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The Family Doctrine: Q & A with author Jeff Sharlet

Web extra: Chapter one of Sharlet's book

by Brad A. Greenberg

July 10, 2008 | 12:03 am

Jeff Sharlet

Jeff Sharlet

Jeff Sharlet's latest book, a terrifying read, is light on gore and heavy on religion. In "The Family: The Secret Fundamentalism at the Heart of American Power (Harper, $25.95)," Sharlet, a contributing editor at Rolling Stone and associate research scholar at NYU's Center for Religion and Media, offers an inside look into a secretive Christian organization responsible for not only the National Prayer Breakfast but also for promoting a macho Jesus who supports despots across the globe and opposes democracy at home.

The Jewish Journal: How did you, as a secular Jew and a journalist, at that, get invited into this Christian cabal?
Jeff Sharlet: It is not a secret society. They are hiding in plain sight, and not hiding very much. This is not a question of conspiracy but rather a question of ideology. That is how I was able to get in. They believe the Jews, having broken their covenant with God, are out; they are no longer the chosen. There are new chosen people, and they are it. What this amounts to is country club fundamentalism. Since I was recommended [by a member] they let me in. God must have sent me.

JJ: It seems The Family should have a better screening system.
JS: The great solace to those who are concerned about the power of American fundamentalism is there is a certain incompetence.

JJ: The Family is bipartisan, right?
JS: They are the oldest and, over time, most powerful Christian-right organization in America, and they have achieved that august age by not allying themselves too closely with any one faction. The Family recognizes they are interested not in doctrinal purity but in power. As Doug Coe, the leader, says, 'We work with power where we can, build new power where we can't.'

JJ: They have that much influence?
JS: When we look at the number of dictators with which America has major alliances, and we see the number of times The Family has played a key role as a matchmaker, that's a lot of influence. When you look at the role they played with Suharto, with Papa Doc Duvalier, with Siad Barre, with Gen. Costa e Silva in Brazil, with Ferdinand Marcos, that's a lot of influence. When you look at the fact the organization began as an anti-New Deal coalition and they counted as one of their first victories something called the 1947 Taft-Hartley Bill. Robert Taft, who put his name on it, was not a member of The Family, but The Family was organizing around it, which rolled back so many of FDR's reforms.

JJ: Did they feel betrayed by you?
JS: It depends on who you are talking to.

JJ: Why, if Reagan said back in '87 or '88 that The Family was working so well because it was private, did you feel you had to expose it?
JS: Because I was the one who stumbled upon it. I didn't set out to expose it. If Seymour Hersh had stumbled upon it, it would have been much more effective. But he didn't, so I ended up with it.

JJ: This idea of God-ruled governments, it seems so very un-American.
JS: I agree, although there is a tremendous tension in American history between a democratic impulse and imperial impulse. We forget that at the Constitutional Convention there was a great debate about whether it would be a godless document. There were those who wanted it to be a Christian document and an imperial document, a new nation that would spread the Gospel far and wide. That lost out, but it is the shadow of American democracy.

JJ: The Mafia, Mao, Lenin, Hitler -- all these guys are role models, not for what they did but how they did it. How does The Family marry faith with fascism?
JS: Back in the 1930s, a lot of people, not just fascists, thought democracy had run its course and couldn't compete with fascism and communism, and that a third way was necessary. Some conservative Christians decided that Christianity was the third way. And what they admired about fascism was that fascism operates on this veneer of total and absolute unity. I don't think they [The Family] are fascist, but they love the fascist myth of absolute unity, and they think that the unity is best achieved through strong men.

JJ: This Jesus they are into is different than any I've heard of, kind of a Chuck Norris Jesus.
JS: They don't have any imagery. But you could almost imagine that their Jesus looks like [Kansas] Sen. Sam Brownback; he looks a lot like the people in power that they are interested in: guys in suits.

JJ: He's the CEO Jesus, not the bodybuilder Jesus or warrior Jesus.
JS: Exactly. A kind of muscular Christianity, but this leads to a warrior Christ; this leads to aggressive American foreign policy. The difference between The Family's fundamentalism and extreme fundamentalism is they don't have to express anger. Anger is an emotion of outsiders.




Read an excerpt from Sharlet's book on the next page . . .


The Family: The Secret Fundamentalism at the Heart of American Power

By Jeff Sharlet

Chapter 1



Not long after September 11, 2001, a man I'll call Zeke came to New York to survey the ruins of secularism. "To bear witness," he said. He believed Christ had called him.

He wandered the city, sparking up conversations with people he took to be Muslims-"Islamics," he called them-knocking on the doors of mosques by day and sliding past velvet ropes into sweaty clubs by night. He prayed with an imam (to Jesus) and may or may not have gone home with several women. He got as close as possible to Ground Zero, visited it often, talked to street preachers. His throat tingled with dust and ashes. When he slept, his nose bled. He woke one morning on a red pillow.

He went to bars where he sat and listened to the anger of men and women who did not understand, as he did, why they had been stricken. He stared at photographs and paintings of the Towers. The great steel arches on which they'd stood reminded him of Roman temples, and this made him sad. The city was fallen, not just literally but spiritually, as de cadent and doomed as an ancient civilization. And yet Zeke wanted and believed he needed to know why New York was what it was, this city so hated by fundamentalists abroad and, he admitted after some wine, by fundamentalists-"Believers," he called them, and himself-at home.

At the time Zeke was living at Ivanwald. His brothers- in- Christ, the youngest eighteen, the oldest in their early thirties, were much like him: educated, athletic, born to affluence, successful or soon to be. Zeke and his brothers were fundamentalists, but not at all the kind I was familiar with. "We're not even Christian," he said. "We just follow Jesus."

I'd known Zeke on and off for twelve years. He's the older brother of a woman I dated in college. Zeke had studied philosophy and history and literature in the United States and in Eu rope, but he had long wanted to find something . . . better. His life had been a pilgrim's progress, and the path he'd taken a circuitous version of the route every fundamentalist travels: from confusion to clarity, from questions to answers, from a mysterious divine to a Jesus who's so

familiar that he's like your best friend. A really good guy about whom Zeke could ask, What would Jesus do? and genuinely find the answer.

His whole life Zeke had been searching for a friend like that, someone whose words meant what they meant and nothing less or more. Zeke himself looks like such a man, tall, lean, and muscular, with a square jaw and wavy, dark blond hair. One of his grandfathers had served in the Eisenhower administration, the other in Kennedy's. His father, the family legend went, had once been considered a possible Republican contender for Congress. But instead of seeking

offi ce, his father had retreated to the Rocky Mountains, and Zeke, instead of attaining the social heights his pedigree seemed to predict, had spent his early twenties withdrawing into theological conundrums, until he peered out at a world of temptations like a wounded thing in a cave. He drank too much, fought men and raged at women, disappeared from time to time and came back from wherever he had gone quieter, angrier, sadder.

Then he met Jesus. He had long been a committed Christian, but this encounter was diff erent. This Jesus did not demand orthodoxy. This Jesus gave him permission to stop struggling. So he did, and his pallor left him. He took a job in finance and he met a woman as bright as he was and much happier, and soon he was making money, in love, engaged. But the questions of his youth still bothered him. Again he drank too much, his eye wandered, his temper kindled. So,

one day, at the suggestion of an older mentor, he ditched his job, put his fiancee on hold, and moved to Ivanwald, where, he was told, he'd meet yet another Jesus, the true one.

When he came up to New York, his sister asked if I would take him out to dinner. What, she wanted to know, was Zeke caught up in?

We met at a little Moroccan place in the East Village. Zeke arrived in bright white tennis shorts, spotless white sneakers, and white tube socks pulled taut on his calves. His concession to Manhattan style, he said, was his polo shirt, tucked in tight; it was black. He flirted with the waitress and she giggled, he talked to the people at the next table. Women across the room glanced his way; he gave them easy smiles. I'd never seen Zeke so charming. In my mind, I began to prepare a report for his sister: Good news! Jesus has finally turned Zeke around.

He said as much himself. He even apologized for arguments we'd had in the past. He acknowledged that he'd once enjoyed getting a rise out of me by talking about "Jewish bankers." (I was raised a Jew by my father, a Christian by my mother.) That was behind him now, he said. Religion was behind him. Ivanwald had cured him of the God problem. I'd love the place, he said. "We take Jesus out of his religious wrapping. We look at Him, at each other, without assumptions. We ask questions, and we answer them together. We become brothers."

I asked if he and his brothers prayed a great deal. No, he said, not much. Did they spend a lot of time in church? None-most churches were too crowded with rules and rituals. Did they study the Bible in great depth? Just a few minutes in the morning. What they did, he said, was work and play games. During the day they raked leaves and cleaned toilets, and during the late afternoon they played sports, all of which prepared them to serve Jesus. The work taught humility, he said, and the sports taught will; both were needed in Jesus' army.

"Wait a minute," I said. "Back up. What leaves? Whose toilets?"

"Politicians," he said. "Congressmen."

"You go to their houses?"

"Sometimes," Zeke answered. "But mostly they come to us."

I was trying to picture it-Trent Lott pulling up in a black Lincoln,a toilet badly in need of a scrub protruding from the trunk. But what Zeke meant was that he and his brothers raked and polished for politicians at a retreat called the Cedars, designed for their spiritual succor.

"Really?" I said. "Like who?"

"I can't really say," Zeke answered.

"Who runs it?"

"Nobody."

"Who pays?"

"People just give money." Then Zeke smiled. Enough questions.

"You're better off seeing it for yourself."

"Is there an organization?" I asked.

"No," he said, chuckling at my incomprehension. "Just Jesus."

"So how do you join?"

"You don't," he said. He smiled again, such a broad grin. His teeth were as white as his sneakers. "You're recommended."


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