Monday, January 25, 2010

Hometown Paper

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.

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."

Diverse background

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."

Academic childhood

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.

powerful actors

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."

Objective approach

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."

Future projects

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."

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

The Family: Reader Mail

Mr. Sharlet,

I am in the midst of reading "The Family" and finding it a fascinating read. I commend you for the obvious thorough and painstaking research, but also for the very enjoyable style in which it is written.

Having spent several of my younger years as an evangelical preacher I was intrigued by what I knew of the subject matter of the book prior to actually reading any of it. In that I was "grafted in" to fundamentalism so to speak, I was always viewed by colleagues with a certain degree of suspicion. I was continually confronted with the difficulty of trying to keep my left-leaning political points of view separate and distinct from anything related to my personal spirituality. Unfortunately, any and all of the religious institutions to which I was formally or casually associated with would have none of it and was often pressed to justify my political ideology with what was assumed to be the more Godly right winged approach. Ultimately this and several other issues caused a slow but continual erosion of my desire to serve God as a fundamentalist.

That being said, I was amazed, while reading your book to happen upon a reference to an old acquaintence of mine, Mrs. Marian Aymar Johnson.* In the early seventies I was newly "born again" and with two years of bible school under my belt I returned to my hometown of East Islip, Long Island and began street preaching. It wasn't terribly long before I had amassed a following of well over one hundred converts, mostly teens and young adults.

I soon became the darling of the established ministers in the area. They saw me as someone who had a way with young people and could reach them with the gospel message in a way they couldn't. It was at just such a place, Sayville Community Church, that I met Marian Johnson for the first time. Being somewhat itinerant and in obvious need of financial support I soon found myself on the receiving end of her generosity. In addition to straight cash gifts, she bought me a watch and gave me a car. Though not a new car, it was a late model in fine condition and I drove it for several years.

After I moved on to take an associate pastorate position in New York City I lost contact with Mrs. Johnson and had not so much as heard her name until reading it in your book a few nights ago.

Chappy Valente

* From The Family:
During the war years, [Family founder] Abram had acquired a new patron, a youngish widow named Marian Aymar Johnson, heiress to the fortunes of both her late stockbroker husband and of her old, Hudson River family.
A lovely if empty-headed beauty raised between Newport, London, and Manhattan, she was a second cousin to FDR, but her isolationist politics were far to his right. Before the war, she’d been fond of Buchmanite ["Moral Re-Armament, fascist-friendly until the outbreak of the war] house parties, hosting one herself at her Long Island estate—an event of sufficient gossip value to rate an article in Time. Tall and blue- eyed with a broad, open smile, after her husband died she resolved to develop greater gravitas. She gave up the life of a social butterfly for what she called Abram’s “total Christianity.” Her goal was the establishment of “spiritual beach heads” from which to evangelize leaders. Only by accepting the same Christ, the “Supreme Leader” she had come to serve, could they save America from communism.18 With her help, Abram bought a four-story mansion on Embassy Row in Washington at 2324 Massachusetts Avenue. He hoped it would be a headquarters for politicians and diplomats of all denominations, a place for businessmen visiting Washington (by this point, Abram’s inner circle
included the president of the National Association of Manufacturers) to share their concerns with brothers- in-Christ in spiritual, not material, terms. A “Christian Embassy.”19

18. Harriet French, “To Make Christians Leaders, and Leaders Christians,” in unidentified newspaper, box 411, folder 4, collection 459, BGCA.

19. An undated brochure produced by the Fellowship shows on its front page just such a conversation between two men walking down the stone steps of the mansion. The man on the right, dressed in light gray and a dark tie, seems to be trying to persuade his companion, an older fellow with gray hair and black brows and an impatient air. The persuader, we learn in the
caption, is Commissioner Sigurd Anderson of the Federal Trade Commission; the skeptic, Howard Blanchard of Union Pacific Railroad—two men with more than Christ in common. “The Bible,” declares the brochure, “contains inexhaustible resources for the businessman fighting the economic battle in a two-fisted business world,” like a vein of coal or a pool of oil “deposited” by God, awaiting refinement into a spiritual offensive against “materialism.”

Some additional documents referencing Marian Aymar Johnson:

1. In the 1948 August-September edition of the National Committee for Christian Leadership's internal newsletter. Aymar Johnson writes of “Our Supreme Leader and Living Contemporary.... If we link up with this Power we project it. Results will be had just as fast as we are willing to invest and hurl our lives and resources back of our convictions. World economies will follow…. infect the rest of the world… We must have a clear, committed, self-sacrificing minority in every strategic situation." This same issue features an essay arguing that the "The totalitarianism of God is the only answer."

2. An August 2, 1949 letter from a German industrialist associated with the Family (then known as International Christian Leadership -- ICL) to Aymar Johnson begged for her help in preventing the Allied dismantling of a German factory linked to Germany's war machine. Aymar Johnson was evidently moved to help, as indicated by an August 31, 1949 letter to Aymar Johnson from Donald Stone, a Marshall Plan administrator who, through his connection to ICL, had concluded that American foreign aid should promote evangelical Christianity. But Stone drew the line when it came to the particular factory Aymar Johnson had attempted to preserve for their German Christian friends, noting that its dismantling had been agreed upon as "a result of international action and formal international agreements," related to "the effort of the Nazis to dominate the world and to perpetuate heinous crimes." (Folder 21, Box 474, Collection 459, BGCA)

3. Aymar Johnson's efforts on behalf of Nazi sympathizers were not limited to economic concerns. In an October 10, 1951 letter to German ICL leader Gustav Adolf Gedat -- a minister who'd been an early Hitler supporter but who'd turned against the Nazis by war's end -- Aymar Johnson notes that along with the men traveling on ICL's behalf there would be a Mrs. Perle, evidently available for romantic consideration: "Auntie and I do not feel that she would be the right type for Prince Hohenlohe... be sure to include my delightful cousin, Colonel Hoffman, who is her right hand there."

4. A December 27, 1967 letter from Family leader Doug Coe to Aymar Johnson and another associate illustrates the Family's longstanding relationship with the oil industry: "perhaps the most tremendous thing that has happened this year is indicated in a copy of the letter from the Executive VP of Continental Oil. They are leaving Ken White on staff but making available to the nation as a public service his time to work with us in the work." (Folder 4, Box 204, Collection 459, BGCA)

Monday, January 11, 2010

What I Learned

My publisher asked me to fill out a questionnaire to help their publicists promote my next book. This was the only question I had fun answering:



From photographer Walker Evans I learned about framing.

From punk poet Patti Smith I learned the importance of being earnest.

From Marvin Gaye I learned that anger can be beautiful.

From composer Tarik O’Regan I learned the shape of grace.

From photographer Roy Decarava I learned the elegance of contrast.

From jazz singer Patty Waters I learned the power of phrasing.

From basketball player Allen Iverson I learned how to weave.

From photographer Dorothea Lange I learned the angles.

From photographer Sally Mann I learned about the roots.

From singer Paul Robeson I learned the depths.

From comic book artist Alex Maleev I learned that texture can be tragic.

From photographer William Eggleston I learned that color bleeds.

From Tina Turner I learned what's shaking.

From TV creator Joss Whedon I learned that art is pulp.

From actress Emily Watson I learned that innocence is death.

From photographer Helen Levitt I learned that everything is code.

From country duo the Louvin Brothers I learned that Satan is real.

From Bruce Springsteen I learned that everything that dies someday comes back.

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Bob Hunter, Uganda, and Rachel Maddow

Bob Hunter, the Family/Fellowship associate who built the group's relationship with Uganda, appeared on MSNBC's "Rachel Maddow Show" tonight. I helped arrange it. That may surprise some readers of my book, The Family, but it shouldn't: transparency is the foundation of the democratic process the Family has so long sidestepped. Bob, who by his own admission is part of the group's small, relatively liberal faction, believes the time has come for greater transparency. I think he's about 75 years late -- the group should have been transparent from the beginning, in 1935 -- but better late than never.

Unfortunately, tonight was only a step in the right direction. Bob said he wanted to go public to set the record straight on the Family's relationship with Uganda. Instead, he opened by attacking me on trivial matter, arguing that my dislike for the cover my publisher chose for my book somehow invalidates everything in it. He continued by misrepresenting my views. In fact, I haven't acknowledged that the Family isn't political; just the opposite. Bob and I argued about it for awhile.

In the interest of transparency, I should add that I called him up after the show. He said he'd planned to talk about Senator Jim Inhofe, the fiercely anti-gay politician who is listed in Family documents as the "U.S. leader" responsible for working with Ugandan dictator Yoweri Museveni. Bob said he wants to see Inhofe take a bolder stand against this awful bill. But he got sidetracked.

So here's hoping we can all stay on message. I'll do my best when I get a chance to review clips from the show.

Friday, January 1, 2010

The Family, College Style; and Some Hope for Tiger Woods

Since I published The Family, I've received hundreds of emails from readers, including a number who report personal experience with the Family/Fellowship. Here's a fairly straightforward one from a Christian who took a look at the Family's theology and kept on going.
Mr. Sharlet:

I read The Family in 2008 with great interest and listened to all your interviews on Fresh Air. I was part of an Intervarsity Fellowship at Emory University from 1987-1991. After graduation one of my friends lived in a mens house in the Arlington area. I enrolled in graduate school in Philly and stopped there a couple of times to spend the night. I even went to an evening worship service I think at the home of the Senate chaplain, Halverson,* I think was his name. He gave a short message which I thought was theologically light. The "let go, and let God" message.

In the fall of 1992 one guy from the Fellowship enrolled in my graduate program at Eastern College. This guy started bible studies and recruiting folks to go down to DC on ocassion. It all had the feel of a fraternity and less of a BIble study. Several guys went, but I always had this feeling of doubt. I asked a couple of professors and faculty about the group including a older woman who had lived in women's house around the time Chuck Colson was released from prison. She told me she was a yellow dog Democrat and she refused to serve breakfast to man who had so violated the Constitution.

They told me it's a strange thing and not to get to mixed up in it. Their theology is very nebulous. I had a classmate from Kenya who knew some fellowship members and he said it's a club for very wealthy Christian people. There a very few Democrats and they are very anti-church, but they project an aura of elite evangelicals. Definitely not for me.

I was told in the early 90s they lead Bible studies on the PGA tour and provide spiritual counsel perhaps through Payne Stewart. I would not be surprised if they reach out to Tiger Woods.**

Keep up the good work.

[Name withheld at request]

*Richard Halverson was indeed chaplain of the U.S. Senate, a beloved figure who blended bonhomie and hard right sophistication in the person of a pastor for the Presbyterian Church of the USA, the more liberal of the two major Presbyterian denominations in the U.S. Halverson believed in a complete transformation of U.S. government, but he took the soft sell approach. “A revolution can be anarchy," he wrote a rival within the Fellowship who favored a more public style, "or it can be tyranny. It can be noisy and rambunctious and spectacular like a Fourth of July fire-works celebration, or it can be quiet and penetrating and thorough like salt, like benevolent subversion." (Emphasis mine; Halverson to Clif Robinson, May 22, 1963, folder 2, box 232, collection 459, Billy Graham Center Archives.)

**Here's an ironic little excerpt from a conversation I had recently with Bob Hunter, the Fellowship associate who's been in the news lately for his involvement with Uganda. Bob and I both recorded our conversation, and Bob was kind enough to share with me the transcript he had professionally prepared. In this excerpt, Bob is referring to a personal crisis that led him to his faith and his long work with the Fellowship:
Bob Hunter: I went through a crisis, and I felt like I -- you know, I felt like I got blessed out of the crisis, kept my family together. And then, you know, maybe a Tiger Woods type of moment. I don’t think I have to give you all the details, but --

Jeff Sharlet:
Now, there’s a story. Tell me that Tiger Woods is over at the Cedars right now. We’d get front page in a hoot.

Bob Hunter:
I wouldn’t be surprised by that, actually. They do tend to do that.