Jewish Journal

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 . . .

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