The Family by Jeff Sharlet

The Family by Jeff Sharlet

Jeff Sharlet, bestselling author of The Family, was recently on the Thom Hartmann Show which is where I heard about him. The topic of his book, The Family: The Secret Fundamentalism at the Heart of American Power, is a group of Christian fundamentalists who are influencing American policies and gaining a powerful hold in politics.

I knew after hearing Jeff on the air with Thom that I had to at least try to get an interview. Amazingly, Jeff wrote back the next day! Here’s what we talked about.

Interview with Jeff Sharlet, Author of The Family

What is The Family and what distinguishes their elite fundamentalism, as you call it, from other fundamental Christian groups?

The Family — or the Fellowship, as they’re known to some — is the oldest and most influential religious right group in Washington. It dates back to 1935, when founder Abraham Vereide received what he believed was a new revelation from God, a message that he should give up ministering to the down and out and focus instead on the “up and out,” society’s elites, chosen for power by God. Unlike populist fundamentalist groups, the Family isn’t interested in the souls of the masses. Their membership is small by design. And their interests tend more toward economics and foreign affairs, toward what some in the group call “biblical capitalism” and “worldwide spiritual offensive.”

How were you able to get involved in and live with The Family?

I was invited. In the beginning of the book I tell the story of how a friend asked me to meet with her brother, whom she worried had joined a cult. I write a lot about religion, so she thought I’d be able to help. The brother, whom I’d known for many years, invited me to come see for myself. At the time, I didn’t know there was a political — or a powerful — side to the group. I didn’t even really know it was a group — it was presented to me as just a group of friends. The tax records and the group’s archives tell a different tale.

Jeff Sharlet author of The Family The members of The Family seem fixated on power and attaining positions of power. Where can members be found and what agenda are they pushing?

Some prominent members include senators James Inhofe, Tom Coburn, John Ensign, Sam Brownback, Chuck Grassley, and Bill Nelson, and representatives Frank Wolf, Zach Wamp, Bart Stupak, Mike McIntyre, Joe Pitts, and Heath Shuler. Congress buffs will note that that list includes both Republicans and Democrats. The Family has always been bipartisan; it’s also always been conservative. It doesn’t push an agenda, per se. Rather, it offers what it calls a “worldview,” a frame for understanding politics through a religious lens that emphasizes rule by elites, free market fundamentalism, and Christian-oriented approaches to foreign affairs, such as Senator Coburn’s attempts to create secretive Christian prayer cells in the Lebanese government, or Senator Brownback’s attempts to get Jordan’s King Abdullah to study the New Testament, or Senator Grassley’s involvement, in the 80s, with the Somali dictator Siad Barre, a self-described “Koranic Marxist” who agreed to pray with Grassley to Jesus in exchange for access to American military aid, which he got — and which he used to lay waste to his country. The Family, while not necessarily approving of Barre’s murderous methods, never objected, seeing it as part of God’s plan for the nation.

You’ve written that Mao, Hitler and Stalin provide inspiration or a model of leadership. How are these figures portrayed as leaders to emulate?

That’s Family boilerplate, the idea that one can gain insight into Jesus by studying strongman killers. The Family will say, “These are evil men, but look how effective they were! They understood power, just as Jesus did. They used it for evil; Jesus, and you, can use it for good.” Which is absurd, of course. When I was living with the Family, I said I didn’t think we had many positive things to learn from Hitler. “Oh no,” one of the “brothers” assured me, “it’s not his ends we’re interested in, it’s his method.” That method was called fascism.

This doesn’t sound like a cult per se but more of a social ideology or movement. What have they been able to change to align American policies with their agenda?

I agree; that’s one of the main arguments of my book. It’s been frustrating to see friends on the left mislabel the movement as a cult and critics on the right dismiss my work by insisting that I’m labeling the Family a cult. It’s not a cult, it’s a movement, and its power lies not in any kind of conspiracy but in cultural transformation. The bulk of the book is a chronicle of the ways in which they’ve influenced American policy, “influence” being the key word. Any great change is the result of many factors.

So, for instance, they teamed up with the National Association of Manufacturers in the 1940s to roll back organized labor’s New Deal gains. In the postwar era, they were instrumental in whitewashing the records of former Nazi sympathizers such as Hermann Abs, the “wizard” of West Germany’s financial resurrection until the Simon Wiesenthal Center exposed him as Hitler’s banker. That kind of work helped stoke the Cold War in its early days; the Family viewed it as World War III. In 1959, two powerful senators, Frank Carlson and Homer Capehart, became champions for the Haitan dictator Papa Doc Duvalier, initiating the long and awful American relationship with the lunatic leader, who actually thought he was God. In the late 60s, they declared the coup that brought Indonesian strongman Suharto to power — considered by the CIA “one of the worst mass killings in the 20th century” — a “spiritual revolution,” and began sending delegations of congressmen and oil executives to meet with Suharto, who they considered God’s anointed man for Indonesia. They lobbied hard — and successfully — for massive American aid to the junta of generals that sidelined Brazilian democracy for more than a decade, and they stood by the Filipino dictator Ferdinand Marcos to the end. More recently, they’ve become champions of the Ugandan dictator Yoweri Museveni, whom they’ve designated a “key man” for Africa. Museveni has no bigger champion in Congress than Family men James Inhofe and Sam Brownback, two senators who’ve taken a very involved role in Ugandan politics.

Is there a connection between this group and the rise of fundamentalism in the military?

I’m looking at that now for my next book. Last spring I published a piece on fundamentalism in the military called “Jesus Killed Muhammad’ in Harper’s magazine (it’s online and free, now). At the time, I thought they were parallel but not directly related movements. Now, I’m not so sure. Working with an advocacy outfit called the Military Religious Freedom Foundation, I’ve been able to document some surprising connections. More on that front to come.

About Writing The Family

I’ve read that it took you 5 years of work to produce your book The Family. What aspect of the research was the most challenging? Did you find it difficult to get the information you needed?

The most significant source for the book was Collection 459 of the Billy Graham Center Archives, the papers of the Fellowship Foundation — one of the Family’s several nonprofit entities, and the one that dumped the papers of many of the different nonprofit groups in the archive. Nearly 600 boxes and hundreds of hours of tape. Literally millions of pages — budgets, memos, plans, correspondence, membership lists, prayer, diaries. Some of it crucial, some of it banal, some of it fascinating, a lot of it, frankly, boring. I worked with quite a few research assistants and spent literally years on these papers — and I still only saw a fraction of them. On top of that, I conducted research in a number of other archives around the country. I’ve a giant stack of documents I copied from the Reagan Library, for instance, that I didn’t end up using. The most challenging aspect was wading through all this paper. At the same time, I struggled for a long time to understand what I was seeing. The Family really represents a different strain of religious conservatism than has previously been identified. That made it difficult. Then, too, there’s the secrecy of the group, which officially “submerged” — their word — in the late 1960s. Since the success of the book, quite a few former Family members have come to me with just amazing documents — if only I’d had these when I was writing the book! There’s still a lot more to learn.

It has been about a year since The Family first came out, where do you plan to go from here with your writing on religion and politics?

At the beginning of this summer I was working on a book I’ve owed to Basic Books for awhile, using the story of “If I Had a Hammer” to trace the transformation — and, in many ways, collapse — of an organized left from its first public performance in 1947 to now. The Family scandals of the summer — the affairs of Senator Ensign, Governor Mark Sanford, and former congressman Chip Pickering, all linked to the Family’s C Street House — have put me back on the religion beat. This time I’ll be looking more broadly at the role of scandal in how we think about religion and politics. That book should be out next fall, and then it’ll be followed by a collection of essays called “What They Wanted,” which approaches religion and politics through a consideration of the tension between despair and desire. And then, at last, I’ll finish up The Hammer Song, a book I originally conceived as a sort of antidote for myself after too many years in the shadow of the Family.

Thanks again for talking with me Jeff!

If you’re interested in finding out more about Jeff Sharlet or his work head on over to

In addition to writing books, Jeff Sharlet is a contributing editor at Rolling Stone. Sharlet has also been featured on numerous TV shows. Not surprisingly, one of the best ones I found was his appearance on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart. See the video below.

The Daily Show With Jon Stewart Mon – Thurs 11p / 10c
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