Jeff Sharlet credits a trio of Republican sex scandals with the success of his 2008 book "The Family: The Secret Fundamentalism at the Heart of American Power."
"The book didn't quite catch when it came out," recalled Sharlet, 37, a 1990 graduate of Scotia-Glenville High School, during a phone interview.
Then South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford, Nevada Sen. John Ensign and former Mississippi Rep. Chip Pickering each admitted to extramarital affairs.
All three had connections to the Family, a little-known but politically powerful network of fundamentalist Christians, and Sharlet soon found himself talking about the Family on TV -- on the network news, "The Daily Show with Jon Stewart," "The Rachel Maddow Show," "Real Time with Bill Maher" and "Hardball." His book, an exhaustively researched look at the secretive group's influence on policy and world events, landed on the New York Times best-seller list, where it spent 14 weeks in the top 10 and has remained ever since.
Sharlet serves as a contributing editor for Harper's Magazine and Rolling Stone and also writes about music for the Oxford American and politics and religion for The Nation, Mother Jones and Salon. Since 2003, he has served as an associate research scholar at New York University's Center for Religion and Media, where he edits The Revealer, a daily online review of religion in the news and news about religion.
Many of the publications Sharlet writes for have liberal views; his Web site proudly proclaims that right-wing pundit Ann Coulter has called him one of the "stupidest" journalists in America, while left-leaning writers and thinkers such as Barbara Ehrenreich and Thomas Franks have sung the praises of "The Family."
Sharlet has a pretty prominent platform for his work these days.
But when Phyllis Kulmatiski, the mother of one of Sharlet's boyhood friends and a! retired Scotia-Glenville studio art teacher, sees Sharlet on television, she's reminded of how he used to talk about the issues of the day when he was in high school.
"We see him on TV and say, 'Oh, God, he looks like his father,' " she said. "And then we remember him doing that around the dinner table."
Sharlet's interest in religion developed during childhood.
The son of a secular Jew and a "Christian eclectic," he was neither bar mitzvahed nor raised in a single church. But his mother would often take him to different churches and congregations. They visited a Dutch Reformed church, he said, because they liked the bell ringers, and they attended midnight Mass as well as a Hindu ashram.
"My mother was not a seeker in the hippie way of looking for a true path," Sharlet said. "She was interested in the crazy quilt of it all."
In a 2004 interview in Religion & Ethics Newsweekly, Sharlet talked about his unusual background.
"I grew up in what seemed like a mostly Catholic ! town in upstate New York," he said. "My father is Jewish, and my mother, with whom I lived, had been raised in a very unusual Pentecostal home. Her mother, a very poor Tennessean without a whole lot of education, had at an early age discovered a box of discarded books -- Dostoyevsky and Balzac and Tolstoy and books of Eastern religion. That was in rural Tennessee in the 1930s. So she raised my mother to be interested in everything, and my mother did the same for me. Going to other people's churches and temples, gathering stories -- in my family, that was just how you did religion. I didn't even know that it was religion, in fact, which probably helped me become the kind of religion writer I have. I gravitate to stories about what people believe and don't believe and how that affects their lives, because that seems the most natural way to engage the world around me."
When Sharlet was 16, his mother, Nancy Goodlin Sharlet, died from cancer.
Shortly before ! she died, she invited people of different faiths -- Buddhism, Evangelical Christianity, Catholicism -- to pray with her at the house. These people spoke of salvation -- of preparing for the next world, for life after death. But his mother, Sharlet said, wanted to pray for deliverance.
"She would say, 'I want to be delivered from my death.' ... That always stayed with me. That whole idea of deliverance versus salvation -- it's the most interesting dilemma you could have."
People who knew Sharlet when he was growing up remember him as a bright, inquisitive boy who came from an academic family. His father, Robert Sharlet of Niskayuna, is a retired Union College professor of political science who specialized in Russian and post-Soviet law and politics. Sharlet's mother was a writer and editor who worked for SUNY Press. After she died, Sharlet spent the summer going through her papers, "discovering her as a writer," he said.
"Jeff was always a reader of books," said Kulmatiski, who has known Sharlet since he was in kindergarten. "He was very verbal."
Sharlet and her son, Andy, would play "Bridge to Terabithia" in the yard, a game based on the famous children's book by Katherine Paterson.
"In high school, Jeff started writing more," she said. "He was also interested in political issues and social justice." Sharlet and his friends "were great arguers," Kulmatiski said. "They were like lawyers. They were always challenging each other. They were very liberal and full of themselves. They were kind of pain-in-the-neck kids. They weren't the kids who were kissing up to teachers. They were outspoken."
Sharlet said he wasn't a particularly distinguished student in high school. He described himself as a screw-up, a straight-A student whose grades fell off when his mother got sick; he and his friends, he said, "were smart-alecky jerks."
After high school, Sharlet attended Hampshire College in Amherst, Mass., where he studied literary journalism.
"Like many people, I discovered writing by going off to college and having a really great writing teacher," he said.
Taking up the pen
He began his career at an alternative weekly newspaper in San Diego and then moved on to the National Yiddish Book Center, where he founded Pakn Treger, an award-winning magazine of Jewish history and literature. He didn't speak Yiddish or even Hebrew, but it didn't matter: the National Yiddish Book Center wanted to create a magazine that would "deal with the Jewish world, that was not about this faction or that faction."
Sharlet had a large budget and was able to do things like travel to Spain with Jewish veterans of the Spanish Civil War. But the job gradually became more restrictive, and when the National Yiddish Book Center decided it no longer wanted Sharlet to write about sex, politics or religion, he took a job with the Chronicle of Higher Education.
In 2000, Sharlet and his friend Peter Manseau founded an online religion magazine called Killing the Buddha, which describes itself as "a religion magazine for people made anxious by churches, people embarrassed to be caught in the 'spirituality' section of a bookstore, people both hostile and drawn to talk of God. It is for people who somehow want to be religious, who want to know what it means to know the divine but for good reasons are not and do not. If the religious have come to own religious discourse, it is because they alone have had places where religious language could be spoken and understood. Now there is a forum for the supposedly non-religious to think and talk about what religion is, is not and might be. Killing the Buddha is it."
The magazine was successful, and Sharlet and Manseau received a contract to write a book about religious subcultures. The two spent a year traveling throughout America, visiting unusual churches and religious gatherings and exploring some of the country's stranger religious subcultures: a Pentecostal ! exorcism in North Carolina, a military pagan coven in Kansas, ! a storm- chaser who looks for the divine in tornadoes. The book, titled "Killing the Buddha: A Heretic's Bible," came out in 2004.
"I was interested in the margins," Sharlet said. "I was interested in unusual things."
Mixing god, government
Sharlet's next book, "The Family," was a much different project, one that took him to the halls of Congress, to megachurches in Colorado and deep into the Family's archives at the Billy Graham Center at evangelical Wheaton College in Illinois. And although Sharlet is now a leading expert on the Family, he learned about the group almost by accident.
In 2002, a woman he had dated in college contacted him. She said she was worried about her brother --she thought he had joined a cult. Sharlet met the brother -- called Zeke in "The Family," although that's not his real name -- for dinner and learned that he'd had a born-again experience while staying at Ivanwald, a home for young Christian men in Arlington, Va. T! he young men at Ivanwald, Zeke told Sharlet, worked at The Cedars, a spiritual retreat for politicians. Sharlet asked Zeke how one went about joining Ivanwald.
"You don't," Zeke told him, in a conversation recounted in "The Family." "You're recommended."
Zeke recommended Sharlet to Ivanwald, and he lived there for a month, praying, working and studying the Bible with other young men. Initially, he thought the experience might merit a chapter in "Killing the Buddha."
"I thought it would be a monastic group of frat boys," he recalled. (In "The Family," he writes, "I thought Ivanwald would simply be one more bead on my agnostic rosary.") Instead, Sharlet discovered a topic that deserved its own book: the Family.
Founded in 1935, the Family's members include high-ranking government officials in both the U.S. and abroad, business leaders and military officers; the group's goal, Sharlet writes, is to minister to the powerful, with the objective of creating "god-led" governments centered around the person of Christ.
During his stay at Ivanwald, Sharlet visited a Washington townhouse run by a Family affiliate called the C Street Foundation; eight congressmen live there. He also visited The Cedars, where Ed Meese, who served as attorney general for former President Ronald Reagan, presides over a regular prayer breakfast.
In "The Family," Sharlet explains that these connections give the Family surprising power.
"In the process of introducing powerful men to Jesus, the Family has managed to effect a number of behind-the-scenes acts of diplomacy," Sharlet writes. "In 1978, it helped the Carter administration organize a worldwide call to prayer with Menachem Begin and Anwar Sadat. At the 1994 National Prayer Breakfast, Family leaders persuaded their South African client, the Zulu chief Mangosuthu Buthelezi, to stand down from the possibility of civil war with Nelson Mandela. But such benign acts appear to be the exception to the rule. During the 1960s, the Family forged relationships between the U.S. government and some of the most oppressive regimes in the world, arranging prayer networks in the U.S. Congress for the likes of General Costa e Silva, dictator of Brazil, General Suharto, dictator of Indonesia, and General Park Chung Hee, dictator of South Korea."
Sharlet wrote an article about Ivanwald and the Family for Harper's in 2003; with his editor's encouragement, he spent the next five years turning the piece into a book.
"The Family" is a mix of first-person accounts, narrative history and essays with numerous footnotes.
"People had to push me into writing about it," Sharlet said. "It wasn't what I wanted to do, but it was a story that landed on my lap. I thought it might be an important book."
Sharlet said religion is a fascinating topic to write about.
When people ask why he writes about religion, he said he ofte! n gives them what he calls his "glib answer -- because it's there." Mo st of the people who write about religion, he said, have a religious agenda. He said he isn't interested in exploring the question of whether religion is good or bad or whether God exists but understanding character and motive.
"I'm interested in what people who believe in God or don't believe in God do about it," he said.
Friend Manseau said Sharlet spends time getting to know his subjects, which is why he's such a good religion reporter.
"He's able to understand the beliefs of others and empathize with them without sharing their beliefs," he said. And he's bold: "The key to his success is that he presents himself to [his subjects] with no agenda," he said. "He doesn't have a list of gotcha questions. He's there to learn about the people he's writing about. That's attractive to his subjects --here's this smart guy who wants to learn about them."
Manseau, who met and worked with Sharlet at Pakn Treger, said Sharlet taught him a lot about writing.
"I started off wanting to be a fiction writer," he said. "Jeff taught me the necessity of being out in the world, of going out into the world and meeting people. He taught me that a reported story doesn't have to be a boring story."
Sharlet now lives in Cambridge, Mass., with his wife, Julie Rabig, and nine-month-old daughter.
He has several other projects in the pipeline.
One is a book he plans to write with his father about his father and uncle's experiences during the Cold War. While his father, Robert Sharlet, became a leading authority on the Soviet Union -- Sharlet described him as a "Cold Warrior" -- his uncle, also named Jeff Sharlet, served as a translator during the Vietnam War and became a leader of the GI resistance movement; the 2005 documentary "Sir! No Sir!" about the anti-war activities of American GIs during the Vietnam War is dedicated to him. (Sharlet died in 1969, of exposure to Agent Purple, a precursor to the dangerous herbicide Agent Orange.)
Sharlet also plans a follow-up to "The Family" that will look at... the scope of Christian fundamentalism in other areas of American life, such as the military.
A third book, "The Hammer Song," will explore the history of the folk song "If I Had a Hammer."
Sharlet said he's now in regular communication with some members of the Family, which he said has a "small liberal wing" that believes the group should be less secretive. He recently arranged for Bob Hunter, a Family associate who built the group's relationship with the country of Uganda, to appear on "The Rachel Maddow Show" to talk about a Ugandan bill that calls for life imprisonment for gays; the legislator who introduced the Ugandan bill is a member of the Family.
Sharlet applauds Family members who support greater transparency but said the group and its members do not take responsibility for their actions and the way their ministry impacts the world.
"They're blinded by their good intentions," he said. "I keep getting drawn back to the brutality of the cold, hard facts."
Monday, January 25, 2010
There's nothing quite so rewarding to a small town brain like mine as making it into the hometown rag, which in my case is the Schenectady Daily Gazette, my first employer. (I was a paperboy.) Features writer Sara Foss contacted me and asked some of the most challenging and engaging questions I've encountered in years of doing media. Here's the story, which ran on page 1 of the January 24, 2010 edition.