Interview with Jeff Sharlet

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If you have been around the religious blogosphere for awhile, you have most likely heard of Jeff Sharlet. An author and journalist, he helped found two seminal web sites full of insightful commentary on faith in today’s world (Killing the Buddha and The Revealer), co-wrote a book about religious subcultures in America (which included a trip to a Pagan festival), and filed dispatches on the intersections of religion and power for such publications as Rolling Stone, Harpers, and Mother Jones. His most recent book is “The Family: The Secret Fundamentalism at the Heart of American Power”, an expose of elite fundamentalism’s avant-garde.

Jeff Sharlet

Jeff Sharlet

I was lucky enough to conduct a short e-mail interview with Jeff about his new book, what Pagans have to fear from The Family, and what we can do about it.

Some members of modern Pagan faiths have long warned of a theocratic Christian cabal bent on taking over America, often with the usual suspects of conservative Christianity playing a part. These fears have often been debunked, but your book “The Family” seems to in part vindicate those voices, albeit not in the ways they imagined. Who are “The Family”, and are they really trying to take over the government?

They’re not trying to take over government; they’ve been a part of government for almost seventy years. The Family is a network of conservative Christian elites in government, military, and business bound together by what The Family’s founder, Abraham Vereide, called simply “The Idea.” The Idea came to Vereide one night in April, 1935. God, he’d later say, revealed to him that Christianity’s emphasis on the poor, the suffering, the weak, the down and out, was all wrong. God wanted Vereide to minister not to the poor, but the powerful. He called them the “up and out” — corporate executives, politicians. The Idea was that if you could win the hearts of these “key men,” they, in turn, would dispense blessings to the masses. It was, in effect, trickle down religion, and it’s been the creed of religious conservative elites ever since, the justification for their war on organized labor and their support for foreign dictators, from Papa Doc Duvalier to Suharto to the thugs supported through the Silk Road Act, sponsored by Family politicians Senator Sam Brownback and Rep. Joe Pitts.

Domestically, The Family have long been at the heart of the Christianist assault on the First Amendment’s Establishment Clause – “Congress shall make no laws respecting the establishment of religion” – which is the guarantee of the Free Exercise Clause that makes America free (in theory, at least) for Pagan. In 1953, The Family established the National Prayer Breakfast; in 1954, Family politicians led the fight for “Under God” in the pledge and “In God We Trust” on our currency. More recently, Representative Tony Hall, a conservative Democrat from Ohio, made the National Day of Prayer a fixed, permanent affair, with White House observance orchestrated by Shirley Dobson – wife of Christian Right leader Jim Dobson.

Faith-based initiatives was first theorized by Family politicians such as Ed Meese in the 1980s; the legislation that opened the door for it, the 1996 Charitable Choice Provision, came from the offices of two Family politicians, John Ashcroft and Dan Coats.

Historic members have included men such as Strom Thurmond, William Rehnquist, and Senator Homer “Snort” Capehart, inventor of the jukebox (good) and defender of Nazis (not so good). (There have never been a lot of women involved.)

Which is all to say that the question we need to ask about fundamentalists is not, “What are they going to do?” but “What have they already done?” Fundamentalism is not a cabal or a conspiracy; it’s an ideology, and for nearly 70 years it has led America away from democracy and toward empire.

The theology of The Family seems quite different from the usual Christian conservatives and fire-breathing fundamentalists we often see covered in the news (though some of them are members or associates of The Family as well). Can you expand on what they believe, and what “Jesus Plus Nothing” means to them?

I first heard the phrase “Jesus plus nothing” at a spiritual counseling session The Family’s longtime leader, Doug Coe, was giving Representative Tod Tiahrt, a Kansas Republican. Tiahrt was going on about the usual Christian Right concerns – abortion, queers, and Muslims. Coe waved it all off. He agreed with Tiahrt across the board, but he saw that list as too limited. What, he asked, does Jesus have to teach us about Social Security? About building roads? The Family’s vision of “Jesus plus nothing” leads them to seek a government conformed at every level, in every department, every office, to the will of their totalizing Jesus. There’s a sense in which this is a weirdly bureaucratic Christ. He doesn’t stand on street corners and shout about revelation; he whispers his message in the ears of his “New Chosen,” as some Family members call themselves. And the message is almost always the same: “privatize.” For seventy years, The Family has been dedicated to deregulating markets in order to free up the “invisible hand” of God.

I was intrigued by the notion of The Family performing “spiritual assassinations” on political leaders (making them “die in spirit” to Jesus), getting close enough to perform their “hit” through innocuous-seeming events like the National Prayer Breakfast (which they organize). Who are some high-profile “hits” we may have heard of?

Just to be clear – they’re not killing anybody. You’re referring to Chapter Eight, “Vietnamization,” in which I write about The Family’s admiration for the guerilla warfare tactics of the Vietcong. In 1966 – the same year Family leader Doug Coe announced that The Family was going “underground,” erasing its public profile – another Family leader, Clif Robinson, met with the U.S. ambassador to Laos, William Sullivan – strategist of the “secret” – and illegal – air war against that country. Robinson reported back to American Family leadership on what he learned.

“He said the strategy of the VC was the same as International Christian Leadership’s,” gushed Robinson, “except applied physically and militarily. They spend hours, days, weeks, what ever time is necessary setting up for the LEADERS and then either by ambush, assassination, or other intrigue, they do away with them—not the people, the leaders. He said to kill 32 top level people”—as the Vietcong had done the previous month—“was tantamount to immobilizing thousands.” The lesson was that the Fellowship should understand itself as a guerrilla force on the spiritual battlefield.

They wanted their “victims” to “die to self” – that is, to commit themselves totally to Jesus plus nothing. One of their greatest “hits” was Chuck Colson, the Watergate felon. In his mega-selling memoir, “Born Again,” Colson writes of being recruited into The Family, which he describes as “a veritable underground of Christ’s men all through government,” through Doug Coe and the CEO of missile manufacturer Raytheon. Colson would later declare that through The Family’s religion, he was able to accomp
lish much of what he had once hoped to do politically. “Dying to self” paradoxically gave him a supreme sense of self-righteousness, a confidence – and a political network – through which he’s built up one of the most powerful Christian Right organizations in the world.

Some journalists and bloggers focused quite a bit of attention on the fact that Hillary Clinton is a “friend” of The Family. That through her, The Family would have access and influence. Should we have been worried if Clinton won the Democratic Presidential nomination? How deep are her ties to the family, and are they already looking to become “friends” with Obama?

The Family’s faith is a religion of the status quo. We shouldn’t be worried about what MIGHT happen; we should be worried about what has happened. If you look around the world as it is and think, “A-Ok!”, then you’ve no problem with The Family. If you look at Washington and see a healthy, happy democracy, then you’ve no problem with The Family. But if you’re disturbed by a government that’s more responsive to corporations than to people, by a two-party system in which both sides vote for a war the public didn’t want, by a politics of private influence and quiet deals, then yes, we should have been worried about The Family’s influence in a Clinton administration. We should also be worried about its potential influence in an Obama administration. The Family has endured for 70 years, longer than any other major Christian Right organization, not through doctrinal purity but by compromise with the powers that be. Power is their bottom line.

When Hillary had it, they wanted in. As she writes in her memoir, “Living History,” she joined a Family prayer group comprised of conservative politicians’ wives in 1993. She calls Doug Coe – a man who claims that Hitler, Stalin, and Mao understood the New Testament better than almost any other leaders in the 20th century – “a genuinely loving spiritual mentor and guide.” And she used The Family to tack right, teaming up with men such as Senator Sam Brownback and former Senator Rick Santorum on legislation that subtly redefined human rights as Christian issues.

This is not to say Hillary is a stealth fundamentalist. She is what she appears to be – a centrist Democrat. To be honest, I voted for her in the NY primary, because of her health plan. I’m glad Obama won; but I’m worried about his willingness to discard principles in pursuit of a false unity. The most troubling example of that is his plan to actually expand faith-based initiatives. Of course, he adds that organizations won’t be allowed to discriminate. But anyone who’s reported on faith-based initiatives firsthand will tell you that such regulations are impossible to enforce. Some Obama supporters say he’s just doing what he has to do to win. That’s exactly the way elite fundamentalists want it – to “win,” you have to play by their rules. I don’t think that’s true. I’m hoping that ultimately, Obama doesn’t, either.

You talk about the differences and similarities between the “populist” and “elitist” branches of American fundamentalism (together forming a “popular front”). With The Family typifying an elitist manifestation, and evangelical mega-churches like Colorado’s New Life Church (formerly headed by disgraced pastor Ted Haggard) typifying the “populist” branch. I was struck by how New Life actively worked to drive out Pagan Witches and other undesirables from their city. Is driving out the “Witches” (the religious “other”) a shared goal between the populist and elitist branches? Or simply the consequence of fundamentalist Christianity coming into power?

Some populist fundamentalists have actually criticized The Family for their willingness to make peace with and conference with those whom they lump under the label of “New Agers.” That was years ago, when Family leaders, like many conservative evangelicals, saw the wide array of beliefs they lumped under “New Age” as a threat to Christianity. They don’t, anymore – not because they’ve made their peace with those beliefs but because they don’t think those followers of those beliefs have much power. Ultimately, the inner circle of The Family considers all non-monotheistic beliefs “demonic.” At their C Street House for congressmen, they used to have a prayer calendar listing spiritual war targets for the day – Tibetan Buddhism, Hinduism, Wicca, etc.

In an interview with Alternet you described The Family as “ultimately something worse” than fascism. Since “fascism” is usually considered the ultimate manifestation of political evil, on the right and left, what makes this group worse?

The fact that it’s far more effective. Fascism, properly understood, was a relatively short-lived European ideology. There have been other examples of it since, but by far the most powerful ideology since 1945 has been not fascism, but empire. One church historian says of The Family that they’re not right-wing and certainly not left-wing, but “empire-wing.” Fascism may be a purer evil, but empire is a more pervasive one, and ultimately more dangerous because it’s able to call on the loyalties of well-intentioned people who’d never go near fascism. But if you’re a Vietnamese kid napalmed in 1968, or an Iraqi kid with your hands blown off in 2008, empire is every bit as bad as fascism. Or, for that matter, if you’re a Bangladeshi or a Chinese sweat shop worker or an Afghani forced to grow and process heroin to survive, the economic ramifications of empire are as bad as the explicit political repression of fascism. And for decades, what traditional fascism has cropped up around the world – in Central America, in some African nations, for instance – has been made possible only through the support of empire.

On point you make in the book is that secular America keeps trying to announce the death of fundamentalism, of conservative Christian power, but that these frequent declarations are rarely real. That the “defeats” are merely part of a natural ebb and flow of fundamentalism in America. Instead of shrinking, conservative “muscular” Christianity grows ever stronger and is very much a part of the American fabric. Is the much-touted recent “evangelical crack-up” just another natural ebb? Will we see audacious power-grabs by fundamentalist forces in the near future?

We see audacious power-grabs right now! For instance, Rwanda has recently become the first official “Purpose-Driven Nation,” remade in the image of evangelical pastor Rick Warren’s bestselling “Purpose Driven Life” with the support of U.S. dollars and faith-based initiatives. Closer to home, the Justice Department is supporting a program called “Fugitive Safe Surrender,” in which U.S. Marshals go into a low-income community and for four days move the entire legal apparatus into a megachurch, encouraging anyone with legal problems to sort them out under the sign of the cross. I attended one in Akron; church greeters talked to you about Jesus in the parking lot, then you walked through a metal detector, then you met a sheriff with a gun and a pastor with a Bible. Take your pick. And this program has Democratic support! Chuck Schumer’s gone on record saying it’s great, because it gets potential criminals off the street and allows poor people who’d be screwed by the justice system to have the help of the church. “Church-court” – that’s audacious. There’s no “evangelical crack-up,” no matter how much the New York Times may wish it so. Rather, there’s an evangelical transformation – and an expansion. Evangelicals are addressing issues liberals thought they owned, such as poverty and AIDS. That doesn’t make evangelical conservatives less conservative; it makes their agenda more far-reaching, for better or worse.

Some of the old lions of the Christian Right are dead or are dying. The new generation is softer-toned in style. But conservative evange
licalism has been a huge part of American life for 200 years. It’s not going away just because Jerry Falwell went to heaven. Or wherever.

So how do those opposed to what The Family is trying to do fight back? What is this groups Achilles heel? Is there anything anyone can do to minimize their influence on America and the world?

Of course! The first step is what we’re doing right here: talking about these issues, educating ourselves. The Family prospers when the public doesn’t pay attention. One of my favorite examples of a public fighting back occurred in 2004 in Norway. After I first wrote about The Family for Harper’s, some Norwegian journalists noticed that their new, socially conservative prime minister was jetting around the world to prayer breakfasts on the public dime. So they came to America and investigated. They discovered that this social conservative movement had strong ties with The Family, that their ambassador was taking policy meetings with John Ashcroft at The Family’s headquarters. So they put it on the front page of the paper, for two weeks. A mini Norwegian Watergate. And that government got the boot. That expose wasn’t the only factor, but it was one of them. When Doug Coe showed up in Norway this spring to talk with the king of Norway, the papers responded again, with a banner headline and a picture of Coe: “Hitler-admirer received by King.”

THAT’S public accountability. Let’s try it in America! Let’s tell Obama that we respect his desire to include people of faith – all faiths and no faith – in the public square, but we want him to recognize that not everybody is operating in good faith. Let’s pay attention to our local representatives. In 2004, a Democratic challenger to Rep. Frank Wolf, a longtime Family associate and conservative Republican from Northern Virginia, publicized Wolf’s Family ties. The Washington Post immediately editorialized that such a connection was impossible – and THEN sent a reporter to prove it so. So we need to hold the media accountable, too. We need them to ask smarter – and tougher – questions about religion. When we encounter monotheist politicians – that is, those who consider only monotheism legitimate – we need to give them loud refreshers in the history of the Founders, who were quite clear that they meant the First Amendment to extend to everyone, regardless of their beliefs.

I’m not a Pagan, but I’d also love to see some Pagan candidates for office. We’ll all benefit from that. Even if Pagans don’t win major offices – and they won’t, at least for awhile – their very presence in the public square helps everybody think about what pluralism means, what democracy means. Democracy isn’t something we HAVE, it’s something we make. The Family doesn’t like it. They call it “the din of the vox populi.” The din of the voice of the people. So we know what we need to do: Let’s make some noise.