Jeff Sharlet, contributing editor of Rolling Stone, is author of The Family: The Secret Fundamentalism At The Heart of American Power. His book about the group best-known for sponsoring the National Prayer Breakfast has gained renewed interest since its hardback publication in 2008.
With two of its members confessing to marital infidelity — Senator John Ensign and Governor Mark Sanford — interest in the Family and its multiple mansions in Washington, D. C. and abroad is at a new height. Most recently, Rep. Zach Wamp of Tennessee, commenting on the scandal of his Family housemate John Ensign, refused to discuss his housemates or their living arrangements in the Family’s house on C Street in D. C..
Chuck Warnock: A) Do you believe the influence of the Family is increasing or decreasing? B) How do you view President Obama’s remarks at the 2009 National Prayer Breakfast where he mentions the history of the national prayer breakfast beginning in Seattle? C) Do you know if your book has had any influence on how the Obama administration relates to Doug Coe, or any of the other organizations or leaders of the religious right?
Jeff Sharlet: A) I don’t know; B) with dismay; politics and opinions aside, that was just shoddy history; C) I don’t know about the Obama administration, but at least one religious right organization bought bulk copies of the book for distribution to its supporters with the caveat that while I’m not a Christian, they think the story I tell is an important one. This group happens to have a lot of first-hand experience with the Family, so they’re in a good position to know.
CW: Finally, many of the evangelical leaders you mention are now either dead, or moving off the public stage due to age. What is your opinion of how a younger generation views the blending of religious devotion and political power that you write about in The Family? Will the Family survive another 75 years, or is it a vestige a fading era?
JS: That’s the question of the new millennium, isn’t it? The Family may, indeed, be fading — I don’t think they have anyone of Coe’s charisma or leadership talent to succeed him. The current day-to-day leaders, Dick Foth and Richard Carver, are uninspiring. David Coe, Doug’s son, is, in the words of one Family insider, kind of like the Joaquin Phoenix character in Gladiator. But I think the ideas of the Family will prosper. Indeed, I think they’re well-suited to the moment — ostensibly bi-partisan, diplomatic in tone if not in substance, relentlessly amiable, even in the cause of murderous regimes. Reminds me of Rick Warren — not a Family man, but heir to a certain style of politicized religion, much more the descendent of Abraham Vereide, Family founder, than of Jerry Falwell. I’m heartened by the expanded vision of a lot of young Christian conservatives, thinking more seriously about global poverty than had previous generations; but I’m disheartened by their responses, naive at best and dangerous at worst, as in their support for authoritarian governments in Rwanda and Uganda.
Beyond that, I can’t say. You’re a pastor — you tell me.
Read my review of The Family at Amicus Dei. A YouTube video of NBC’s reporting on the Family features footage of Doug Coe, then leader of the Family, referring to Hitler and Mao as role models of leadership and commitment. It is very disturbing.
Note: I purchased my copy of The Family and received no inducement to read and review the book, or to interview Jeff Sharlet. I believe Sharlet makes a compelling case for more transparency in religious life, especially as it intersects the public square. Whether you agree or disagree with Sharlet, he has produced a comprehensive book on a previously almost-secret organization that bears reading as a cautionary tale about the seduction of power.