Friday, September 19, 2008

The Family: Power, Politics and Fundamentalism's Shadow Elite, by Jeff Sharlet

With thanks to Phillip Adams’ little wireless program, Late Night Live, I found out about this rather depressing book by journalist and author Jeff Sharlet. (Listen to the interview here.)

Journalist and academic Jeff Sharlet was invited by a friend of a friend (the brother of an old girlfriend, if my memory of the book is correct), to stay at the house of a fundamentalist group. It sounds weird I know, but I guess this is America.

As a writer on religious subjects, Sharlet was not one to pass up an opportunity to take notes on this secretive fundamentalist group.

The Family, or The Fellowship, is an elite fundamentalist group started up in 1935 by Abram Vereide. Today this shady, unseen group’s leader is Doug Coe.

The key to the Fellowship’s influence is the fact that they work behind the scenes and are little known. Power, according to them, should always be quiet and unseen.

They network with some key people; even ‘liberals’ like Al Gore and Hilary Clinton claim Doug Coe’s friendship.

As the author states, American democracy is not in any real danger any time soon from American fundamentalism, but the size of its size has shrunk so much. So has the nature of debate, when people like Gore and Clinton must frame all their rhetoric with such a religious tinge.

The Family is a complex book that goes into a lot of historical detail, discussing well known politicians and the shady power elites with ties to this fundamentalist, anti-democratic, pro-power group.

Sharlet divides American fundamentalism up into two camps: populist and elite. The populist we all know about. The elite Sharlet tries to elucidate for us in this mixture of expose and exploratory essay.

As I mentioned above, I found this book quite depressing. American fundamentalism is full of many paradoxes, but most distressing, it is so nihilistic. These people frequently hope for another 9/11 attack as a way of purging the evil out of American culture, or what they see as evil.

This is a tricky topic that Sharlet tackles, and he comes from a liberal perspective. So he must not be condescending whilst unpacking what he sees as the contradictions and plain nuttiness of the American Jesus, with its belief in free market economics and an aggressive foreign policy.

To a foreigner, American Christians with their absolute belief that Christianity and free market economics go hand in hand seems like nothing but out and out egotism. Can’t they see the light?
Alas, being rational doesn’t work, because these are truths that American fundamentalists ‘know in their hearts’. Religious feeling can’t be taught or learnt or proved, it must be experienced emotionally, outside of logic.

Jeff Sharlet muses these subjects in an intelligent and engaging manner. For students of American religion, this book is essential reading.

Check out Jeff's blog at

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