Jeff Sharlet is the best journalist currently covering American religion. Among those who connect subject to predicate, there are few who do so with Sharlet’s grace, insight, or humor. His recently published book, The Family: The Secret Fundamentalism at the Heart of American Power (Harper Collins, 2008, $25.95 cloth) was every bit as good as I expected it to be. Often, while reading The Family I found myself interrupting the conversations of those around me to read aloud Jeff’s well-crafted insights.
The subject of Sharlet’s book is “The Family,” also called “The Fellowship,” a self-identified “Christian Mafia” which, for seven decades, has operated in the shadows of American power, exerting great influence without accountability or oversight. They are evangelists and powerbrokers with a theocratic agenda, a lust for power, and a strange fondness for such creeps of history as Adolf Hitler, Mao Tsedung, and Genghis Khan.
In 2003, Jeff Sharlet published an article in Harper’s Magazine called “Jesus Plus Nothing,” which tells the bizarre and troubling story of Sharlet’s month-long stay at Ivanwald, a Fellowship-run retreat house for young men in Arlington, Virginia. “Jesus Plus Nothing” remains one of the few mainstream media treatments of the Fellowship. The first part of The Family is an expanded version of “Jesus Plus Nothing,” and it is a great read, the part of the book to take on vacation.
If the first part of the book is most entertaining, the second part of the book is most informative. Drawing upon information gleaned from research in the Fellowship archives at the Wheaton College Library, Sharlet tells the Fellowship’s story from its beginnings as a group of business and political leaders banded together to fight the growing influence of unionized longshoremen in depression-era Seattle, through World War II and its aftermath, into the Cold War, when Fellowship operatives began to engage in what the earlier President Bush described as “quiet diplomacy” in the fight against communism. The story continues to the present day and to the Fellowship’s advocacy for the latter Bush’s policy of privatizing governmental assistance to the poor through the office of “Faith Based Initiatives.”
For me, the most disturbing of Sharlet’s revelations was the cataloging of rogues for whom, in Jesus name, members of the Fellowship have provided political favors in the form of access to American political and business leaders. The short list of those befriended by the Family includes Indonesia’s General Suharto, who is said to have killed more than a million people in Indonesia and East Timor, Francois “Papa Doc” Duvalier whose Touton Macoutes subverted traditional voodooism to terrorize Haiti’s population, killing more than 60,000 people in the process, and Eugenio Rios Mont from Guatemala, an Evangelical who killed more than ten thousand indigenous Guatemalans in the name of fighting communism. A longer list includes diabolical strongmen from Latin America, Southeast Asia, and Africa, as well as a host of lesser-known Nazis who benefited from the Family’s intercession in the wake of World War II.
In the third part of The Family Sharlet treats us to reprints of articles he published in Rolling Stone and Harper’s Magazine. Sharlet’s narratives take us to Colorado Springs to visit Ted Haggard’s congregation in the days before the president of the National Association of Evangelicals’ uncomfortable unmasking as a gay man. Later, we travel with Sharlet to New York City and to Portland, Oregon to visit hip young Evangelical Christians in their natural habitat. While this latter part of the book really isn’t about the Fellowship, Jeff is a good enough storyteller that most of us won’t care.
Readers of The Family who support and defend the Fellowship invariably will point out that some of the Fellowship’s work is positive and good by just about any measure. The Fellowship provides a safe place in which powerful people receive spiritual care. This is good for all of us. The Fellowship’s quiet diplomacy has made possible peace between Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of the Congo and helped to facilitate the Camp David Accords. This is good for the world. I am told that they also do significant work with the poor. They invited Bono to speak at the Presidential Prayer Breakfast, and how bad can that be?
“Why,” the Fellowship’s supporters will ask, “did Jeff Sharlet not cover the Fellowship’s various charitable endeavors in greater detail? Why did he rake so much muck when there is a wholesome side to the Fellowship?” Just last week, in a conversation with someone who is sympathetic to the Fellowship’s work, I learned about the Fellowship’s efforts to promote human rights around the world; my own fellowship mentor—from the days when I was a college-aged failure of a Fellowship recruit—has used his connections to finance the building of an hospital in Honduras. Fellowship members and supporters are quick to reference such evidence of Fellowship benevolence.
I don’t believe that the Fellowship’s good work excuses the kind of spiritual abuse described in the first part of The Family or the codling of dictators described in the book’s middle, but because the positive work is used to justify much of what I find to be creepy about the Fellowship’s existence, I hope Jeff will spend more time on this particular issue in his next book.
The Family may be the most important book written in a very long time about the intersection of religion and politics in America. It brings the Fellowship’s work out of the shadows and provides the kind of public accountability that heals spiritual wounds and keeps the republic strong.
But don’t take my word for it. Go buy the book. You won’t be sorry.