Interview with Jeff Sharlet, author of The Family: Part 1

This is part 1 of my exclusive interview with Jeff Sharlet, author of The Family.  Parts 2 and 3 will be posted Wednesday and Thursday of this week.

Interview with Jeff Sharlet, author of The Family: Part 1
by Chuck Warnock

jeff_sharlet_sqJeff Sharlet is author of The Family: The Secret Fundamentalism At The Heart of American Power, number five on Amazon’s bestseller list this week. The Family tells the story of a secretive quasi-evangelical organization, founded in the late 1930s, which has insinuated itself into the halls of power in Washington and other countries around the world.

The Family operates several residences, one of them “the house at C Street,” where several United States senators and congressmen live when in Washington, D. C..  Two Family members have recently been in the news for marital infidelity — Senator John Ensign of Arizona, and Governor Mark Sanford of South Carolina.

In 2002, Sharlet lived at one of the Family’s many centers, Ivanwald, giving him an insider’s perspective to an organization that remains an enigma in evangelical life.  But the story of the Family is also one of intrigue, international power politics, and a self-styled religion described by its practitioners as “Jesus plus nothing.” In short, The Family is one of the most fascinating and disturbing books I have ever read.

After reading The Family, I contacted Jeff Sharlet who agreed to a blog interview.  I submitted the following questions.  Both my questions and his answers are unedited.  For my review of The Family, visit my blog

About the Author: “Jeff Sharlet is a contributing editor for Harper’s and Rolling Stone, and a visiting research scholar at New York University’s Center for Religion and Media, where he has taught journalism and religious studies.  He is co-author, with Peter Manseau, of Killing the Buddha, and the editor of  He lives in Brooklyn, New York.” — from About the Author, The Family.

Here is Part 1 of my interview with the author of The Family, Jeff Sharlet:

CW:  At 454 pages, including notes and index, The Family covers evangelical fundamentalism from the period of Jonathan Edwards in the 1700s to the Office of Faith-Based Initiatives in the George W. Bush White House, all centered around a group called the Family, which is best known for leading the National Prayer Breakfast in Washington, D.C. each February.  How long did it take you to research and write The Family?

JS:  Five years of direct work, but I’ve been writing about religion, history, and politics for much longer than that. I stumbled into the Family in 2002, with no particular intentions and completely unaware of its political identity. When I left, I thought there might be more of a story, so I traveled to their archives at the Billy Graham Center in Wheaton, Illinois. What I found there both shocked and intrigued. I ended up writing an article for Harper’s, and then a book proposal, largely so that I could afford to go back to the archives and keep digging.

CW:  You state on several occasions that you used primary sources, particularly archives left by the Family organization in the Billy Graham Center archives at Wheaton College.  Did you have difficulty in persuading the Wheaton librarians to give you access to the Family archives, and are those archives still open to researchers today?

JS:  No. It’s a first-rate professional, scholarly archive, and absolutely essential to any serious research on American evangelicalism. But it was a strange experience living, basically, on the campus of Wheaton, the “evangelical Harvard,” for six months. One day I was taking a break and a student came up to me and asked me if I’d heard the Good News about Jesus. I thought the kid deserved a gold star, so to speak — he’d id’d the only Jew on campus. Turned out he was majoring in missiology.

As for the archives, the historical papers are still open, but the more contemporary stuff is closed, restricted following my Harper’s story, a major investigative piece for the LA Times, and research by some foreign journalists.

CW:  Some accuse you of having a particular “axe to grind” with this book.  How would you respond to that accusation?

JS:  Absolutely. I’m for open, transparent democracy. I’m for an accountable church. I’m for Christians who really try to preach Christ’s message of mercy and love, not a theology of more power for the already powerful. I try to make these positions clear in the book. A good book isn’t a data dump, it’s an argument and a story. I hope my book is both.

CW:  In The Family, you name just about every major evangelical organization and leader: the late Dawson Trotman of the Navigators, the late Bill Bright of Campus Crusade for Christ, Chaplain of the U. S. Senate the late Richard Halverson, Billy Graham, Chuck Colson of Prison Fellowship, the late Jerry Falwell, James Dobson of Focus on the Family, Young Life, and of course, Doug Coe and the National Prayer Breakfast, plus many others.  Are all these groups and leaders tied to the Family, or is this guilt by association because all are leaders of evangelical organizations?

JS:  No, they’re not all tied to the Family, and I don’t say that they are, so this is hardly guilt by association. Trotman was the mentor of Coe — that’s why he’s in the story. Bright did have a lot of dealings with the Family, and his papers are intermingled with the Family’s — that makes him part of the story. Halverson was a longtime formal leader of the Family — there are literally thousands of Halverson’s personal documents in the archive. Billy Graham writes of his modest connection in his memoir. Chuck Colson boasts, in his memoir, of joining the Family’s “veritable underground of Christ’s men” in Washington. Falwell has no connection that I know of, and I don’t claim one. Nor does Dobson. Young Life’s finances were for a long time all tangled up with the Family’s. I’m pretty tired of the “guilt by association” charge. The people who make it rarely present any evidence. I do.

(Tomorrow in Part 2, Sharlet comments on the Family’s use of Adolf Hitler as a role model for leadership, and answers critics’ charges that he sees a religious-right conspiracy where none exists.)

14 thoughts on “Interview with Jeff Sharlet, author of The Family: Part 1”

  1. While this may have some grains of truth, in politics you come across people who support Biblical Values who are also happen to Catholic, Mormons, SDA’s & even non-christians.

    Just because NON-Democrats work together towards a values based policy framework, does not mean that all concerned are tied up with some weirdo outfit.

    Just as not all Democrat supporters are guilty by association of drowning some poor woman at a bridge in the middle of the night, decades ago.

    About time some Pastors focused on the very soft record this Democrat President Obama has on Abortion & same sex relationships, rather than churning out smear jobs by some leftist hack.

  2. First, you might actually read the book yourself. Second, there was no mention in the interview about political parties. Finally, I don’t consider fraternizing with genocidal dictators, or emulating the leadership model of Hitler to be “values based policy.” If it is, it’s based on the wrong values. If you want to contribute a relevant comment, that’s fine, even if you disagree, but your off-topic and derogatory inferences are unwelcomed.

  3. Chuck, I’m fascinated and I’ve added this book to my wishlist. I’m looking forward to the rest of it.

    Servus’ comment represents one of the major problems with Evangelicals in the US — we are too willing to marry politics and faith, then call it all Christian.

    Yes, Pres. Obama is on the wrong side of abortion. Is there any Evangelical who hasn’t mentioned that? At the same time, though, there might well be people casting themselves as devout Christians just because their political positions are right.

    Jesus didn’t come to advocate for the proper civic policies regarding tax rates and marriage permits. If we make deals for access, we need to think about what we’re giving up.

    Thanks, Chuck. I’m looking forward to the rest.

  4. Good point. The comments were in the blog, not the book.

    I don’t recall one iota of comment from Jim Wallis on Obama’s position on Abortion. But Obama tried it on the Pope just the other day. “I am trying to reduce abortion”. What a joke. I don’t think the Pope is that stupid.

    I respect the Democrats for standing up on various Biblical issues, when they come along, but we do tire of these little faux smear jobs against such a leading group of respected Evangelical leaders.

  5. Wickle, thanks for your comment. I agree that the marriage of politics and religion is often an unholy one. Politicians are, by nature, what they are and we are naive to expect that any politician or earthly political system would become “Christian.” I thought that’s why Jesus said, “My kingdom is not of this world.”

  6. Servus, thanks for a more reasoned comment. Obviously good people — Christian and not — disagree on the issue of how to engage the culture, including the political culture. I would not agree with your characterization that the book, or the interview with Sharlet, is a “faux smear job.” But at least we’re having a conversation about the topic, even if we disagree. Thanks for taking time to comment.

  7. My apologies Chuck. You do some great in depth articles.
    I was just a little bit misled when I read the words/prhases:
    1. halls of power in Washington
    2. US senators and congressmen
    3. Washington, D. C.
    4. Governor
    5. international power politics
    6. George W. Bush White House
    7. power for the already powerful
    8. Chaplain of the U.S. Senate
    9. Chuck Colson
    and thought it had a vague connection to politics. My mistake!
    See ya…

    1. Servus,
      Of course this is political, that’s what the Family does. But no where does this post mention political parties, which is where you were headed. It is the blurring of religion and politics in the Family’s practices that disturb me, plus the whole secret thing. Oh, and both Republicans and Democrats are either “members” or “friends” of the Family. Hillary Clinton being one of them on the Dem side. The Family is at least post-partisan, if there is such a thing. So, you and I agree on this one — it is very political!

  8. This is certainly a disquieting subject. Mark Twain, bitter as he turned out to be at the end, said it succinctly in “A Connecticut Yankee…” when he said the way to ruin a country is to have an established religion.

    I am religious, but want no mixing of religion and politics–such a mixing adulterates them both–terminally.

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