Book Saloon: Jesus Plus Nothing

In Jeff Sharlet’s disturbing book, The Family,  Family leader Doug Coe describes his group’s philosophy as “Jesus plus nothing,” and he and his followers repeat this nonsensical mantra as though it meant anything.  Actually, it means a lot of things, but if Jesus were to find out what they were, he’d be suing for libel.  You see, Family members don’t give a rat’s ass about what we might think of as Jesus’ teachings; they only care about power, to a degree that even the decidedly unchurched could appreciate.  And they do.  Family founder Abram Vereide found Jesus by first finding Satan, in the rather unlikely guise of the labor movements in Seattle and San Francisco back in the 1930′s, and this devil sighting colored his bizarre worldview ever after.  To Vereide and his powerful flock, Jesus looked down on His father’s creation, and saw a lot of uppityness amongst the lower orders that needed smiting, and urgently wants His followers to take up clubs to do the job by whatever means necessary, be it co-opting politicians, supporting dictators, and crushing populist uprisings.

Their success in this long-term endeavor can hardly be denied.  Dictators, plutocrats, and authoritarian politicians took to Vereide’s “vision” like ducks to water, not unexpectedly, and the relentless transfer of power and wealth upward that has resulted in the years since can only be considered a triumph of the powerful, and the Family, over the people.  Every regressive tax, coup de etat, and repressive law thus redounds to the greater glory of Jesus plus Nothing, which seems plausible to a bunch of egotistical dimwits who get George Orwell and Orson Welles, neither of whom would have approved of their rank hypocrisy, mixed up.  Listening to Family members embarrassingly asinine attempts to quote history, the Bible, and the Founders, I found it difficult to believe they were smart enough to wipe their own asses, yet politicians from Sam Brownback to Hillary Clinton kneel before their altar at the Family’s “National Prayer Breakfasts,” where fascism is served up with a side of Freedom Toast.

Sharlet gained access to the Family’s inner circle surprisingly easily, for a Brooklyn Jew reporting for Harper’s, which is not that surprising when you  consider that the only requirements for Family membership are a hunger for power and a gullibility that would make Elmer Fudd blush; they welcome Sharlet to their Virginia estate (tax free, of course, like their infamous C Street house) with open arms, and more unfortunately, open mouths.  The narcissistic poppycock they spew becomes even more infuriating when you realize why they can afford to be so frank; their battle has largely been won, and not just at home, but in Uganda, Iraq, Afghanistan, and elsewhere.

Like Family member Ted Haggard, who when he wasn’t chomping on hooker wienie and snorting meth, had achieved all the wealth and power that Jesus plus Nothing has to offer, and hypocrisy and stupidity have turned from bug into feature for the intellectual midgets of this alarmingly large brood.  They don’t fear exposure anymore, and why would they?  Brother Bart Stupak was able to insert anti-abortion language into the health care reform bill, John Ensign still serves proudly in the US Senate, and the Family’s tax exempt status stands as holy writ from sea to shining sea.

What makes The Family so unsatisfying, though, is that even after witnessing the malevolence, vacuity, and dangerous proximity to power this ragtag band of bloodthirsty nincompoops enjoy, nay, revel in, Sharlet maintains his almost Village-like inability to pass judgement on people who deserve nothing but condemnation.  In the end, The Family feels like another mindless repetition of, “We Report, You Decide,” utterly devoid of the sort of horrified condemnation the subject matter would necessarily elicit from any reporter with an ounce of humanity.  From Uganda to Detroit to Iraq, the shattered lives and mutilated bodies left behind (pun intended) by a deadly cabal of amoral charlatans cynically wrapped in the thorny crown of Jesus fail to arouse Sharlet to forthrightly denounce these despicable creatures, even as their power grows, mutates, and looks for fresh victims.

Sharlet does an excellent job of exposing the intrinsic ties between despotism, hate movements, the systematic crushing of the weak by the powerful, and the bland and corporate calculations that make these atrocities pencil out in the eyes of their proponents as, well, Jesus plus Nothing, and lets it go at that.  Thus, in The Family, journalism at its finest becomes Journalism plus Nothing.

Maybe Sharlet will write a sequel.


  1. retzilian says:

    I’m grateful you read it, because it sounds like the kind of book that would make me want to punch the next ‘christian’ person that opened their mouth. Not that I don’t already have that temptation. heh.

  2. cocktailhag says:

    I went through phases. I wanted Sharlet to say something, then I wanted him to punch somebody. By the end I wanted to punch Sharlet.

  3. rmp says:

    Bob Hunter a long-time family member was on Maddow’s show last night to try and help make the Family look better after Rachel has been raking them over the coals for almost two months over the Ugandan Kill Gays Bill. He was obviously selected because of his milk toast demeanor and the fact that he knows Uganda well but hasn’t been there in several years so he couldn’t be tainted by the anti-gay legislation. None of the currently active cowards had the courage to appear on her show. Part 1 Part 2

  4. I’ve never minded a little irrationality, even a little schizophrenia in the neighborhood. Mental disorders often reveal the foundations which our more orderly — and more defensive — mental structures are built upon, much as dreams do, and as such are valuable in their own right.

    Still, there are holy fools and unholy ones. The insanity which comes from an excess of control, rather than an indifference to it, has always struck me as the real source of evil in the world. When something like the Family comes at you, I think that you have every reason to feel a shiver of apprehension. These are folks which the universe can’t digest, and unless they segregate themselves voluntarily, or someone puts an arm on them, they’re a danger to everyone they encounter.

    Imagine of a fraternity house which pledges only Ted Bundy clones, and you’ll have some idea of the damage they’ll be willing — and able — to do, so long as no one recognizes them for what they are.

  5. timothy3 says:

    Sharlet maintains his almost Village-like inability to pass judgement on people who deserve nothing but condemnation. In the end, The Family feels like another mindless repetition of, “We Report, You Decide,” utterly devoid of the sort of horrified condemnation the subject matter would necessarily elicit from any reporter with an ounce of humanity.

    This is an important point. I don’t whether it’s a form of moral numbness produced by a decades-long slide into madness and brutality or the twisted “objectivity” so many journalists adopt without question (ala The Politco and Dick Cheney), but the absence of directly addressing (and, yes, passing judgement on) this–and many other matters of import–renders a sterility to these intensely moral issues.
    The net effect is to soften the very real impact groups like The Family have on domestic and foreign societies. Passion rather than academic elevation is what’s required here.

  6. The Heel says:

    I guess I ‘ll have to read this book after all. They had an interview on NPR a few weeks back talking about “The Family” – which was the first time I even heard about it. I just caught a small piece of the dialog but it sounded like a Mafia like brotherhood in high Washington circles. Something like a free mason group or a fraternity.

    Is it bipartisan? Wonder how many Dems are in it and who…

    • cocktailhag says:

      Don’t waste your money; next time you’re in town you can have my copy, or I’ll be in LA for a week or so mid February; I can bring it. (Gayle Higginson gave me her copy for X-mas… she must have felt the same way….) It’s a loose collection of (mostly Republican) idiots, most famously John Ensign and the C Street gang.

  7. Jim White says:

    Wow, thanks for the warning. I had been meaning to read the book, but if Sharlet managed to dredge out all of that disgusting information without working himself into an outrage, there’s no way I’d be able to finish the book. I’d probably have a stroke…