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. 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.
Author, journalist, and The Revealer co-founder Jeff Sharlet has written a masterful essay for The Nation that looks at issues of conscience, religious freedom, and the separation of church and state. Sharlet reviews “Liberty of Conscience: In Defense of America’s Tradition of Religious Equality” by Martha Nussbaum, and “Founding Faith Providence, Politics, and the Birth of Religious Freedom in America” by Steven Waldman, and compares their approaches to ideas of religious equality and freedom.”Nussbaum’s book, a fundamentally flawed but wise consideration of the subtle distinctions between “freedom” and “equality,” may help cultivate it in years to come. Meanwhile, Founding Faith–a new book by Steven Waldman, a former religion reporter–is the sort of carefully crafted crowd pleaser that trades [Roger] Williams’s liberty of conscience for the solace of centrism.”Sharlet criticizes Beliefnet founder Steven Waldman for creating a false set of “extremes” that we need to “compromise” on to achieve harmony and peace between secularists and Christian conservatives.”Waldman wins his centrist peace by dismissing Christian conservatives’ majoritarian bullying and secularists’ insistence on separation of church and state as “extremes” that can be reconciled by the former acknowledging pluralism and the latter accepting that separation is neither strict nor meant to be universal. Doing so, however, would require fundamentalists to give up the most important claim of their faith–its exclusivity–and secularists to ignore history. Significantly, Waldman pays only brief lip service to an essential development in American law, the principle of incorporation–the Fourteenth Amendment’s extension of the Bill of Rights to the states.
A perennial problem for modern Pagans is how the press represents us and our viewpoints. Our beliefs are either boiled down to meaningless catch-phrases, or worse, completely misinterpreted. It is a rare journalist who takes the time to portray our perspectives correctly and makes the effort to understand our motivations. One writer who has covered modern Pagans well in the past is Peter Manseau. Manseau, along with co-author Jeff Sharlet, tried a new experiment in religious journalism that ended up a book called “Killing the Buddha: A Heretic’s Bible”.