[The following is an excerpt from The Family: The Secret Fundamentalism at the Heart of American Power, by Jeff Sharlet (HarperCollins, June 2008)]
Not long after September 11, 2001, a man I’ll call Zeke came to New York to survey the ruins of secularism. “To bear witness,” he said. He believed Christ had called him.
He wandered the city, sparking up conversations with people he took to be Muslims—”Islamics,” he called them—knocking on the doors of mosques by day and sliding past velvet ropes into sweaty clubs by night. He prayed with an imam (to Jesus) and may or may not have gone home with several women. He got as close as possible to Ground Zero, visited it often, talked to street preachers. His throat tingled with dust and ashes. When he slept, his nose bled. He woke one morning on a red pillow.
He went to bars where he sat and listened to the anger of men and women who did not understand, as he did, why they had been stricken. He stared at photographs and paintings of the Towers. The great steel arches on which they’d stood reminded him of Roman temples, and this made him sad. The city was fallen, not just literally but spiritually, as decadent and doomed as an ancient civilization. And yet Zeke wanted and believed he needed to know why New York was what it was, this city so hated by fundamentalists abroad and, he admitted after some wine, by fundamentalists—”Believers,” he called them, and himself—at home.
At the time Zeke was living at Ivanwald. His brothers-in-Christ, the youngest eighteen, the oldest in their early thirties, were much like him: educated, athletic, born to affluence, successful or soon to be. Zeke and his brothers were fundamentalists, but not at all the kind I was familiar with. “We’re not even Christian,” he said. “We just follow Jesus.”
I’d known Zeke on and off for twelve years. He’s the older brother of a woman I dated in college. Zeke had studied philosophy and history and literature in the United States and in Europe, but he had long wanted to find something . . . better. His life had been a pilgrim’s progress, and the path he’d taken a circuitous version of the route every fundamentalist travels: from confusion to clarity, from questions to answers, from a mysterious divine to a Jesus who’s so familiar that he’s like your best friend. A really good guy about whom Zeke could ask, What would Jesus do? and genuinely find the answer.
His whole life Zeke had been searching for a friend like that, someone whose words meant what they meant and nothing less or more. Zeke himself looks like such a man, tall, lean, and muscular, with a square jaw and wavy, dark blond hair. One of his grandfathers had served in the Eisenhower administration, the other in Kennedy’s. His father, the family legend went, had once been considered a possible Republican contender for Congress. But instead of seeking office, his father had retreated to the Rocky Mountains, and Zeke, instead of attaining the social heights his pedigree seemed to predict, had spent his early twenties withdrawing into theological conundrums, until he peered out at a world of temptations like a wounded thing in a cave. He drank too much, fought men and raged at women, disappeared from time to time and came back from wherever he had gone quieter, angrier, sadder.
Then he met Jesus. He had long been a committed Christian, but this encounter was different. This Jesus did not demand orthodoxy. This Jesus gave him permission to stop struggling. So he did, and his pallor left him. He took a job in finance and he met a woman as bright as he was and much happier, and soon he was making money, in love, engaged. But the questions of his youth still bothered him. Again he drank too much, his eye wandered, his temper kindled. So, one day, at the suggestion of an older mentor, he ditched his job, put his fiancée on hold, and moved to Ivanwald, where, he was told, he’d meet yet another Jesus, the true one.
When he came up to New York, his sister asked if I would take him out to dinner. What, she wanted to know, was Zeke caught up in? We met at a little Moroccan place in the East Village. Zeke arrived in bright white tennis shorts, spotless white sneakers, and white tube socks pulled taut on his calves. His concession to Manhattan style, he said, was his polo shirt, tucked in tight; it was black. He flirted with the waitress and she giggled, he talked to the people at the next table. Women across the room glanced his way; he gave them easy smiles. I’d never seen Zeke so charming. In my mind, I began to prepare a report for his sister: Good news! Jesus has finally turned Zeke around.
He said as much himself. He even apologized for arguments we’d had in the past. He acknowledged that he’d once enjoyed getting a rise out of me by talking about “Jewish bankers.” (I was raised a Jew by my father, a Christian by my mother.) That was behind him now, he said. Religion was behind him. Ivanwald had cured him of the God problem. I’d love the place, he said. “We take Jesus out of his religious wrapping. We look at Him, at each other, without assumptions. We ask questions, and we answer them together. We become brothers.”
I asked if he and his brothers prayed a great deal. No, he said, not much. Did they spend a lot of time in church? None—most churches were too crowded with rules and rituals. Did they study the Bible in great depth? Just a few minutes in the morning. What they did, he said, was work and play games. During the day they raked leaves and cleaned toilets, and during the late afternoon they played sports, all of which prepared them to serve Jesus. The work taught humility, he said, and the sports taught will; both were needed in Jesus’ army.
“Wait a minute,” I said. “Back up. What leaves? Whose toilets?”
“Politicians,” he said. “Congressmen.”
“You go to their houses?”
“Sometimes,” Zeke answered. “But mostly they come to us.”
I was trying to picture it—Trent Lott pulling up in a black Lincoln, a toilet badly in need of a scrub protruding from the trunk. But what Zeke meant was that he and his brothers raked and polished for politicians at a retreat called the Cedars, designed for their spiritual succor.
“Really?” I said. “Like who?”
“I can’t really say,” Zeke answered.
“Who runs it?”
“People just give money.” Then Zeke smiled. Enough questions.
“You’re better off seeing it for yourself.”
“Is there an organization?” I asked.
“No,” he said, chuckling at my incomprehension. “Just Jesus.”
“So how do you join?”
“You don’t,” he said. He smiled again, such a broad grin. His teeth were as white as his sneakers. “You’re recommended.”
“Cowboy Christians”, “Baba lovers,” and naked pagans
Zeke recommended me to Ivanwald, and because I was curious and had recently quit a job to write a book about American religious communities, I decided to join for a while. I had no thought of investigative reporting; rather, my interest was personal. By the time I got there, I’d lived for short spells with “Cowboy Christians” in Texas, and with “Baba lovers,” America’s most benign cultists, in South Carolina, and in Kansas with hundreds of naked pagans. I thought Ivanwald would simply be one more bead on my agnostic rosary. I thought of the transformation Ivanwald had worked on Zeke, and I imagined it as a sort of spiritual spa where angry young men smoothed out their anxieties with new-agey masculine bonding. I thought it would be silly but relaxing. I didn’t imagine that what I’d find there would lead me into the heart of American fundamentalism, that a spell among Zeke’s Believers would propel me into dusty archives and the halls of power for the next several years. I had never thought of myself as a religious seeker, but at Ivanwald I became one. Since then, I’ve been searching, not for salvation, but for the meaning behind the words, the hints of power, that I found there.
Zeke was gone by the time I arrived. He had returned to finance, a path the brothers approved of, and to his fiancée, whom they did not—she was a graduate student and a free-spirited Scandinavian who loved to party. Jeff Connally, one of the Ivanwald house leaders who picked me up at Union Station in Washington one April evening, told me he thought Zeke might have made the wrong choice. Zeke’s fiancée did not obey God. She was, he said, a “Jezebel.” Jeff was a small, sharply handsome man with cloudy blue eyes above high cheekbones. When he said “Jezebel,” he smiled.
Jeff had come with two other brothers: Gannon Sims, the Baylor grad, and Bengt Carlson, the other house leader, a twenty-four-year-old North Carolinian with spiky brown eyebrows. In the car, after a long silence, he said, “Well, I think you’re probably the most misunderstood Ivanwalder ever.”
“Yeah?” I said.
“I didn’t really know how to explain you to the guys,” Bengt went on. “So I just told him we got a new dude, he’s from New York, he’s a writer, he’s Jewish, but he wants to know Jesus. And you know what they said?”
“No,” I answered, my fingers curling around the door handle.
“Bring him on!” My three new brothers laughed, and Gannon’s Volvo eased down tree-lined streets, each smaller and sleepier than the last, until we arrived at the gray colonial that was to be my new home. Bengt showed me my bunk and two drawers in a bureau and a cubbyhole in the bathroom for my toiletries. One by one, a dozen men drifted by in various states of undress, slapping me on the back or the ass or hugging me, calling me “brother.” Someone was playing the soundtrack to Hair. One man crooned the words to “Fellatio,” but then he said he was just kidding, and another switched out Hair for Neil Young’s “Keep On Rockin’ in the Free World.” Pavel the Czech winked.
Ready for bed, the men introduced themselves. From Japan there was Yusuke, a management consultant studying Ivanwald in order to replicate it in Tokyo; from Ecuador, a former college soccer star named Raf, a Catholic who was open about his desire for business connections. From Atlanta there was thick-necked Beau and bespectacled Josh, best friends who’d put off their postcollege careers; from Oklahoma, Dave, a tall, redheaded young man with a wide, daffy smile on a head of uncommon proportions. “Our pumpkin on a beanpole,” one of the brothers called him, a “gift” to our brotherhood from former representative Steve Largent, who Dave said had arranged with Dave’s father for Dave to be sent to Ivanwald to cure him of a mild case of college liberalism.
Before the lights went out after midnight, they came together to pray for me, Jeff Connally’s voice just above a whisper, asking God to “break” me. Dave, already broken, mumbled an amen.
The Family is in its own words an “invisible” association.
Ivanwald, which sits at the end of Twenty-fourth Street North in Arlington, was known only to its residents and to the members and friends of the Family. The Family is in its own words an “invisible” association, though it has always been organized around public men. Senator Sam Brownback (R., Kansas), chair of a weekly, off – the- record meeting of religious right groups called the Values Action Team (VAT), is an active member, as is Representative Joe Pitts (R., Pennsylvania), an avuncular would-be theocrat who chairs the House version of the VAT. Others referred to as members include senators Jim DeMint of South Carolina, chairman of the Senate Steering Committee (the powerful conservative caucus co-founded back in 1974 by another Family associate, the late senator Carl Curtis of Nebraska); Pete Domenici of New Mexico (a Catholic and relatively moderate Republican; it’s Domenici’s status as one of the Senate’s old lions that the Family covets, not his doctrinal purity); Chuck Grassley (R., Iowa); James Inhofe (R., Oklahoma); Tom Coburn (R., Oklahoma); John Thune (R., South Dakota); Mike Enzi (R., Wyoming); and John Ensign, the conservative casino heir elected to the Senate from Nevada, a brightly tanned, hapless figure who uses his Family connections to graft holiness to his gambling-fortune name. “Faith-based Democrats” Bill Nelson of Florida and Mark Pryor of Arkansas, sincere believers drawn rightward by their understanding of Christ’s teachings, are members, and Family stalwarts in the House include Representatives Frank Wolf (R., Virginia), Zach Wamp (R., Tennessee), and Mike McIntyre, a North Carolina Democrat who believes that the Ten Commandments are “the fundamental legal code for the laws of the United States” and thus ought to be on display in schools and court houses.
The Family’s historic roll call is even more striking: the late senator Strom Thurmond (R., South Carolina), who produced “confidential” reports on legislation for the Family’s leadership, presided for a time over the Family’s weekly Senate meeting, and the Dixie-crat senators Herman Talmadge of Georgia and Absalom Willis Robertson of Virginia—Pat Robertson’s father—served on the behind-the-scenes board of the organization. In 1974, a Family prayer group of Republican congressmen and former secretary of defense Melvin Laird helped convince President Gerald Ford that Richard Nixon deserved not just Christian forgiveness but also a legal pardon. That same year, Supreme Court Justice William Rehnquist led the Family’s first weekly Bible study for federal judges.
“I wish I could say more about it,” Ronald Reagan publicly demurred back in 1985, “but it’s working precisely because it is private.”
“We desire to see a leadership led by God,” reads a confidential mission statement. “Leaders of all levels of society who direct projects as they are led by the spirit.” Another principle expanded upon is stealthiness; members are instructed to pursue political jujitsu by making use of secular leaders “in the work of advancing His kingdom,” and to avoid whenever possible the label Christian itself, lest they alert enemies to that advance. Regular prayer groups, or “cells” as they’re often called, 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’s use of the term “cell” long predates the word’s current association with terrorism. Its roots are in the Cold War, when leaders of the Family deliberately emulated the organizing techniques of communism. In 1948, a group of Senate staffers met to discuss ways that the Family’s “cell and leadership groups” could recruit elites unwilling to participate in the “mass meeting approach” of populist fundamentalism. Two years later, the Family declared that with democracy inadequate to the fight against godlessness, such cells should function to produce political “atomic energy”; that is, deals and alliances that could not be achieved through the clumsy machinations of legislative debate would instead radiate quietly out of political cells. More recently, Senator Sam Brownback told me that the privacy of Family cells makes them safe spaces for men of power—an appropriation of another term borrowed from an enemy, feminism.5 “In this closer relationship,” a document for members reads, “God will give you more insight into your own geographical area and your sphere of influence.” One’s cell should become “an invisible ‘believing group’ ” out of which “agreements reached in faith and in prayer around the person of Jesus Christ” lead to action that will appear to the world to be unrelated to any centralized organization.
In 1979, the former Nixon aide and Watergate felon Charles W. Colson—born again through the guidance of the Family and the ministry of a CEO of arms manufacturer Raytheon—estimated the Family’s strength at 20,000, although the number of dedicated “associates” around the globe is much smaller (around 350 as of 2006). The Family maintains a closely guarded database of associates, members, and “key men,” but it issues no cards, collects no official dues. Members are asked not to speak about the group or its activities.
“The Movement,” a member of the Family’s inner circle once wrote to the group’s chief South African operative, “is simply inexplicable to people who are not intimately acquainted with it.” The Family’s “political” initiatives, he continues, “have always been misunderstood by ‘outsiders.’ As a result of very bitter experiences, therefore, we have learned never to commit to paper any discussions or negotiations that are taking place. There is no such thing as a ‘confidential’ memorandum, and leakage always seems to occur. Thus, I would urge you not to put on paper anything relating to any of the work that you are doing . . . [unless] you know the recipient well enough to put at the top of the page ‘PLEASE DESTROY AFTER READING.'”
“If I told you who has participated and who participates until this day, you would not believe it,” the Family’s longtime leader, Doug Coe, said in a rare interview in 2001. “You’d say, ‘You mean that scoundrel? That despot?’ “
A friendly, plainspoken Oregonian with dark, curly hair, a lazy smile, and the broad, thrown-back shoulders of a man who recognizes few superiors, Coe has worked for the Family since 1959 and been “First Brother” since founder Abraham Vereide was “promoted” to heaven in 1969. (Recently, a successor named Dick Foth, a longtime friend to John Ashcroft, assumed some of Coe’s duties, but Coe remains the preeminent figure.) Coe denies possessing any authority, but Family members speak of him with a mixture of intimacy and awe. Doug Coe, they say—most people refer to him by his first and last name—is closer to Jesus than perhaps any other man alive, and thus privy to information the rest of us are too spiritually “immature” to understand. For instance, the necessity of secrecy. Doug Coe says it allows the scoundrels and the despots to turn their talents toward the service of Jesus—who, Doug Coe says, prefers power to piety—by shielding their work on His behalf from a hardhearted public, unwilling to believe in their good intentions. In a sermon posted online by a fundamentalist website, Coe compares this method to the mob’s. “His Body”—the Body of Christ, that is, by which he means Christendom–“functions invisibly like the mafia. . . . They keep their organization invisible. Everything visible is transitory. Everything invisible is permanent and lasts forever. The more you can make your organization invisible, the more influence it will have.”
For that very reason, the Family has operated under many guises, some active, some defunct: National Committee for Christian Leadership, International Christian Leadership, National Leadership Council, the Fellowship Foundation, the International Foundation. The Fellowship Foundation alone has an annual budget of nearly $14 million. The bulk of it, $12 million, goes to “mentoring, counseling, and partnering with friends around the world,” but that represents only a fraction of the network’s finances. The Family does not pay big salaries; one man receives $121,000, while Doug Coe seems to live on almost nothing (his income fluctuates wildly according to the off – the- books support of “friends”), and none of the fourteen men on the board of directors (among them an oil executive, a defense contractor, and government officials past and present) receives a penny. But within the organization money moves in peculiar ways, “man-to-man” financial support that’s off the books, a constant proliferation of new nonprofits big and small that submit to the Family’s spiritual authority, money fl owing up and down the quiet hierarchy. “I give or loan money to hundreds of people, or have my friends do so,” says Coe.
Each group connected to the Family raises funds in dependently. Ivanwald, for example, was financed in part by an entity called the Wilberforce Foundation. Major evangelical organizations such as Young Life and the Navigators have undertaken the support of Family operatives, and the Family has in turn helped launch Christian conservative power houses such as Chuck Colson’s Prison Fellowship, a worldwide ministry that has declared “civil war” on secularism, and projects such as Community Bible Study, through which a failing Texas oilman named George W. Bush discovered faith in 1985.
The Family’s only publicized gathering is the National Prayer Breakfast, which it established in 1953 and which, with congressional sponsorship, it continues to organize every February at the Washington, D.C., Hilton. Some 3,000 dignitaries, representing scores of nations and corporate interests, pay $425 each to attend. For most, the breakfast is just that, muffins and prayer, but some stay on for days of seminars organized around Christ’s messages for particular industries. In years past, the Family organized such events for executives in oil, defense, insurance, and banking. The 2007 event drew, among others, a contingent of aid-hungry defense ministers from Eastern Europe, Pakistan’s famously corrupt Benazir Bhutto, and a Sudanese general linked to genocide in Darfur.
Here’s how it can work: Dennis Bakke, former CEO of AES, the largest independent power producer in the world, and a Family insider, took the occasion of the 1997 Prayer Breakfast to invite Ugandan president Yoweri Museveni, the Family’s “key man” in Africa, to a private dinner at a mansion, just up the block from the Family’s Arlington headquarters. Bakke, the author of a popular business book titled Joy at Work, has long preached an ethic of social responsibility inspired by his evangelical faith and his free-market convictions: “I am trying to sell a way of life,” he has said. “I am a cultural imperialist.” That’s a phrase he uses to be provocative; he believes that his Jesus is so universal that everyone wants Him. And, apparently, His business opportunities: Bakke was one of the pioneer thinkers of energy deregulation, the laissez- faire fever dream that culminated in the meltdown of Enron. But there was other, less-noticed fallout, such as the no- bid deal Bakke made with Museveni at the 1997 Prayer Breakfast for a $500-million dam close to the source of the White Nile—in waters considered sacred by Uganda’s 2.5-million–strong Busoga minority. AES announced that the Busoga had agreed to “relocate” the spirits of their dead. They weren’t the only ones opposed; first environmentalists (Museveni had one American arrested and deported) and then even other foreign investors revolted against a project that seemed like it might actually increase the price of power for the poor. Bakke didn’t worry. “We don’t go away,” he declared. He dispatched a young man named Christian Wright, the son of one of the Prayer Breakfast’s organizers, to be AES’s in- country liaison to Museveni; Wright was later accused of authorizing at least $400,000 in bribes. He claimed his signature had been forged.
“I’m sure a lot of people use the Fellowship as a way to network, a way to gain entrée to all sorts of people,” says Michael Cromartie, an evangelical Washington think tanker who’s critical of the Family’s lack of transparency. “And entrée they do get.”
The president usually arrives an hour early, meets perhaps ten heads of state—usually from small nations, such as Albania, or Ecuador, or Benin, that the United States uses as proxies in the United Nations—without publicity, and perhaps a dozen other useful guests chosen by the Family. “It totally circumvents the State Department and the usual vetting within the administration that such a meeting would require,” an anonymous government informant told a sympathetic sociologist. “If Doug Coe can get you some face time with the President of the United States, then you will take his call and seek his friendship. That’s power.”
The president always speaks last, usually to do no more than spread a dull glaze of civil religion over the proceedings. For years, the main address came from Billy Graham, but now it’s often delivered by an outsider to Christian conservatism, such as Saudia Arabia’s longtime ambassador to the United States, Prince Bandar, or Senator Joe Lieberman, or, as in 2006, Bono. “This is really weird,” said the rock star.
“Anything can happen,” according to an internal planning document, “the Koran could even be read, but JESUS is there! He is infiltrating the world.” Too bland most years to merit much press, the breakfast is regarded by the Family as merely a tool in a larger purpose: to recruit the powerful attendees into smaller, more frequent prayer meetings, where they can “meet Jesus man to man.”
In the process of introducing powerful men to Jesus, the Family has managed to affect a number of behind-the-scenes acts of diplomacy. In 1978 it helped the Carter administration organize a worldwide call to prayer with Menachem Begin and Anwar Sadat. At the 1994 National Prayer Breakfast, Family leaders persuaded their South African client, the Zulu chief Mangosuthu Buthelezi, to stand down from the possibility of civil war with Nelson Mandela. But such benign acts appear to be the exception to the rule. During the 1960s, the Family forged relationships between the U.S. government and some of the most oppressive regimes in the world, arranging prayer networks in the U.S. Congress for the likes of General Costa e Silva, dictator of Brazil; General Suharto, dictator of Indonesia; and General Park Chung Hee, dictator of South Korea. “The Fellowship’s reach into governments around the world,” observes David Kuo, a former special assistant to the president in Bush’s first term, “is almost impossible to overstate or even grasp.”
In 1983, Doug Coe and General John W. Vessey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff , informed the civilian ambassadors of the Central American nations that the Prayer Breakfast would be used to arrange “private sessions” for their generals with “responsible leaders” in the United States; the invitations would be sent from Republican senators Richard Lugar and Mark Hatfield, and Dixie-crat John Stennis, the Mississippi segregationist after whom an aircraft carrier is now named. The Family went on to build friendships between the Reagan administration and the Salvadoran general Carlos Eugenios Vides Casanova, found liable in 2002 by a Florida jury for the torture of thousands, and the Honduran general Gustavo Alvarez Martinez, who before his assassination was linked to both the CIA and death squads. El Salvador became one of the bloodiest battlegrounds of the Cold War; U.S. military aid to Honduras jumped from $4 million per year to $79 million. In Africa, the Family greased the switch of U.S. patronage from one client state, Ethiopia, to another that they felt was more promising: Somalia. “We work with power where we can,” Doug Coe explains, “build new power where we can’t.” Former secretary of state James Baker, a longtime participant in a prayer cell facilitated by Coe, recalls that when he visited Albania after the collapse of Eastern Europe an communism, the Balkan nation’s foreign minister met him on the tarmac with the words, “I greet you in the name of Doug Coe.”
Coe’s status within Washington has been quantitatively calculated by D. Michael Lindsay, a Rice University sociologist who traded on his past work with evangelicals as a pollster—and his sympathetic perspective—to win interviews with 360 evangelical elites. “One in three mentioned Coe or the Fellowship as an important influence,” he reports. “Indeed, there is no other organization like the Fellowship, especially among religious groups, in terms of its access or clout among the country’s leadership.” At the 1990 National Prayer Breakfast, President George H. W. Bush praised Doug Coe for what he described as “quiet diplomacy, I wouldn’t say secret diplomacy.” Bush was apparently ignorant of one of the nation’s oldest laws, the Logan Act, which forbids private citizens to do just that lest foreign policy slip out of democratic control. Sometimes Coe’s role is formal; in 2000, he met with Pakistan’s top economic officials as a “special envoy” of Representative Joe Pitts, a key power broker for the region, and when he and Bush Senior hosted an off-the-record luncheon with Iraq’s ambassador to the United States in the mid- 1980s, he may also have been acting in some official capacity. Mostly, however, he travels around the world as a private citizen. He has prayed with dictators, golfed with presidents, and wrestled with an island king in the Pacific. He has visited nearly every world capital, often with congressmen at his side, “making friends” and inviting them back to the Cedars, the Family’s headquarters, bought in 1978 with $1.5 million donated by (among others) Tom Phillips, then the CEO of arms manufacturer Raytheon, several oil executives, and Clement Stone, the man who financed the campaign to insert “under God,” into the Pledge of Allegiance.
Coe, who while I was at Ivanwald lived with his wife in an elegantly appointed carriage house on the mansion’s grounds, considers the mansion a refuge for the persecuted and the afflicted: Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas retreated there when Anita Hill accused him of sexual harassment; Senator David Durenberger, a conservative Catholic, boarded there to escape marital problems that began with rumors of an affair and ended with Durenberger’s pleading guilty to misuse of public funds; James Watt, Reagan’s anti-environmental secretary of the interior, weathered the controversy surrounding his appointment in one of the Cedars’ bedrooms. A waterfall has been carved into the mansion’s broad lawn, from which a bronze bald eagle watches over a forested hillside sloping down to the Potomac River. The mansion is white and pillared and surrounded by magnolias, and by red trees that do not so much tower above it as whisper. The Cedars is named for these trees, but Family members speak of it as a person. “The Cedars has a heart for the poor,” they like to say.
By poor they mean not the thousands of literal poor living in Washington’s ghettos, but rather the poor in spirit: the senators, generals, and prime ministers who coast to the end of Twenty-fourth Street in Arlington in black limousines and town cars and hulking SUVs to meet one another, to meet Jesus, to pay homage to the god of the Cedars. There they forge relationships beyond the “din of the vox populi” and “throwaway religion” in favor of the truths of the Family. Declaring God’s covenant with the Jews broken, the group’s core members call themselves the new chosen.
The brothers of Ivanwald were the Family’s next generation, its high priests in training. Sometimes the brothers would ask me why I was there. They knew that I was “half Jewish,” that I was a writer, and that I was from New York City, which most of them considered to be only slightly less wicked than Baghdad or Paris. I didn’t lie to them. I told my brothers that I was there to meet Jesus, and I was: the Jesus of the Family, whose ways are secret. The brothers were certain that He had sent me to them for a reason, and perhaps they were right. What follows is my personal testimony, to the enduring power of this strange American god.