Sunday, September 5, 2010

New Yorker, C Street

Last week I received a message from a New Yorker fact checker, telling me it was urgent she speak to me asap -- the magazine would be going to press with a feature on "the Fellowship and C Street" at the end of the day. I wondered what she was checking, since the author, Peter J. Boyer, had never spoken to me. And, in fact, she wasn't really checking anything. All she wanted to know was whether the title of my new book, C Street, and its pub date, both listed on Amazon, were correct. They are.

Meanwhile, I learned a lot. Turns out Doug Coe, the longtime leader of the Family, gave Boyer, an amiably centrist writer, complete access. That's not surprising; since last fall, evangelical superflack A. Larry Ross, one of the PR geniuses behind Rick Warren, has been advising the Family on how to handle fallout from the C Street scandals and their connections to Uganda's murderous Anti-Homosexuality Bill. As conservative World magazine reported, Coe's first instinct was to say nothing, while another faction wanted to go on a media offensive. Here it is.

I'm certainly not saying that Boyer is party to that. He's a reporter grabbing a big interview. I'm a little worried he may have inadvertently grabbed more than that, though. When I asked the fact checker if anybody there had drawn material from my as-yet-unpublished book, she assured me they hadn't. Then, in passing, she mentioned that they had two memos important to the Uganda story which I give a lot of space to. That puzzled me, since the memos are dated 1986, and after I obtained them, in 2003, the Billy Graham Center Archives, which houses the papers, put a 25-year restriction on them. Not even the author of the memos would be allowed to obtain them. But the fact checker told me that Boyer had done his own archival research and had made an exception on its restriction policy. Now that would be surprising -- a serious breach of scholarly protocol, favoring one researcher over another.

Fortunately, that's not the case. The fact checker wrote a while later to offer what she called a correction: Boyer had not visited the archives, and the memos had been supplied to him by the author himself.

Well, good for the Billy Graham Center Archives, and good for Boyer, too, I suppose, for getting them. They're not bombshells, but they're interesting. The signs, though, point to the kind of story a smart publicist like A. Larry Ross would want: Not a puff piece, but not investigative, either. A puff piece would be too much for anyone to swallow. All this needs to do to satisfy the Family is to paint it as a little quirky but basically benign -- and establishmentarian to the core.

Here are my predictions of what it'll contain:

1. A lot of Democrats friendly to the Family, saying nice things about it. How much these Democrats know is another matter.

2. Rice University sociologist D. Michael Lindsay, who's praised the Family before, gently scolding it for its penchant for secrecy (he might say privacy) and touting its influence even as he declares it harmless.

3. A couple of the Family's more liberal members, like Bob Hunter, talking about their own good works -- Bob really has done some amazing things -- and saying the Family errs mainly in being too open to everyone.

4. Doug Coe talking about how everyone's welcome to love Jesus. If it's a real slam dunk for the Family, Boyer won't point out that there's not an evangelical, Pentecostal, or fundamentalist in the world who wouldn't say the same. That's not tolerance. Coe is a charming man, a far, far cry from the angry pulpit pounders most people think of when you say the word fundamentalism. Coe's fundamentalism is both more universalist, and, for that reason, more theologically vulnerable to exploitation for the sake of power.

Maybe I'll be surprised. Maybe Boyer will bring some theological depth to his conversations with Coe. If Boyer hasn't done archival research, as the fact checker says, it can't really be investigative, since nobody Coe isn't friendly with knows him well enough to offer a critical perspective. Since I labored long and hard in archives, I sound like I'm defending my turf, and I suppose I am. But I'm also hoping that this piece won't be a whitewash. I can't imagine Boyer, a veteran New Yorker writer, would let himself get rolled.