This is Part 2 of my interview with Jeff Sharlet, author of The Family: The Secret Fundamentalism at the Heart of American Power. This week, The Family is #5 in Amazon.com’s sales rankings. If you’d like to catch up, Part 1 of the interview is here. My review of The Family is at my blog, Amicus Dei.
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. In the U. S., the Family is the behind-the-scenes sponsor of the National Prayer Breakfast each February in Washington, D. C..
The Family organization 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.
Sharlet says The Family “is a story about two great spheres of belief, religion and politics, and the ways in which they are bound together by the mythologies of America.” — The Family, p.2
Interview with Jeff Sharlet, part 2:
CW: You report that Doug Coe and others in the Family make repeated references to Adolf Hitler, Josef Stalin, and other totalitarian leaders as examples of the kind of effective leadership the Family aspires to. Did this strike you as odd, and how do you account for the use of these ruthless dictators as role models for the Family?
JS: Um, yes. And I said as much when I was spending time with them, then again during interviews with Family associates such as Senator Sam Brownback, Representative Frank Wolf, and former Bush White House special aide Doug Kuo. Kuo, whom I like a great deal, insists that Coe uses these killers simply as metaphors. To which the only response I can think of is, You can’t think of a better metaphor for Jesus than Hitler? I make clear in the book that Coe is not a neo-Nazi. Indeed, he cites fascists and communists and even Osama bin Laden. It’s not their ideology he admires, it’s their methods. The Family fetishizes strength. Or, as Coe put it in an interview with my colleague Tor Gjerstadt of the Norwegian Dagbladet (a large daily there), power.
CW: Your book, The Family, weaves a tale of religious intrigue based on political power that sounds like the latest, far-fetched conspiracy theory. How do you answer the critics who say that you see conspiracies where none exist?
JS: First, by pointing out that I don’t see conspiracies. I don’t think the Family is a conspiracy. I’m not sure how I could have made my view any clearer than this, on page 7 of my introduction: “This so-called underground [their word, not mine] is not a conspiracy.”If that’s too vague, there’s always this, later in the book, referring to founder Abram Vereide: “Abram’s upper-crust faith was not a conspiracy.” And this, in response to current leader Doug Coe’s documented decision to “submerge” — his word, not mine — the profile of the organization: “The decision was not so much conspiratorial, as it seemed to those among Abram’s old-timers who responded with confusion, as ascetic, a humbling of powers.”
Is The Family secretive? Yes, by its own declaration. Does that make it a conspiracy? Not in any court of law I know. Rather, as I argue in the book, the Family represents a strand of religious activism that has clearly been influential among some of America’s most powerful Christians and yet which to date has never been subject to any kind of in-depth study. That’s a more modest claim than the critics’ tin-foil caricature, yes, but one that I think would withstand scrutiny if they bothered to review my book rather than their own assumptions about my political views.
CW: What, in your opinion, are the most objectionable beliefs or practices of the Family? On what do you base your evaluation of these beliefs and practices? In other words, what is your particular background or experience that qualifies you to write a book like The Family?
JS: Beliefs are a matter of conscience; but practices, especially those of the powerful, can be a matter of public concern. The Family has facilitated support for dictators such as Ferdinand Marcos, Suharto, Siad Barre, General Park, and even a Central American death squad leader convicted of torture in the U.S. This, to me, is objectionable, as it is to many Family members who learn about it. I’m inspired by the example, for instance, of the Rev. Ben Daniel, deeply involved as a young man. But he quit when he learned that the Family leaders he’d looked up to were using their access to the powerful to represent the interests of the most murderous elements from countries such as Nicaragua and El Salvador. Or there’s Cliff Gosney, a longtime participant, a deeply Christian man, who quit when he realized that the Family was using him and the foreign leader for whom he was the Family’s point man, South Africa’s Mangosuthu Buthelezi, for political gain rather than spiritual development. I’m concerned, too, by the practice of secrecy. “The more invisible you can make your organization,” Doug Coe has preached, “the more influence it will have.” He cites the mafia as a good example, and Family members like to refer to their movement as the “Christian mafia.” That’s just not a good model in a democracy like ours. I have the highest respect for citizens of all beliefs who make their arguments openly in the public square, fundamentalists included. I’ve been heartened by the support the book has received from self-professed fundamentalists who are as bothered by these anti-democratic practices as I am. We may not agree on much, these fundamentalists and me, but we agree that democracy depends on us engaging in our arguments in good faith, with plenty of sunlight.
As for my background, I’m not sure what you mean. You want my professional credentials? Or are you asking me for my religious beliefs? If it’s the former, I think they qualify me: I’ve been a working journalist for sixteen years, have written for a large number of mainstream national publications, have focused on religion for about 14 years, have taught graduate level religious studies at New York University and lectured at colleges, universities, and churches around the country, have been positively reviewed by both conservative and liberal critics, have won prizes and been a finalist for prizes, etc., etc. I’m proud of the fact that Ann Coulter wrote that I’m one of the stupidest journalists in America, and even prouder of the fact that she did so based on her own clumsy misreading of scripture.
But if it’s the latter — my beliefs — my first answer is, What does it matter? The facts are the facts. And then my second answer is contained within the last pages of the book, in which I write openly of my own beliefs, particularly my commitment to the Book of Exodus as inspiration for thinking about the role of faith in public life. I’m not a Christian, though half my family is. But I’ve written for Christian publications and published many Christian writers. I’ve been engaged in that conversation for a long time. I think it’s one of the most important conversations in America.
All of the above is a long-winded way of saying I’m a citizen.
Part 3 of my interview with Jeff Sharlet will appear on Thursday, July 16. In Part 3, Sharlet comments on the continuing influence of the Family, and his thoughts on the future of the Family and evangelicalism.