Robert Christgau on America’s Secret Fundamentalists
Posted on Sep 5, 2008
Among The Family’s members is none other than Jeff Sharlet, who in 2002 was invited by an acquaintance to spend a month at Ivanwald, a Family training facility in Arlington, Va., along with a shifting cast of some dozen young men. All of them tended the house and grounds, served occasional meals at a nearby Family mansion, played ball and horsed around, joined a female auxiliary at weekly swing dances and attended meetings where they learned what it meant to serve Jesus. Everyone knew Sharlet was a half-Jewish journalist who might write about them. After a draft of the first chapter of “The Family” was published in Harper’s in 2003, he was sussed out by Family associates overt and covert (including a sexy blonde), and in the end The Family archive in Wheaton, Ill., where he did extensive digging, was closed to the public. But Sharlet’s social relations with his Family contacts remain cordial. Why not? He’s a smart guy with a future. Someday he might prove useful.
This is how The Family operates, and quite often it goes over people’s heads, as it is meant to. Take U.S. News & World Report’s religion specialist, Jay Tolson, whose faint-praise debunk indignantly disproves that political fundamentalists “take ... their marching orders from The Fellowship.” Problem is, Sharlet never suggests such a thing. No wonder they call themselves The Family and The Fellowship—uppercase removed, those are the relevant models. The Family makes connections and encourages behavior based on bonds of friendship, faith and shared experience. It’s networking for Christ, theocracy as hegemony. Sharlet’s research proves (as even Tolson acknowledges) that all the dictators named above received crucial support from the organization begun in Seattle in 1935—with seed money from a local developer—by Norwegian-born clergyman and Goodwill Industries middle executive Abram Vereide. But as with the State Department, some of its projects are benign—orphanages, hospitals, even peace accords. And always the dirtiest details are left to Family-linked power brokers—carefully nurtured local “key men”—in the belief that, ultimately, Christ thrives in a stable capitalist order.
The Family: The Secret Fundamentalism at the Heart of American Power
By Jeff Sharlet
Harper, 464 pages
Doug Coe, Vereide’s successor for nearly half a century now, has some provocative ideas. He likes to cite the Mafia, Hitler-Goebbels-Himmler and Communist Party cells as examples of the strong faith of a few changing the world—“enemies” who put Christ’s teachings into practice. Sharlet pinpoints one of Coe’s favorite slogans as especially fraught: “Jesus plus nothing.” You could say this mantra aspires toward Godhead. But in a world of many Jesuses—“Killing the Buddha” touches upon at least a dozen—it can also be seen as undercutting Jesus’ reality. Is Jesus still Jesus without his life example, his teachings, his scripture, his churches that Coe says have no biblical basis? (The Bible, Coe claims, speaks only of that manly abstraction, the Body of Christ.) For Sharlet, Jesus plus zero equals power for its own sake, an abstraction with disastrously concrete consequences. Family members are inculcated with the principle of loyalty—“Loyalty to what? The idea of loyalty.” Part of him clearly feels that Coe and his enablers are monsters. But he also conveys that at some level the guys he meets are nice, normal, well-meaning. If Doug Coe is a little strange, he knows how to stay quiet about it. A Family of monsters wouldn’t function.
For nearly 300 pages, including some of the best background on seminal evangelists Jonathan Edwards and Charles Grandison Finney I’ve ever read, Sharlet says to hell with stereotype and traces this shadowy seam of Christianity. I so admired his formal austerity that at first I was disappointed when he switched up, devoting the book’s final quarter to reporting on more familiar fundamentalist types—home-schoolers, abstinence activists, life-tossed devotees of a prelapsarian Ted Haggard, even some Oregon progressives. But there’s no resisting Sharlet’s empathy, which must have been sorely tested by his several seasons among the evangelical elite—whether they’re as nutty as the Colorado Springs insurance agent who fears demons in every urban place or as sharp as the virgin grade-school teacher from Brooklyn who’ll probably have a ball in bed once he gets married, you can see why these people need Jesus in their lives and hope their spiritual struggles won’t ever ease to a complacent halt.
Tying these populist endeavors to The Family is a knotty undertaking, and Sharlet doesn’t quite put a bow on it. But though the most fluent stylists are rarely as lucid essaying exegesis as writing narrative or history, Sharlet’s many philosophical passages go down much better than most. Here he closes with a few progressives, believers who work mostly in the helping professions salving their pain over the shooting of a mentor by renewing their belief in “absolute Truth.” Then he visits David Kuo, Bush’s Coe-trained “faith-based initiatives” expert, who later wrote a much-praised book exposing how crassly political his supposedly charitable office was. Sharlet, whose research has left him rather pessimistic about combating hegemony, suspects Kuo hasn’t really changed his spots—sure, Jimmy Carter and Hillary Clinton are preferable to George W. Bush and Sam Brownback, but in the end, as The Family understands, all serve the same order.
Sharlet proffers one shred of hope—“believers and unbelievers alike, all of us who love our neighbors more than we love power or empire or even the solace of certainty.” Secular humanists can scoff if they like, but I’m here to testify that Sharlet is both more intelligent and better informed than most of them. If he believes that “believers and unbelievers alike” fall into this sainted host, I believe him.
Robert Christgau’s Consumer Guide to Current CDs appears monthly at msn.com. He is a contributing editor at Blender and a critic at NPR’s “All Things Considered.”
Square, Site wide
Previous item: Clooney Raises $900K for Obama in Switzerland
Next item: Streisand to Lend Pipes to Obama’s Cause
New and Improved Comments