A few days ago, I wrote a post expressing concern re Hillary Clinton's reported involvement in a cell-church group operated by the longest-running political dominionist group in existence--some folks considered this a wee bit controversial, in part because it was "OMG CANDIDATE DIARY" (to be honest, I'm worried about her) and partly because folks noted "there is no clear evidence this is coercive".
After some discussion with Jeff Sharlet over in Fred Clarkson's article on "The Family"--in which he's discussed info that will be included in his upcoming book--it would appear that not only does "The Family" use the same model as other coercive groups using pyramid-like structures, but may well have *originated* its use politically.
A history of cell-church groups, revised
In my initial history of cell-church groups, I had noted that the earliest use I had documented for the use of cell-groups in any manner was the late 40s-early 50s within the Assemblies of God (a group known for its promotion of neopentecostal dominionism--being quite possibly the originators of it from a very early period).
Recent research I've done regarding the history of the violent "Joel's Army"/"Joshua Generation" group "Watchmen At The Walls" has pushed back the use of cells in church steeplejacks probably to the late 1910s-early 1920s (again originating with the Assemblies)--and recent info from Sharlet which is to be published in his upcoming book "The Family" indicates that not only did "The Family" originate the practice but cell-church groups may have already been in semi-common use politically.
Specifically, Sharlet has traced the origin of political cell-church usage in "The Family" to one Frank N.D. Buchman, who may well have become acquainted with the practice via the use of cell-churches in China (later notable promoters of highly abusive cell-churches in China and among Chinese emigre communities include Watchman Nee and Witness Lee). In the 20s, he eventually was kicked out of China--in no small part because he accused other missionaries of being homosexuals.
Buchman well may have been one of the first dominionists in the US not affiliated with a neopentecostal church; he was a Lutheran, and in 1921 onward he founded an early dominionist group originally known as "The Oxford Group" and later becoming known as Moral Re-Armament (it has since gone through another reinvention and is known now as Initiatives of Change, and would superficially appear to have toned down some of its rhetoric).
Moral Re-Armament spawned not only Alcoholics Anonymous (a program that has come under criticism because of its reliance on a deity) but the program "Up With People"; its "Four Absolutes" (absolute honesty, absolute purity, absolute unselfishness and absolute love) were seen to waffle in practice (there's some evidence that an early version of "bait and switch evangelism" or "heavenly deception" may have been used in that "absolute love" could require the telling of "white lies"), and the group became enough of a personality cult (around Buchman and--in a manner similar to that of neopente dominionist groups and what has been reported re "The Family"--the emphasis of "rhema" (personal revelation) along with and even over "logos" (the written Word)) that the conservative Catholic League itself warned Roman Catholics against association with the group as of 1951.
The Catholic League article actually does have some interesting info on the group:
The basic tenet of MRA is that the reformation of the world can only be achieved by creating a moral and spiritual force, by convincing all men of the necessity of absolute honesty, absolute purity, absolute unselfishness, and absolute love. As helps to the practice of these cardinal virtues and to the further development of their moral life, the members of MRA engage in the exercises of sharing, surrender, substitution, and guidance. It is the last practice in particular that is of interest in an evaluation of this group.
Many leaders, Buchman states, are convinced that the world needs a moral and spiritual awakening, and they put their case in striking phrases. But that is only words. The problem facing men is how to do it. To solve this difficulty Buchman turns to God:
Now I find when we don't know how, God will show us if we are willing. When man listens, God speaks. When man obeys, God acts. The secret is God-control. We are not out to tell God. We are out to let God tell us. And He will tell us.
The lesson the world most needs is the art of listening to God. 
Listening to God is the heart of MRA. As a program of spiritual reformation, it must be performed according to protocol. Everyone must set aside a "quiet time" of fifteen minutes a day to listen to the voice of God. Although "anyone can hear the words of the Lord," it is also necessary to obey certain rules:
The first rule is that we listen honestly for everything that may come—and if we are wise we write it down. The second rule is that we test the thoughts that come, to see which are from God.
One test is the Bible. It is steeped in the experience through the centuries of men who have dared, under Divine guidance, to live experimentally with God. There, culminating in the life of Jesus Christ, we find the highest moral and spiritual challenge—complete honesty, purity, unselfishness, and love.
Another excellent test is, "What do others say who also listen to God?" This is an unwritten law of fellowship. It is also an acid test of one's commitment to God's plan. No one can be wholly God-controlled who works alone. 
Buchman is sure that he has this direct guidance from on high:
In a revolution I went through not long ago, God gave me direct orders to stay in a place which the authorities had said was the most dangerous of all. I stayed. Others, who fled in search of safety, nearly lost their lives. My friend and I were perfectly safe. 
The results of his listening are clear. He finds that God's thoughts become his thoughts. In fact, "direct messages come from the Mind of God to the mind of man—definite, direct, decisive. God speaks." 
This gift is not limited to himself. Everyone can, in fact, must, receive his instruction directly from God:
We accept as a commonplace a man's voice carried by radio to the uttermost parts of the earth. Why not the voice of the living God as an active, creative force in every home, every business, every parliament? Men listen to a king when he speaks to his people over the air. Why not the King of Kings? He is alive, and constantly broadcasting. 
Thus divine guidance must become the normal experience of ordinary men and women. "Any man," says Buchman, "can pick up divine messages if he will put his receiving set in order. Definite, accurate, adequate information can come from the Mind of God to the minds of men." 
Receiving this communication from God to begin a life governed by absolute honesty, purity, unselfishness, and love is only the first step. It is the reform of self which must come before anything else can be accomplished. But the aim of MRA is more comprehensive. Buchman envisages the change not only of individuals, but, through them, of the entire human race:
Wherever I go people say one thing: "If only so-and-so would be changed!" You probably thought of the very person. Or you probably thought of five persons. Well, think of five persons changed. Think of nations changed. Is that the answer? The world is looking for an answer, and, by the Grace of God, there is an answer. But be clear on this point, the answer is not in any man or any group of men. The answer rests in the living God. It rests in a God-controlled person. It rests in a God-controlled nation. It rests in God-controlled supernationalism. 
Individual change of hearts leading to the reformation of the world is the plan and purpose of MRA. Moral Rearmament, therefore, is not a new organization which prescribes allegiance to a system of truths or precepts, but avowedly is only a means of deepening the truths which every man must hold. It is neither a church nor a religious sect. There are no dogmas to profess; no rites to practice. MRA exists only to change the lives of men, to make zealous reformers out of sinners, who still remain members of their individual churches. "Catholic, Jew and Protestant, Hindu, Muslim, Buddhist and Confucianists—all find they can change, where needed, and travel along this good road together." 
(Footnotes:  Buchman, Frank N.D., Remaking the World (London, 1955), p. 35.
 Ibid., p. 36.
 Ibid., p. 40.
 Ibid., p. 72.
 Ibid., p. 13.
 Ibid., p. 14.
 Ibid., p. 25.
 Ibid., p 166.)
In a move that eerily mirrored the use of cells in "The Family"--and in better-known coercive groups such as Campus Crusade and (most infamously) Maranatha, the use of cell-churches to promote official dogma was rampant--and even at this embryonic state, warning signs abounded:
Frank N.D. Buchman, founder of MRA, was born in 1878 of Pennsylvania Dutch ancestry. He studied for the Lutheran ministry at Philadelphia, also travelling abroad to England and Germany. Assigned to a poor parish at his own request, he soon brought it to a flourishing condition by his zealous activity. In 1904 he turned to work with youth, and took up a position as chaplain in a youth center. But a disagreement arose between him and the administration over the use of funds for the institution, and Buchman left to travel in Europe. Here, in the English village of Keswick, as he attended a Sunday afternoon session of the village church where a woman evangelist preached about the cross and how Christ had taken on Himself the sins of the world, Buchman had a "spiritual experience." He suddenly saw that all his knowledge of Christianity was only theoretical. His duty was to put it into actual practice. Since personal sin was the cause of the world's evil, there was need for personal repentance. The very first step of his conversion was to write the six members of the committee in Pennsylvania and ask their forgiveness for his part in the argument.
Returning to America, he carried out his intention of imparting to others his own grasp of the religious truth he had seen by converting the atheist son of the family with whom he was boarding. Through his connection with the YMCA, and then Harvard University as a lecturer in personal evangelism, Buchman began to form followers in the ivy league colleges of the East. Soon the practice of house parties, at which students and often prominent men and women gathered to seek the "change," became prevalent throughout the country. One of the principal techniques for this metanoia was a public confession of one's fault's, a device that caused trouble, particularly on college campuses, where the confessions were largely sexual.
(Of note: One of the most frequent warning signs of a potentially coercive group is the unethical use of confessions, especially public confessions. This is an issue that is in fact one of the most frequently forms of systemic religious abuse within cell-church groups.)
The Catholic League was not the only mainstream church at the time to warn about potential abuses in Moral Re-Armament; the Church of England also specifically condemned the group, and the TIME Magazine article is especially enlightening as to the degree of abuse that was occuring--and some *other* disturbing statements by Buchman that would be mirrored by the present-day leader of "The Family":
Imported to America, the Oxford Group went well for a time among Ivy League undergraduates, who responded to the shiny-eyed intensity of the group's weekend "house parties" in well-staffed mansions, with their morning "quiet times" and their public confessions of sins. The four tenets of Frank Buchman's version of Oxford Group Christianity were "absolute honesty, absolute purity, absolute unselfishness and absolute love," and so much absolutism was bound occasionally to end in tears; at Princeton, for instance, President John Hibben summarily banned Frank Buchman from the campus.
. . .
God-Guided Elite. Buchman meant M.R.A. to be a "God-guided campaign to prevent war by moral and spiritual awakening." It failed to prevent war, and it earned considerable censure for seeming to rely heavily on "changing" dictators; Buchman had the misfortune to exclaim publicly: "I thank heaven for a man like Adolf Hitler." After World War II, M.R.A. turned to attacking Communism.
Another article detailing potential abusive practices in many of Buchman's groups including some specific concerns re Alcoholics Anonymous also notes other practices of concern that point to Moral Re-Armament having been coercive in practice--among others:
Although one can find parallels between AA and the Craigie Foundation, AA really owes its existence to the Oxford Movement, founded by Lutheran minister Nathan Buchman. Buchman, in response to what he believed to have been a personal mystical religious experience, started the First Century Christian Fellowship in 1921. The goal of this group was to establish a world culture based on what Buchman considered to be the beliefs and practices of the early Christian church. Buchman tended to see everything in the context of a battle between good and evil. His vision was messianic and he equated his work and goals with God. He believed that any philosophy or ideology, particularly Communism, which disagreed with his vision of a world-wide theocracy, was inspired by Satan. He established the Four Absolutes: absolute honesty, absolute purity, absolute unselfishness, and absolute love. He referred to himself as "soul surgeon." New members of his group were expected to undergo rigorous self-examination, openly confess their sins and weaknesses, surrender themselves to God, and make restitution to anyone they had harmed in the past. Additionally, they were expected to promote the organization for no fee and fund raising was a key activity of members of the fellowship.
Buchman also promoted the Four Cs: confidence in Buchman the soul surgeon, confession of sins, conviction (or acknowledgement) of one's sins, conversion to the principles of the First Century Christian Fellowship, and continuance of practice of the Fellowship rules. Besides the Four Absolutes and the Four Cs, members were also encouraged to live by specific fellowship slogans, which included "give news, not views," "win your argument, lose your man," and "J.E.S.U.S. just exactly suits us sinners." Buchman's explicitly stated goal was mass conversion that ultimately would lead to humanity being ruled by "God-Control."
The First Century Christian Fellowship grew rapidly in the 1920s. Buchman targeted recruitment activities towards men of power and influence and towards college students. He fully expected his followers to adhere to his dictates totally and to accept the veracity of his mystical experiences without question. Not surprisingly, a considerable amount of negative publicity resulted from his methods of recruitment and his group was often called both a cult and "Buchmanism."
In 1929, following a series of revivals he held in England, Buchman changed the name of his group to the Oxford Group and the organization continued to flourish under the new name. His hatred of communism allowed him to see fascism as a reasonable alternative and in 1936, he was quoted as saying "I thank heaven for a man like Adolph Hitler, who built a front line of defense against the anti-Christ of Communism. Think what it would mean to the world if Hitler surrendered to the control of God? The world needs the dictatorship of the living spirit of God. Hitler is Christianity's defender against Communism." Although he later admitted that he had been duped by Hitler, he did not issue a retraction. Understandably, that interview did irreparable harm to the Oxford Movement and in 1939, Buchman again changed the name of his movement, this time calling it "Moral Rearmament." The influence of Moral Rearmament peaked in the 1940s and its membership declined greatly following Buchman's death in 1961.
In other words, dominionist orgs were hitting on the concept of cell-churches widely as early as the 1920s.
Based on Sharlet's research--to be published in his book next month--"The Family" apparently directly adopted the tactics used by Moral Re-Armament (presumably also including the coercive tactics that got the group banned from Princeton in a remarkably similar manner to how Maranatha was banned from multiple state universities and Campus Crusade has also found itself occasionally banned) full-scale when the group was founded in 1935, integrating the use of cell-church groups in 1942--and already at that time using the specific term "cell group". In fact, much of the statements by Buchman (and Moral Re-Armament during his leadership of the group) *and* by "The Family" seem frighteningly similar enough--in particular the explicit targeting of world leaders for recruitment and the promotion of Jesus Christ as a cult of personality--one could legitimately make the argument that "The Family" may be the standard-bearers for what was known as "Buchmanism" in the Fifties.
Sharlet is supposedly going to be publishing a full history of this in his upcoming book--it is going to be *very* interesting, IMHO, what comes out once "The Family" hits the bookstores.
Recruitment, as it works in "The Family"
Many folks in the various threads re "The Family" have had many questions to the effect of "I heard Barack Obama and John McCain were also involved in this--can you clarify?". Much of the confusion is in part because of the specific terminology that "The Family" uses to describe its various levels of involvement--terms that not only don't exactly have the same meaning as their plain-English equivalents (another danger sign of coerciveness, by the way) but also refer to specific levels common in "pyramid-based" coercive groups.
Again, my descriptions are in part based on confirmation Jeff Sharlet has provided in regards to how the cell structure in "The Family" operates, combined with my own research and experiences.
Level 0: Recruitment via the National Prayer Breakfast
What I will refer to as "Level 0" is, to my knowledge, not named internally in "The Family" but is the level at which people are invited to the National Prayer Breakfast; Level 0 is the "recruitment level", where people are invited to a seminar and the group scouts likely folks out for potential further recruitment. Attendees don't necessarily agree with the ideology.
Level 0 in other groups (in these examples, I'll be using Scientology's internal structure as well as AmWay's; both are pyramidal coercive groups familiar to most--Maranatha and other abusive "discipling and shepherding" groups also have similar internal setups) would be the "personality tests" given by Scientologists (or the purchase of the book "Dianetics") or "business development seminars" held by AmWay or Scientology frontgroups.
Typically at Level 0 in recruitment, almost no practical info is given re the group save that it's a great way to improve yourself (or to network)--it's pretty much only once folks have joined (and, most of the time, not even then) that they realise the level of mire they have just gotten themselves into.
Inside the Beltway, things are complicated by the fact that the National Prayer Breakfast essentially operates as a semi-mandatory attendance event--at least if a politician wants votes. (In part, we can thank groups like "The Family" for this situation.) It's not a dissimilar situation from a person working for a business who is told by his boss to attend "business development seminars" (which turn out to be AmWay or Scientology recruitment events) and who is at risk for either being fired, demoted, or not being eligible for job advancement if he *doesn't* attend these seminars.
Fortunately, this would also appear to be the maximum extent of involvement of Obama and McCain, according to Sharlet.
Level 1: Indoctrination of "Friends" via cell-groups
Level 1 is probably the initial level at which true involvement occurs with "The Family"; this level is internally referred to as "Friends of The Family" and is the first level we start seeing things of real concern. (The following description should, I hope, explain why I am now gravely worried for Mrs. Clinton and what she's gotten herself into.)
Level 1 in "The Family"--and in most other pyramid-style groups (as we'll get into)--is the level of initial indoctrination and "shepherding". In "The Family", there's evidence (which, again, Sharlet will be discussing in full in his book) that indicate the same coercive practices common across pyramidal cell-groups may be occuring.
In particular, at least one comment by Sharlet has indicated that quite a bit more than innocent "Bible study" goes on in these cells, and that other potentially more coercive activities may go on in the inner circle:
I've never accused them of "conspiratorial mind control" but I do document that this is about a lot more than worship and Bible study, which are just fine. In fact, the inner circle of the Family does very little of either -- Doug Coe rejects church, and elite believers are encouraged to seek the advice of Jesus by direct consultation in a cell group, with scripture rarely consulted.
This is more than a little dangerous. In fact (we'll need to wait for Sharlet's book to come out to document more of it, alas), this is a rather strong hint that potentially abusive tactics may be in use (the use of unethical confession tactics by "Family" predecessor/model Moral Re-Armament are already a concern, and disallowing people to read the Bible for themselves (and requiring specific, leader-inspired interpretations) removes a powerful form of "reality testing" for persons in Bible-based groups). In addition, the specific advise to not participate in mainstream churches is very, very worrisome--it's a classic method to isolate people from communities that might threaten the dogma of what is promoted by Coe and by "shepherds".
The fact that group leaders promote authoritarianism in general also does not exactly relax one--it is extremely common in abusive "cell church" groups for leaders to claim direct personal revelation from God, and opposition to the group leaders to be opposition to God.
Level 1 initiates in pyramidal groups are generally not trusted to leadership positions within the group, are privy to only some of the info, and are essentially seen as "infants in need of instruction" internally--so they do tend to be shepherded and shadowed, in part because the group doesn't yet see them as "loyal faithful" and doesn't trust them not to leave or to bugger up.
There are equivalents to this elsewhere. Level 1 in AmWay is typically the level where people have joined the group, are not yet Diamonds, but are trying to peddle Quixtar merchandise to their relatives et al. (This is also where they are encouraged to join the AmWay "business motivational organisations" where quite a bit of the reports of coercive practices come from.) In Scientology, this is the level where people are in the group, aren't yet privy to the secrets about Xenu et al, are running up their credit cards with "auditing" sessions, and often join the Sea Orgs (a paramilitary/missionary group within Scientology) as a method of alternate payment for their E-Meter sessions.)
In addition, there's a potential *second* form of coercion that "The Family" has in their deck that is rarely available to "level 1" in abusive pyramidal groups (other than groups using org-owned living and working arrangements)--namely, "The Family" really can threaten to derail a political career if their mark gets too out of line. The only comparable *common* level of potential coercion over someone's career and livelihood that I'm personally aware of is with Scientology *after* someone has signed themselves into the Sea Orgs (and that's in part because, at that point, they do often end up in employment with Scientology as well as in Scientology-provided housing as well as force their members to sign coercive (and, likely, illegal) "contracts" where members forfeit their right to sue for damages); generally pyramidal groups do *not* get this sort of ammo until the "Level 2" recruitment stage.
This is the level at which Hillary Clinton is presently a member (and why I have concerns for her at this point).
Level 2: Leaders--what "The Family" sees as its "membership"
Level 2 are the shepherds and "faithful leadership" of pyramidal-style groups--those who've been in it long enough, and indoctrinated enough, to be seen as the "true faithful" and thus privy to the truth of what *really* goes on in the org.
In "The Family", Level 2 is what the group terms "members" (this is, as an aside, how "The Family" can legitimately claim that Hillary Clinton is not a "Member" of the group--"Member" refers to the leadership circles). Most of the skunk-works goes on here; people at this stage are pretty much isolated from religious observances outside of "The Family" (and religious groups approved by the org).
Level 2 in AmWay is roughly equivalent to the Diamond level; Level 2 in Scientology would be the OT VIIs and above who've paid out $400,000 US to hear the "Super Secret of Mankind" (namely, that all of humanity's troubles are the direct result of "enturbulation" (oppression and even frank possession) by "body thetans"--alien ghosts which were the result of a mass genocide by Evil Alien Overlord Xenu when he chucked millions of other aliens in the volcanoes at Kilahuea and Las Palmas some 73 million years ago--and most religions/theologies/etc. outside of Scientology are the result of "engrams" (implanted images) shown to these unfortunates before they were dumped in volcanoes to such a level as to give poor Lady Pele a permanent case of indigestion).
Most of Sharlet's writing (before his book) where he's mentioned politicians by name have involved presumed Level 2 members of "The Family". The Level 2 members have the private Family-owned apartments et al; they also toe the line *very* carefully because it could explode messily if they were to escape.
Fairly confirmable Level 2 initiates (or, as "The Family" terms them, "members") include U.S. Reps. Zach Wamp, R-Tenn.; Bart Stupak, D-Mich.; Jim DeMint, R-S.C.; and Mike Doyle, D-Pa.; and U.S. Sens. John Ensign, R-Nev.; and Sam Brownback, R-Kan. (All six of these lived in Family-provided apartments.)
Other members (present and past) of Congress that may either be "Friends" or "Members" (not much documentation besides Sharlet's writing exists on this) include Senators Don Nickles and James Inhofe of Oklahoma, Charles Grassley of Iowa, Pete Domenici of New Mexico, John Ensign of Nevada, Bill Nelson of Florida, and Conrad Burns of Montana; House members that may be either "Members" or "Friends" include Frank Wolf of Virginia and Joseph Pitts of Pennsylvania.
Level 3: The men behind the curtain
Level 3 are essentially the true leaders of the org--the DeVos clan and the heads of AmWay IBOs would count in the case of AmWay, whilst L. Ron Hubbard and David Miscavaige would count as examples in Scientology.
In the case of "The Family", the "Level 3" candidate would be Douglas Coe, who is considered one of the 25 most influential "evangelicals" in the US (in large part due to his leadership in "The Family"). There are potentially other leaders as well that would qualify as "Level 3" management; the group decentralised much of its internal structure in 1972.
Interestingly, "The Family" uses front-groups, but does not use the "church loophole" to avoid filing a form 990 (501(c)3 groups--of which "The Fellowship Foundation", the "core group" of "The Family", is one--are generally required to file a form 990 in lieu of business tax forms, but there is a specific exemption applying only to churches that allows many coercive religious groups to hide their finances almost entirely--Scientology has hidden much of the worth of its assets via this exemption, and so have many of the televangelists now being investigated by Congress).
Because of this, form 990s for the org are available online; Richard E. Carver can thus be added to the list of "Level 3" leaders as can Marty Sherman, Stan Holmes Jr., Frank J. Sizemore III, John May, and Charles McCleod--all of whom are listed as being in upper management of the org. Charles Mendies of New Delhi, India is also listed as a "ministry coordinator"; Douglas Coe is also specifically listed.
An additional listing includes Eric Sanson as VP of "The Family"; Kirk Mitchell as secretary; Leroy Rooker as treasurer; Rod McAllister, Ronnie Cameron, David Parks, David Laux, Denny Pierce, Doug Crane, Robert Perry, Larry Franklin, and Mike Foster as "directors"; and Doug Coe as an "associate". However, this organisational table is more than a little misleading; literally everyone on "The Fellowship Foundation's" board of directors serves all of an hour a week without compensation, with Coe doing most of the running (as the only 40 hour/week board member), and thus can be said to be the true brains of the operation. (He is also the sole paid board member, earning over $51,000/yr based on the 2005 form 990.)
At the end of the form, practically the entire Coe family are listed as employees and "associates" (which may be the term that "The Family" uses in practice for its leadership)--Timothy S. Coe (Doug Coe's son and "associate", $110,000 yearly salary); Janice Coe (Doug Coe's wife and "associate", $2,400 yearly salary); David Coe (another son of Doug Coe and "associate", $110,000 yearly salary); Paula Corder (a married daughter of Doug Coe and "associate", $21,000 yearly salary); Alden Coe (son-in-law of Doug Coe and "associate", $12,500 yearly salary); and finally Elena Cole (daughter-in-law of Doug Coe and "associate", $12,500 yearly salary).
Interestingly, a second frontgroup of "The Family" (listed in the form 990 for "The Fellowship Foundation") is Wilberforce Foundation--it, too, does not use the "church loophole", is apparently a "Young Christian Leader's" training facility (think like Campus Crusade's "Leadership U"), and *is* directly run by David Coe (Doug Coe's son). The group is listed as being in "common management" with "The Fellowship Foundation", and (in addition to Tim Coe and David Coe, who are listed as vice-president and treasurer respectively) Jerry Jonker is listed as president and Marty Sherman as secretary (Sherman is also listed as being associated with "The Fellowship Foundation). All leaders save for Jonker also are substantially paid--Tim and David Coe to the tune of $110,000 yearly, with Sherman being paid $121,200 yearly.
The lack of the use of the "church loophole" is surprising, especially since "The Family" did use this loophole for "C Street Center", the frontgroup that actually manages the apartment housing.
For that matter, the form 990s are turning out to be quite interesting reading in and of themselves--more on that in another post.