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America's Secret Fundamentalists

The Secret Fundamentalism at the Heart of American Power
By Jeff Sharlet

Any believer in American democracy is obliged to come to terms with a wing of the citizenry few secular humanists have the wherewithal to think about--Christians. Not mainline modernists, so useful for validating progressive pieties when we godless need moral ballast, but the 75 million Americans whose Christianity takes such modifiers as the respectable evangelical, the unapologetic fundamentalist, the doctrinal Bible-believing, the thoughtful convinced and the emotional born-again. Especially the white ones, of course--even black churches that oppose abortion and homosexuality are aligned with the social gospel, while Latino Pentecostals and Korean Presbyterians generally gather in their own congregations. Anyway, secular humanists are inclined to cut African-Americans and immigrants some slack. White Middle Americans they have a problem with.

These generalizations are crude, obviously. For one thing, there are plenty of secular humanists in Middle America, where proximity mitigates incomprehension a little. But in New York, my eternal home, folks are less sophisticated. As someone whose atheism proceeds directly from his demographically unlikely childhood in a fundamentalist church in Queens, and whose brother has spent his life ministering to conservative churches in various distant suburbs, I got on this problem back when my colleagues at The Village Voice dismissed Jimmy Carter out of hand because he was a Southern Baptist. I argued back then that the specifics of Carter's religious history suggested levels of honesty and compassion unusual in a politician, which turned out to be true--in 2000, Carter quit the by then explicitly right-wing Southern Baptist Convention after a fruitless struggle to moderate it. Other politically prominent Southern Baptists include Pat Robertson, who founded the Christian Broadcasting Network in 1960, and Jerry Falwell, who founded the Moral Majority in 1979. They do not include famed born-againer George W. Bush--or the most devout Christian currently running for president, Barack Obama. Generalizations are often crude.

Jeff Sharlet's "The Family: The Secret Fundamentalism at the Heart of American Power" examines a group of politically engaged Christians far more secretive than Robertson or Falwell. Sharlet establishes that since the end of World War II, The Family, aka The Fellowship, has exerted its influence in an impressive and frightening array of mostly dire events. Its first coup was the wholesale exoneration of minor Nazis and major Nazi collaborators after the war. The addition of under God to the Pledge of Allegiance and In God We Trust to U.S. currency were its initiatives. Its first major government operative was Sen. Frank Carlson, R-Kan., who persuaded Dwight Eisenhower to run as a Republican, purged progressive bureaucrats from his chair at the obscure Civil Service Employees Committee and lobbied for such heads of state as Haiti's "Papa Doc" Duvalier. Other dictators abetted by The Family included Ngo Dinh Diem of Vietnam, Haile Selassie of Ethiopia, Park Chung Hee of South Korea, Artur da Costa e Silva of Brazil, Gen. Suharto of Indonesia, Mohamed Siad Barre of Somalia and Carlos Eugenios Vides Casanova of El Salvador, which got its first infusion of special aid at the behest of Jimmy Carter, who has called Family leader Doug Coe a "very important person" in his life. Hillary Clinton has also been a Family "friend," and not just via its major public manifestation, the relatively anodyne annual National Prayer Breakfast. The Family was instrumental in the creation of Chuck Colson's Prison Fellowship, and of the Community Bible Study project through which George W. Bush found Jesus in 1985.

Deeply researched yet fast paced, moving easily from first person to third person and incident to overview, "The Family" is an exceptional piece of bookcraft. Its revelations are fascinating, especially with political history having propelled Christians deep into polite discourse since 1976. Yet since it came out in May, it has attracted just two major reviews, both censorious; I found out about it only when I was asked to share a panel with Sharlet in June. You could say this reflects the dismal state of book coverage in a journalistic environment where new arts cutbacks come down from on high every month. But when I try to imagine how an unbroken phalanx of individual literary editors decided not to squeeze this book into their pathetic page allotments, I keep remembering how exotic my Village Voice co-workers found my hunch that Carter was a smart, sensible, decent guy. Secular humanists know more about Christians now, but not that much more. And "The Family" doesn't fit their template.

Sharlet is a 36-year-old historian and journalist of religion, the son of a Jewish father and a Pentecostal mother. He's a contributing editor at Harper's and Rolling Stone and has founded two online journals of religion: the NYU-backed The Revealer and Killing the Buddha, which is also the title of his first book, written with co-editor Peter Manseau. While clearly a left-leaning skeptic, Sharlet is just as clearly drawn to spiritual quests. "Killing the Buddha" alternates between heretical interpretations of Bible chapters--by such guests as Francine Prose (Exodus) and Rick Moody (Jonah), though most are less prominent and several outshine the stars--and sojourns with cultists nationwide, more than half Christian. These tales are both more empathetic than the standard yahoo-bashing expos and less polite than the pained coverage of evangelical activists that has become a journalistic staple since Karl Rove transformed churchgoers into margins of victory. Sharlet and Manseau feel the pain of almost everyone they write about, but that doesn't blind them to the foolishness of these suffering seekers and penny-ante ideologues, which they're not above mocking when the joke is good enough.

The world of "The Family" is much different. For its first three quarters, the individuals Sharlet observes and interviews come from more money and wield more power than those who populate "Killing the Buddha." Yet you won't meet the usual cast of hucksters and theocrats--James Dobson, Tony Perkins, John Hagee, Rick Warren, Tim LaHaye, whoever. A few politicians pass through, notably Sam Brownback, but for the most part you've never heard of these rather colorless people, every one of whom Sharlet engages on a human level. This failure to flatter stereotype couldn't have helped Sharlet get reviewed and typifies his insight into American Christianity, which subdivides endlessly. The most important such grouping, argues Gallup-pollster-turned-Rice-University-sociologist D. Michael Lindsay in "Faith in the Halls of Power" (a well-researched--and widely reviewed--2007 overview of American evangelicals whose "sympathetic perspective" Sharlet notes with some asperity), pits populists against cosmopolitans. The populists have become familiar figures in secular humanist folklore. The Family--which is neither an official organization nor a coherent conspiracy--enlists only cosmopolitans.

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.

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.

Truth Dig, Sept. 5, 2008