Jeff Sharlet is author of “The Family: The Secret Fundamentalism At The Heart of American Power,” 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. In 2002, Sharlet lived at Ivanwald, one of the Family’s many centers, giving him an insider’s perspective on an organization that remains an enigma in evangelical life. 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.” “The Family” is one of the most fascinating and disturbing books I have ever read.
I contacted Sharlet who agreed to a blog interview. Both my questions and his answers are unedited in this three-part series.
Chuck Warnock: 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”?
Jeff Sharlet: 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 L.A. Times and research by some foreign journalists.
CW: Some accuse you of having a particular “ax 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: The Family cites Hitler and other dictators as role models for leadership.
Chuck Warnock is pastor of Chatham Baptist Church in Chatham, Virginia.