with US presidents. Family members and friends provided key votes in the Bush v. Gore Supreme Court decision. There are no lack of examples of Family influence.
Every United States President since the occasion's founding in 1953 under President Dwight D. Eisenhower, has attended The Family's one public event, the annual National Prayer Breakfast, and the printed program for that event has, as far back as I can trace (and possibly to the event's inception) featured a falsified "prayer" alleged to be from George Washington and which has, for decades, been been recognized by historians to be fraudulent. The quote, known as "Washington's Prayer", is a favorite among Christian nationalist historical revisionists who claim the United States was founded as a "Christian nation".
"It is the age of minority control" wrote Family founder Abraham Vereide, in a 1940's pamphlet. In a late 1980's sermon, of which I have an audio recording on file, Family head Doug Coe explained to listeners at a West Coast religious retreat that "[The Mafia] keeps its organization invisible." Coe then went on to explain the benefits of covert organizational tactics: "the more you can make your organization invisible, the more influence it will have." Per the statements of the two leaders who have wielded, by far, the most influence over the organizational growth, ideological development and tactics of The Family, the organization is strongly antagonistic to majority rule; it is ideologically opposed to the foundational principles of American Democracy.
The story of The Family is the story of the perfection of a hitherto almost wholly unnoticed form of covert government--vectoring through American fundamentalism and especially through Abraham Vereide's "Prayer Breakfasts", that spread rapidly through top American business and political circles in the 1930's and 1940's until the tradition became institutionalized in the Congress and Senate in the early 1940's and culminating in 1953 under Eisenhower with the first National Prayer Breakfast. Since that time, The Family, working away in the shadows, has spun dense webs of influence with international reach.
Many on the newly energized Democratic left have recently become disturbed or dismayed that, even after the insurgent left-powered Democratic reconquest of both branches of Congress in the 2006 election, Congress seems unwilling to oppose George W. Bush on key fronts - on FISA legislation and on Bush Administration moves to provoke a US war with Iran: because The Family has been from its inception overtly antidemocratic in nature, a study of Family influence within contemporary American politics promises to may shed considerable light on the lack of responsiveness of elected representatives, especially within the Democratic Party, to the concerns of their constituents.
As Former Special Assistant to George W. Bush David Kuo wrote in his late 2006 book Tempting Faith, "The Fellowship's reach into governments around the world is almost impossible to overstate or even grasp", and The Family's (or Fellowship's) domestic influence is mammoth as well. Rolling Stone journalist Jeff Sharlet's new book The Family: The Secret Fundamentalism at The Heart of American Power has provided a crucial, landmark research foundation that I'll be building on, in subsequent installations of this new, ongoing series to demonstrate the influence of The Family within contemporary American politics and within the Democratic Party itself.
A surprising number of Family members and "friends" played key roles as founding members of the DLC in 1985 and the organization's political ideology shared, from the onset, much in common with Family ideology: so much so that a case can be made that the DLC has functioned to inject a secularized version of The Family's ideology--elitist, anti-New Deal, corporatist, militaristic, deeply hostile to church-state separation--into the Democratic Party and, in the process, paralyze the Democratic Party, tying it in knots with predictably ensuing inter-party ideological disputes.
The Family is only one among a number of secretive and cultic para-church organizations that worked, for decades, to burrow into Washington's power structures--recruiting, co-opting and even converting America's top leaders to reactionary, business and corporate friendly, elitist right-wing religious views. The Unification Church, Opus Dei and the welter of ministries operated by Bill Bright's sprawling Campus Crusade For Christ (one of which, "Christian Embassy", organizes prayer cells both on Capitol Hill and within the US Pentagon) each have considerable spheres of influence. But the Family is probably the most influential of all, especially for its pretense to bipartisanship, its central, institutionalized and quasi-governmental role in American national politics and civic religion.
Family doctrine, minimalist at best, emphasizes devotion to Jesus "plus nothing" but one might as well substitute "power" for "Jesus" and because The Family has amassed such a disturbing amount of power, or influence, it has made itself almost unavoidable - even for politicians who would prefer to avoid the group and its `prayer cells'. To get ahead, smart and aspiring politicians on both sides of the aisle will tend to court and pay obeisance to The Family and a heavily disproportionate number of the most prominent of the Democratic Party's emergent leaders have, over the past two decades, been associated with The Family, as "friends" of the Family or even as members, and have held Family-friendly political positions.
The DLC functions, in essence, as a secular adjunct to The Family - a public organizational body churning out White Papers and position papers, initiatives such as National Service and legislative proposals. It may never be possible to prove that the Democratic Leadership Council was created specifically in order to translate the Family's political agenda into legislation and to pull Democratic Party politics rightwards, but if that is not the case it might as well be. Both entities pull Democratic Party politicians rightward, towards similar ideological set points, by enticing Democratic Party politicians with, in the case of the DLC, big piles of corporate cash or, in the case of The Family, a huge, international covert influence peddling network which can establish or amplify political careers and grease the wheels towards business success.
In exchange for access to its corporate cash, the DLC demands Democrats adopt positions that might have placed them, two or three decades ago, about at, or close to, where moderate Republicans (a vanishing breed) are today but which, since the Democratic Party has slid rightwards since the 1970's, can still allow the to plausibly lay claim to being, doctrinally, democrats because democratic political positions have gradually been redefined - as a "lite" version of GOP positions. In marketing terms, this tends to place Democrats in an inherent disadvantage, as lesser or ersatz versions of the real thing or as wafflers without strong conviction.
In terms of overlapping ideological positions and overlapping membership, especially among DLC founders, The Family and the Democratic Leadership Council are so deeply intertwined as to represent, in a sense, the same enterprise; They share opposition to the New Deal rooted in a slavishly pro-business and radically free-market approach, a strident anti-Communism which has morphed into a pro-war jingoism driven by the needs of the military-industrial complex, antagonism to church-state separation based in a sense that an alleged decline in public morality stems from a lack of American civic religion and, underneath it all - as suggested by my statistical breakdown of Family/DLC votes on FISA, the DLC may even share to some degree the Family's political ethic holding ruling elites to be both superior to common folk and also above normal moral conventions and strictures.
The Family promotes an ethos of hostility towards, or contempt for, democracy, populism and government transparency, but The Family is not a form of fascism - it does not provoke legions of brownshirts to crack leftist heads in the streets; The Family has rendered such displays of violence generally unnecessary, gauche even. It excels at quietly promoting, with almost endless patience, the ideological vision it wants to gently, implacably impress upon American culture and politics.
The very fact that The Family has operated "at the heart of American power" for over five decades is an indication of the extent to which the group has honed its form of low-key, secret corporate theocratic authoritarianism.The influence and power of The Family, in Washington, has long been an open secret that's at once bland, banal, pervasive and, for ambitious national politicians, nearly inescapable. Many of the most successful national-level American politicians, both Republican and Democrat, pay obeisance to The Family or at least go through the motions of doing so.
Association with The Family brings access to The Family's influence, to Doug Coe's database of Family members and friends, in the US but also around the globe, willing to pray together and help each other out in quiet, informal ways that rarely get noticed of publicized. It's an old-boys' network, under a denatured Jesus drained of the Social Gospel and refilled with an ideology maximally friendly and supportive of the status quo and the prerogatives of wealth and power.
More than that, the Family is an influence and an ideological ergot that poisons the bond between America's elected representatives and their constituents, because it tells the Washington politicians in the Family's prayer circles that they are the elite, the chosen, singled out by God, favored by God, above the rules and mores of the common folk. The Family is, in a sense, recreating a contemporary version of the Pre-Enlightenment Era Divine Right of Kings, and the recent U.S. Senate vote in favor of the new FISA bill, which grants American presidents yet greater authority under which to order the secret surveillance of American citizens, may well be, in part, a manifestation of that tendency. If many Americans wonder about a breakdown in the basic nature of American Democracy they should look to The Family.
Follow Bruce Wilson on Twitter: www.twitter.com/brucewilson