Interview with the Author of The Family -- Part 1
Jeff Sharlet's ground breaking, forthcoming book: The Family: The Secret Fundamentalism at the Heart of American Power
, will be published on May 20th by HarperCollins. It can be preordered from Powells
or your friendly local independent bookstore
A few weeks ago, the NBC Nightly News reported
on the The Family, featuring dramatic video of Family leader Doug Coe preaching about the kind of "covenant" that he says made Hitler among others, powerful -- commanding loyalty among his followers, and that this is what Jesus requires.
The Family is an elite fundamentalist network that seeks and weilds power behind the scenes in Washington, DC, and among the powerful around the world. It recruits both Democrats and Republicans, (but mostly Republicans) to its concentric circles of influence. Prominent among the Democrats has been Sen. Hillary Clinton, who has refused to discuss her involvement, the contemporary fashion among pols to discuss their "faith journey" not withstanding.
How far discussion of the secretive group will extend into mainstream discourse is anyone's guess, but to help get things started, Sharlet's publisher has done an excellent interview with the author that seeks to bring out the books' most important points. Here is the first half of the interview. I will post part 2 on Monday.
A Conversation with Jeff Sharlet, author of The Family
The most secretive Christian fundamentalist organizations in America, The Family has been rarely reported on since its founding 70 years ago. How did you discover it?
I was invited to join. It was back in 2001, shortly after 9/11. A friend asked me to talk to her brother because she was worried he'd joined a cult. Instead, he'd joined The Family, and he invited me to do so as well. I was in the midst of my first book, about unusual religious communities, so I agreed. I had no idea what I was getting involved in.
You used your real name and honestly told other members you were a writer. Was it really that easy to report from within the group's walls?
Yes--because I came to them recommended. I had the right connections, a good enough pedigree, and, most importantly from their perspective, I was there. If God had sent me-- and why else would I be there?--then who were they to argue. Of course, they didn't know I was going to write a book about them, but then, neither did I. In fact, it was their idea. One day one of the leaders said, "You ought to write a book about us, Jeff." Then he laughed. "Nobody would believe it!" That was the easy part. It was the history that was tough. When I left, I discovered that The Family had dumped nearly 600 boxes of documents and tapes in an evangelical archive in Illinois. I moved to Illinois and spent months there, living in a bare bones apartment and marching off to the archive every day to sift through mountains of documents. I was amazed and horrified by what I found--the secret history of Christian fundamentalism's most enduring and most powerful organization, told through tens of thousands of letters, manifestos, memos, prayers, and political documents.
Did you know how powerful the group was when you first started reporting on The Family?
I didn't even know what the group was when I joined. I was invited to join a house of young jocks who wanted to live and study a peculiar, hyper-masculine idea of Jesus together. But very quickly I realized there was much more to it than that. The house I joined, "Ivanwald," was just one among many owned by The Family, including a giant old mansion overlooking the Potomac called The Cedars, in which The Family hosts congressmen, ambassadors, generals, and even foreign heads of state. My first few days at Ivanwald, The Family received visits from Senator Jesse Helms and the then-newly elected conservative prime minister of Norway. That was such an odd combination that I started paying much closer attention.
What significant role has the group played in American history?
The Family doesn't work from the outside, like most Christian fundamentalist groups, but from the inside. Their influence has been staggering--they played key roles in U.S. involvement with the Cold War's worst killers, the rise of what I call the "Popular Front" of Christian fundamentalism, its public presence, and, more recently, the creation of Faith-Based Initiatives, which even one of their own members--and a former Special Assistant to President George W. Bush for the Faith-Based scam--refers to as a vote-getting machine. The Family began in 1935 as an elite anti-New Deal coalition, and by the late 1940s, their members and friends in Congress had succeeded in rolling back some of FDR's greatest achievements. Then they moved on to foreign policy, becoming matchmakers for foreign dictators seeking access to American power. There was General Suharto of Indonesia, who ordered the murder of at least half a million of his own citizens, and General Siad Barre of Somalia, who reduced his nation to rubble, and a couple of lunatics so drunk with power they actually thought they were gods, Emperor Selassie of Ethiopia and Papa Doc Duvalier, the vicious ruler of Haiti. That's just for starters; their archive is a gallery of monsters. They call them "key men," chosen for leadership by God. Simply put, The Family helped steer American foreign policy in the most horrific directions for generations. And it's still doing so.
Of all the fundamentalist groups that have been formed in America since its founding, why do you think this one is the most enduring?
Because they work from the inside, not from the outside. From the very beginning, the group was comprised of elites who didn't need to bang a pulpit to be heard. They simply made a few phone calls. In fact, The Family disdains the showy tactics fundamentalists like the late Jerry Falwell, or Pat Robertson. Their members aren't televangelists, they're politicians--Senator Sam Brownback, Senator Jim Inhofe, Representative Joe Pitts, John Ashcroft, Ed Meese, many others. They're willing to collaborate with liberals if doing so will help advance their agenda. As their leader, Doug Coe, says, "We work with power where we can, build new power where we can't."
What do you find most dangerous about The Family?
Their disdain for transparency, and the inner circle's contempt for democracy. That's an incredibly dangerous combination of views when held by men--the inner circle is almost all male--with tremendous access to power. This isn't a left / right issue. It's not about Democrats vs. Republicans, or liberals vs. conservatives. It's about an authoritarian sect that deliberately exercises power and influence behind the scenes, declares that it doesn't exist, shifts money about off the books, and seeks to achieve a "government led by God" not through the democratic process--which would be just fine, even if I don't agree with that end--but backroom alliances. It's an accountability issue.
To continue directly to part 2 of the interview with Jeff Sharlet, click here.