Diane Winston reviews The Family for The Knight Chair in Media and Religion. Cross-posted below.
Two new books on American evangelicalism wield a one-two punch to news coverage as usual. InThe Fall of the Evangelical Nation, Christine Wicker argues that a solid bloc of “values voters” is as real as the Easter bunny—not only are evangelicals a diverse lot but their numbers are much lower than their leaders claim. In his forthcoming The Family: The Secret Fundamentalism at the Heart of American Power, Jeff Sharlet demonstrates there’s more to faith-based politics than compassionate conservatism or Mike Huckabee.
(Disclosure: Sharlet is a colleague and friend whose work on The Revealer I have long supported and who also has supported mine.)
Sharlet and Wicker remind us that good journalists take nothing for granted. Numbers lie, statistics conceal and sources tell us what they think we want to hear (or what they want us to know). Most answers need follow up questions and many stories require context for full understanding.
Sharlet goes deep into context for his thoroughly researched and engaging book about “fundamentalism’s avant garde.” The Family is a loose network of politicians, businessmen and military leaders worldwide who share a commitment to Jesus, power and biblical capitalism. Sharlet tracks the development of their affective, individualistic faith from Jonathan Edwards and Charles Finney to The Family’s current leader Doug Coe. Likewise, he reveals their handiwork in far-flung political machinations—including regime change in Uganda, civil war in the Philippines and dictatorships in Latin America. Here at home, the group is best known for its sponsorship of the National Prayer Breakfast, but their web of relationships facilitates influence from the Oval Office to inner-city streets.
Sharlet’s book may be both too subtle and too scary to have the impact it should. He is, in effect, offering an alternative American narrative—one that places radical religion at the center of our national story. That religion, a ‘gentle and militant, conservative and revolutionary” elite American fundamentalism, “responds in this world with a politics of noblesse oblige, the missionary impulse married to military and economic power.” It’s a powerful theory that, if Sharlet is correct, has enabled an ideological coup d’état that is hidden, he notes, in plain sight.
This book deserves to be read by every and any journalist. It’s a primer for what reporting can and should be. Sharlet weaves first hand reportage with historical research and archival work. He connects dots, sees the big picture, and finds the telling detail. He is neither balanced nor objective, but a mainstream media whose guiding principle is not to offend can overrate those qualities. Hewing to an older journalistic tradition of speaking truth to power, Sharlet is not afraid to be offensive. His compelling story seeks to upset and unsettle in the best tradition of muckraking reporters.
Diane Winston, Knight Chair in Media and Religion at the University of Southern California, has worked as a reporter for several of the nation’s leading newspapers, including theBaltimore Sun, Dallas Times Herald and The News and Observer in Raleigh, North Carolina. She is the author of Red-Hot and Righteous: The Urban Religion of the Salvation Army (1999)and co-editor of Faith in the Market: Religion and the Rise of Urban Commercial Culture (2002).