Westmont College and the Apotheosis of Evangelicalism

Westmont College and the Apotheosis of Evangelicalism September 14, 2013

Jeff Sharlet is probably the best long-form religion journalist we have today. A few years ago, he published a haunting account of The Fellowship. It’s a must-read.

Now Sharlet has followed up with an article on Westmont College, the top recruiting field for the Fellowship, published at Killing the Buddha (which Sharlet co-founded). I have some personal resonance with this story. For one, I started college in 1986, the same year as one of the subjects of the story, Ben Daniel, enrolled at Westmont. That means I got to Fuller Seminary four years later, where I matriculated with some of Ben’s classmates from Westmont — the first time I’d ever heard of The Fellowship was when one of my Fuller classmates, a Westmont grad, told me how heavily he was recruited while an undergrad. He referred to it as “The Fellowshit.”

Ten years later, when I was a youth pastor, a few graduates of my church went off to Westmont College, and at least two of them were recruited into the Fellowship and lived in the Fellowship’s notorious Washington, D.C. houses.

Sharlet writes about Ron Enroth, a prof at Westmont who’s studied cults for years. Enroth has sneaking suspicions that The Fellowship falls into that category, but he also hedges his bets:

Every now and then, “maybe two or three times a year,” Enroth said, a parent would call him about the Fellowship. They wanted to know if the Fellowship is a cult; Enroth would promise to investigate; and, he said, invariably reassures them that it is not. But as the questions and the complaints piled up over the years, he became less certain. One student told him that the Fellowship’s longtime leader, a man named Doug Coe, had explained to her that certain young people don’t “need” college. A couple called him in distress upon learning that their son, having spent much of the family’s savings on four years at Westmont—comparable in cost to elite secular colleges—had announced that he was called by God to be Coe’s personal driver. “Coe,” said Enroth, “appears to me to be a sort of an evangelical guru.” Another student had gone to Washington to work for the Fellowship. “ ‘These people have good connections,’ ” Enroth recalls him explaining. “ ‘They’re going to get me a job. And if I don’t play along, they might make sure I don’t get a job.’

There’s more — about sexism, secrecy, and sketchy interpretations of the Bible. Take some time this weekend to brew a cup of coffee and read Sharlet’s entire, compelling report.

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  • Curtis A. Bronzan

    As both a fan of Jeff’s and an alumnus of Westmont, I was fascinated to read his account earlier this week. In some following correspondence with Jeff, I’ve noted that the connection with Westmont seems a bit overstated. But, there were invite only men’s Bible studies… And I was never invited! I guess because I thought women should preach!

  • tanyam

    I had a brief encounter with some of these folks back in the mid to late 70’s. I wonder if the book goes back that far — seemed to me they weren’t that scary back then. As the story is told now, they arrived as full-fledged crazy sometime in the 80’s. For the sake of lessons to be learned, it would be good to know more about their very beginning.