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
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?
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
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?
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
Leslie Synn is an editorial intern at