Elite vs. Popular Religion. I'd like to focus more on the theology of the Family, which I will interpret a little differently than Sharlet did. One of Sharlet's most interesting ideas is that there are two main forms of American evangelicalism: a popular version and an elite version.
Elite evangelicalism as presented by the Family (and its current leader Doug Coe) is focused not on mega-churches and TV ministries, but on "key men". (And yes, it really does seem to be men. Hillary Clinton has flirted with the Family, but its vision is patriarchal.) Its fundamental text is Romans 13:1:
Everyone must submit himself to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established. The authorities that exist have been established by God.You can see why a powerful man would like that verse: Whatever double-dealing you did to get power was all part of God's plan. You are where you are because God wants you there, and anyone who rebels against you is rebelling against God. (Of course, if the rebellion succeeds, then that was part of God's plan too. And your rebellion against your superiors is part of God's plan if it succeeds.) Romans 13 (like much of the Old Testament) is political rather than personal, and its ultimate vision is theocratic: The people submit to their rulers, who in turn submit to God.
In particular, Coe seems to want to stamp out Jesus-plus-ethics. In one teaching session Sharlet relates, Coe asks the young men why King David is one of the heroes of the Bible. Is it because of his sterling character? Clearly not. David sins repeatedly, including really serious stuff like getting Bathsheba's husband killed so that he can marry her. Many explanations of David's worthiness are put forward and rejected, until Coe gives his answer: It's not about David at all, it's about God. David has his role because God chose him.
The implications are clear if you re-purpose Calvin's circular reasoning about election: If God has chosen you to be one of His key men, then nothing you do matters. And if the evidence that you are a key man is that you succeed, then whatever you have to do to succeed is justified.
What is "Jesus"? An outsider, or even an insider who finds Coe's teaching a puzzle, has to wonder: What is this "Jesus" he's talking about? Clearly it's not just the character in the gospels. (That would be Jesus plus the gospels.) And it's not Jesus' teachings, like the Sermon on the Mount or the parables. (That would be Jesus plus ethics again, or Jesus plus love.)
And that raises a question that I'll bet is taboo in the Family: What if what you're feeling in your heart is not Jesus? What if it's something else entirely?
Secular Epiphanies. A common mistake on both sides of the religious/non-religious divide is to imagine that the wall between them is much more solid than it really is, and that religious experiences and non-religious experiences are not comparable in any way. From the religious perspective, this manifests in the attitude that non-religious people can never "get it". On the non-religious side it appears as the belief that religious people (particularly the ones who believe that God speaks to them) must be crazy.
Both sides, I believe, could benefit from examining what I call secular epiphanies. (I described this idea in detail in this sermon.) Any group of people who work and think and study together eventually develops a way of thinking that doesn't belong to any individual. This phenomenon has a lot of names, all tinged with the metaphysics of some particular theory: hive mind, groupthink, collective intelligence, transpersonal consciousness, egregore, and many more.
When you have that experience in a religious context, when the group is a church and the subject is theology, then it's very easy to believe that you are hearing the voice of God. That's how God can say such contradictory things to people in different faiths: Each is hearing the transpersonal voice of its own group mind, not the Creator of the Universe.
Jesus Plus Something Unnamed and Manipulable. If Doug Coe simply announced "Obey me, I speak for Jesus," people as smart as Tom Coburn would see right through him, even if what Coe/Jesus was saying was exactly what he wanted to hear.
But the Family's structure of small prayer groups and Bible-reading groups of powerful men, groups led (but not dominated) by Coe and those who share his thinking, is well designed to induce epiphanies. The Family's leadership is in a good position not to dictate those epiphanies, but to manage them. And if the epiphanies can be managed to tell the powerful something they wanted to hear anyway, something that justifies them giving in to the deepest temptations in their souls ... that's a very enticing trap.