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Book Excerpt: The Family

A journey beneath the secret fundamentalism at the heart of American power.

| Tue May 20, 2008 2:00 AM EDT

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.

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