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June 12, 2008

Beyerstein interviews Jeff Sharlet, author of The Family

My interview with Jeff Sharlet, author of the new book, The Family, is the top story on AlterNet today. Check it out!

The Family is the unauthorized history of the 70-year-old fundamentalist cabal that runs the National Prayer Breakfast. Jeff Sharlet infiltrated a group home run by the group and saw first hand the influence they have in Washington and beyond.

You can read more about The Family on Jeff's blog, Call Me Ishmael and on his website, The Revealer.

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Lindsay,

Thanks for this great post and interview with Jeff Sharlet. One of the best things I got from the interview was your reference to Umberto Eco's essay, "Eternal Fascism." I was unaware of it till now, and found it incisive and enlightening.

Also, I enjoyed Sharlet's discussion of the political message in the 50s B movie, "The Blob." I read a lengthy article on the Cold War politics of the entire genre of 50s sci-fi, monster, 'don't trust academic scientists' movies. It was about 20 years ago and I think it was in the Village Voice. The movie "The Thing", one of my all time favorites, was probably the least subtle. In the movie an unfeeling scientist, who would sacrifice his life and those of his fellow Americans on the altar of science, was made up to look like Vladimir Lenin, himself. It was the no nonsense, nonintellectual Captain and his crew of competent technical sergeants that defeated "The Thing" from outer space (played by James Arness, by the way.)

In another post I mentioned telling my some of my friends and family that if they wanted to understand American politics, then they should listen to the televangelists like John Hagee, Pat Robertson, and others. Unfortunately, they felt that since they couldn't take them seriously, then no other reasonable person could do otherwise.


"The Family" is also the title of a book on the Charlie Manson & co by Ed Sander (of The Fugs.

A few things that bothered me...

1) Sharlet mentions Sam Brownback as a member of the family, yet mentions anti-Catholicism as part of the Family's anti-institutional, anti-scriptural creed. How does Brownback reconcile his Catholicism with the highly heterodox views of the Family?

2) Japan would have been a communist country if the U.S. hadn't bought off their political system? While there's no doubt that MacArthur and the CIA did their part to try to crush Japanese communism, claiming that Japan would have literally been a communist country seems like a hard to swallow assertion without evidence. I have a hard time imagining Japanese communism (even without CIA or MacArthur's intervention to suppress it) being as successful as Italian communism, let alone successful enough to be a communist country, which seems to me to imply a communist party even more successful than Italy's, and more along the lines of, say, Yugoslavia's, Czechoslovakia's, North Korea's, etc.

3) The rhetoric of communism is more appealing to the average person than the rhetoric of capitalism? Where? In the US? I have serious doubts about that.

4) As far as Hillary Clinton's connections to the Family -- what do they involve? Does this just mean Clinton and Coe have established some sort of political understanding? Does it mean that Hillary Clinton actually goes to Coe for counselling about her deep personal and political questions and takes his advice to her core? Clinton is associated with the Family -- but how associated?


Julian Elson,

Maybe Jeff Sharlet will give detailed answers to your questions - and perhaps some discussion.

I don't want to put words in Jeff's mouth, but I'll take a stab at a couple of these based on what I read in the book.

1. The Family isn't anti-Catholic, overtly or covertly. Nor are they antisemitic. (Individuals might be, just like in any group. But the rhetoric of the Family itself is surprisingly broad minded when it comes to denominational differences.) They love anyone rich, powerful, and obedient. There's a rhetoric about "the rules" and institutions has its roots in antisemitism and anti-Catholicism--but the Family doesn't do intellectual history, or really any history at all. They're a para-church. So, they don't require people to quit their other religious affiliations to belong.

3. We're talking about the rhetoric of communism as it sounded to ordinary people in the mid-20th Century, before the Soviet Union became completely discredited. The idea of a worker's paradise where everyone shares in great material prosperity is a compelling idea, especially for people who aren't getting even the essentials from the capitalist system.

4. Hillary Clinton talks about her ties to the Family prayer group in a fair bit of detail in her autobiography. Starting in 1993, she met regularly with Susan Baker and Joanne Kemp and a handful of other political wives in a prayer cell. This was a big part of her life, she says. I think she did (or does?) get regular spiritual counseling from Doug Coe. She calls him a "genuinely loving" spiritual presence in Washington. She's not involved on the level of Sam Brownback or Joe Pitts, but she's got longstanding ties.

"The rhetoric of communism is more appealing to the average person than the rhetoric of capitalism? Where? In the US? I have serious doubts about that."

I don't know about the postwar era, but socialist and even communist rhetoric did make some serious inroads into American society in the 1930's, giving many of our of native aristocrats a longstanding, multi-generational case of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder.

Julian, perhaps you've encountered the theory that the New Deal saved American captialism -- largely by tempering the worst effects of unchecked robber-baron capitalism and by co-opting some of the rhetoric of communism.

Thanks for all of the responses, guys. I probably ought to have asked Sharlet himself. Anyway, some good, illuminating responses.

I don't know about the postwar era, but socialist and even communist rhetoric did make some serious inroads into American society in the 1930's, giving many of our of native aristocrats a longstanding, multi-generational case of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder.

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