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The Family: The Secret Fundamentalism at the Heart of American Power (Paperback)

A compellingly brilliant account of power in America, June 5, 2008
By R. Stuart (Boston, MA United States)

A compellingly brilliant account of power in America and how it's shaped by religion. 'The Family' chronicles the ideas advanced by the elite Christian fundamentalist group of that name at the highest levels of government during the past half century. Through its White House and congressional connections, the Family has influenced the deployment of US power, especially in foreign policy during the Cold War and beyond. Led by the talented and Machiavellian Doug Coe, the group has operated sub-rosa in the corridors of power unhindered by democratic accountability.

Jeff Sharlet, a scholar-writer on the nexus of religion & politics, pursues three goals in this remarkable book: (1) To trace elite fundamentalism's lineage from Jonathan Edwards in the 18th c. through the 19th c. religious leader Charles Finney to the present; (2) To demonstrate the Family's behind the scenes role in deployment of American power; and (3) To challenge the purely secular American historical narrative by arguing the role of religion behind the facade of formal power.

Sharlet accomplishes the first objective with verve, the Finney chapter alone is worth the price of the book. Based on his research in the Family's archives, the second goal is achieved, especially on the group's involvement in blunting US de-Nazification policy in postwar Germany, facilitating Indonesia's Suharto's crushing of East Timor, and encouraging the Somalian dictator and other similar types. The author's third challenge is the most ambitious, but I believe he meets it.

In fact, if the critical sociologist C. Wright Mills who wrote the influential 'The Power Elite' (1956) were alive today, I expect he'd be among the first to welcome 'The Family' revelations on the secretive role of Coe's elite "followers of Christ in government, business, and the military" in the projection of American power.

Important now, and for years to come, June 1, 2008
By Peter Manseau (Washington, DC)

The Family is the best book available on the Christian right precisely because it unpacks the ways in which the people often described as such are neither Christian nor right. I don't mean that in the bumper sticker sense - I don't buy (and Sharlet does not suggest) that this elite group of religiously motivated power players are not real Christians because of their political interests (even if the group itself sometimes prefers not to use the word). Rather, he makes the case that such easy categorization does not do justice to, or sufficiently warn against, their actual influence and reach. The story we are often told - that there are "fundamentalists" and "evangelicals" who are easily understood because they are somehow separate from the world the rest of us live in, hidden in megachurches making megaplans -- is not found in this book. Instead, like a carpet expert explaining the patterns in an intricately woven Persian rug, Sharlet shows us how strands of fundamentalism have been woven into the fabric of the nation's history.

As a journalist, I know and have worked with Jeff Sharlet, but then everyone who writes about religion does or should. His work is particularly popular among writers who cover religion because he tells a story that many wish they were allowed to tell. The history recounted in The Family is one most media outlets deem too complex for the average reader. (What in the world does union busting have to do with religion? A lot, in fact.) Sharlet does not regard complexity as something to be avoided, however, and his true talent is in finding just the right key for unlocking it. He frames keen-eyed analysis and impeccable research within a gripping narrative that lets readers with even a passing interest in the ways religion has influenced American life and politics understand it in a nuanced way.

In an election season in which religion again and again rears its head, this book is particularly relevant. Yet its importance will not fade any time soon. The Family is a hundred year history that shows how we got to this strange place where candidates are forced to damn or defend pastors and everyone must genuflect to the idea that God is a part of the political process. The use of the word "secret" in the subtitle might imply to some that Sharlet is describing a hidden reality. After reading the book, signs of the Family's influence will be obvious to anyone with eyes to see.