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, 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 following is the third and final part of Chuck Warnock’s three-part question-and-answer interview with Sharlet. The questions and answers that follow are unedited.
Chuck Warnock: 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?
(Editor’s note: The first part of this question – Sharlet’s opinion about the Family’s most objectionable beliefs – was answered by Sharlet at the end of the second part of this series.)
Jeff Sharlet: 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 16 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.
CW: 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?
JS: 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 firsthand 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 bipartisan, 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.
Chuck Warnock is pastor of Chatham Baptist Church in Chatham, Virginia.