Big Think Interview with Jeff Sharlet
Jeff Sharlet is a writer, journalist, and contributing editor for Harper's and Rolling Stone magazines. His 2008 book "The Family: The Secret Fundamentalism at the Heart of American Power," a New York Times bestseller, dissects the phenomenon known as "elite fundamentalism" and its gospel of "Biblical capitalism." In 2000 he founded a religion-themed online literary magazine, Killing the Buddha, which has spawned a book of the same title (Free Press, 2004, co-author Peter Manseau) and an anthology called "Believer, Beware" (Beacon Press, 2009).
Sharlet's work has appeared in publications as various as The Washington Post, The Nation, Salon, and The Chronicle of Higher Education. His next book, an essay collection called "What They Wanted," is forthcoming from W. W. Norton.
Big Think Interview with Jeff Sharlet
Question: What is “The Family”?
Jeff Sharlet: Yeah, The Family is the oldest and arguably most influential religious political organization in Washington. It dates back to the Great Depression in 1935 when the founder of this group thought what he had was a new revelation that Christianity had been looking for the wrong direction for 2,000 years, focusing on the poor, and the weak, and the down and out. That God, instead, wanted him to work—God wanted to work through elites, through those whom he called the "up and out," and that he should be a missionary to and for the powerful. And that's what The Family has been ever since, concentrating not on mass revivals, but on organizing Congressmen, businessmen and foreign officials. Today in Washington, the membership is comprised primarily of Senators, Representatives, and government officials who are bound together in this idea that what they see as "spiritual warfare," as they call it sometimes, or religious change, can best be affected through elites, not through mass movements.
Question: Will elite fundamentalism and the GOP always be intertwined?
Jeff Sharlet: Elite fundamentalism has always going to be involved with a certain set of conservative interests, but certainly not exclusively Republican. What's interesting about The Family is a lot of The Family is a particularly useful group for going back and reviewing the history of conservatism. That while it’s always been majority Republican it's never been exclusively Republican.
Back in the early days, there was a lot of the so-called "Dixie-crats;" the conservative pro-segregation, southern Democrats, Strom Thurman was involved, Herman Tallmadge, Absalom Willis Robertson, Senator from Virginia, Pat Robertson's father. And today I think what's interesting is the populace movement of fundamentalism is starting to mirror that approach that elite fundamentalism has long had of trying to have influence across the political spectrum. And understanding when you do that, you can drag the whole political spectrum right-ward. So, The Family has always been doing this, always cultivating certain democrats.
I think now we are starting to see populace conservatives recognize that they were too tied to the Republican Party. So, there’s the Republican partisan activist, but then there's the real conservative visionaries, for lack of a better word. They don't care who does the changes they want to see happen. They don't care if it's Senator Chuck Grassley standing in the door and walking Obama's legislative changes, or if it's Senator Mark Prior, Democrat from Arkansas who was arguably one of the key men in scuttling a big part of Obama's labor agenda. In fact, I think they take great satisfaction from the idea that there are Democrats and Republicans involved because to them, this is testifying to the sort of the universal truth of their cause. They say, in fact, that, "What we're saying isn't conservative or liberal, it's not right-wing or left-wing, it's simply true." And all of these Republicans know it and a bunch of Democrats know that too.
Question: As the populist movement in the GOP strengthens, will it ally with elite fundamentalism?
Jeff Sharlet: Elite fundamentalism has always been on the corporate side of things. But what this does is tell us that this divide is not nearly as sharp as maybe David Brooks would have us believe that there's some rattle out there and then there's some high-minded proper Republicans. The Family begins as a Christian fundamentalist anti-labor organization. It begins with a bunch of bosses getting together and saying, "We're going to break labor's spine, and that we're doing this for Jesus. This is what Jesus wants." So, it’s the rhetoric that maybe you are familiar with from the fight over abortion, but being applied to corporate interests.
In service of what The Family in particular, but also other really **** conservatives come to call what is "Biblical Capitalism." The idea that capitalism is ordained in the Bible and that inasmuch as we interfere with the market, we're interfering with God's literal and visible hand. God's ability to move the hearts of big business people and have them do the right thing. Instead of relying on government programs or labor unions, or any kind of activism, we should rely on Jesus to move the hearts of these leaders and that they will then dispense the blessings to the rest of us. So it's this sort of trickle down economics, and trickle down religion. And that's influenced the shape of populace conservatism at this point too.
I remember a few years ago, I was in a mega-church in Colorado Springs, Ted Haggard's church, before Ted Haggard's fall, he was a very prominent pastor, no longer so prominent after he came out that he was having a relationship with a male prostitute. But at the time, Haggard had managed to get 11,000 or so of his members of his church all riled up over the issue of steel tariffs. Steel tariffs; that was the issue. Steel tariffs were violating God's plan. And these weren't wealthy people. These were mostly working-class people. So, that kind of trickle down religion in action and showing that you can recruit the populace conservatism for the interests of corporate conservatism that the two things can be married into one unholy union.
Question: What causes will define fundamentalism in the coming years?
Jeff Sharlet: I think you have to put everything—we are still living in an era defined by the Cold War. The Cold War was really the great struggle of the 20th Century and it shaped American political life from top to bottom. And what the Cold War did was provide a fairly clearly defined enemy and it's easy to organize around that. What's interesting is of course, not only did conservatives organize around that; liberals did too. Liberals were just as engaged and using the rhetoric of a sort of a battle with the Soviets and with Communism in general, with an evil empire. The **** Democrats used the evil empire rhetoric as well.
This interesting thing happens with the collapse of communism, especially in the really activist ranks of Christian fundamentalism, which is really the base for conservative activism. Who is the enemy now? And so they've been casting about now for some years trying to figure out how to define themselves. There was this actual moment, I mentioned before, this church out in Colorado Springs, New Life Church, several years ago they had a summit of about 3,000 pastors around the country and the debate at the summit was, what is the front line of the struggle for America's soul, America's future? What is the great threat, because you've got to have a threat? And there were two choices. The gay man; you always hear this individual spoken in the singular. The gay man, like it's this one guy who is subverting everything. It's an archetype. Or, the Muslim; the gay man or the Muslim. And that's been a tension in the right for awhile now. And when I think is happening is it's slowly coalescing around the side that would make struggle with Islam the main fight. Partly because that reproduces some of the alliances made possible by the Cold War because there's Democrats and there's liberals who are every bit as anti-Islamic as the hard right is. There are real radical Muslim groups out there that really are pretty villainous. You don't have to make them up.
But as they do that, that really replicates some of the cold war, but it's not a perfect fit and I think as they struggle with that issue it sort of explodes things outward. So you have this one issue, this sort of Muslim threat. Well that allows people to talk about national security. So, you go to like a town hall, or a tea party meeting and you have folks talk about big government and so on, but also speaking an incredibly precise detail about America's missile arsenal and missile defense and this becoming an issue and then linking that to the question, not just of healthcare but also of public schools.
I mean, really I think one of the overlooked struggles on the right now is the long-time dream of the eradication of public schools. Which they're not ever going to—that's going to happen, at least any time soon. But look how far they've come. Look how much that rightward push has shifted the debate so that public schools probably have less government support now then they have certainly in our lifetimes and going back many decades.
So all these kinds of little issues that are somehow being linked to the great enemy in their mind of Islam. That Islam requires us to get our house in order. And our house in order means we need education that is going to teach about real menace and public schools can't do that. It means we need this vigorous free market enterprise and it's all for the sake of national security.
Question: Is fundamentalism inherently conservative, or can liberals harness its power?
Jeff Sharlet: Fundamentalism is a 20th-century phenomenon, but that kind of religious fervor actually has not always been associated with conservative goals. As Christian right activists are quick to point out, they say, "Look, it was evangelicals who were on the frontlines of the fight for abolition in the Antebellum period. And that's true. And even go back to the defining moment, the creation moment of the modern fundamentalism, which is the Scope's Monkey Trial, 1925. This is the evolution trial over whether or not we're going to teach creation in schools in Tennessee and so on. We all have this sort of popular narrative of this event. Clarence Darrow as the great warrior and champion of justice versus “Crazy” William Jennings Bryan, the old fundamentalist and blustering on about the sun standing still and monkeys and all this kind of stuff.
That narrative obscures the fact that what happened in 1925 wasn't left versus right, it was two great strands of leftist thought in American life clashing. Up to that moment, Williams Jennings Bryan was the most successful populist presidential candidate in American history. He had a lot of ugly ideas, but he also had a lot of very progressive ideas. He was the guy who leaves the Wilson Administration because he see it as too imperialist and he represents a leftist tradition of fundamentalism that gets kind of lost at that point. Because I think liberals sort of coalesce around this other idea that we own reason, that we own the center, that we are the establishment. So there really is no where else for that energy to go now but the right because liberalism has for so long defined the establishment.
Then you also have the problem that liberalism can't ever—it can own the center, but it can't ever mobilize the same energy. Who's going to go marching out in the street and say, "what do we want?" "Incremental reform." "When do we want it?" "Over a graduated period of time." It doesn't energize folks. It doesn't speak to the visionary aspect to American life. It doesn't speak to ideals. Liberalism doesn't speak to ideals. Radicalism does. Leftism does and some other movement, the once and former labor movement. There isn't much of a labor movement now. Which wasn't exactly left, but it did speak to the sort of visionary ideals and it was able to organize a lot of people. Even now, it's still able to organize a lot of people, just not nearly as many.
Question: Does Sarah Palin represent a new kind of force in the GOP?
Jeff Sharlet: She's a different story, but an old story. It's the George Wallace story, or maybe she's not as grand as George Wallace; maybe it's the less dramatic story as the lesser George Wallace of Georgia. But it's also part of the whole history of the United States and conservatism with the United States of revival. Now, religious historians look at the United States and say, one of the things that make it sort of unusual is this cyclical religious revival. There's the first great awakening before the United States was formed, there's the second great awakening. There's arguments, are we now in the midst of a third or a fourth great awakening? If it's the fourth, when did the third end? But no one disputes that periodically, throughout American history there's been these great big revivals. These are obviously populace religious movements. And out of them you see leaders like George Wallace, the famous populace sort of left-right Governor of Alabama. Or before him, Huey Long. Again, is he left? Is he right? It's hard to say. He's populace, but certainly both of these guys, in some ways, tended to consolidate power in a way that is very comfortable for elites and elites encouraged this.
Sarah Palin is the latest incarnation of this. I think the question with Sarah Palin is not whether or not we're in this revival moment, I think you look at the tea parties and you look at the schisms within the establishment Republican Party and the broader conservatism movement, there's no doubt we're in a revival moment, the question is, is Sarah Palin going to be the one that's going to be that standard bearer. Does she have the juice to become a George Wallace, or to become a Barry Goldwater, or to become something that, as you said, hasn't existed before? And there is the potential for that too, I think. Because the issues over which the populace movement gets excited are different then they were for Wallace or Long or going back further, Billie Sunday, not in the political sphere, but as a political religious revivalist.
There are different issues at different times. It's possible that these fringe characters who we traditionally understood as "Big Fringe," but they end up pushing the establishment one way or the other. I don't see any third parties coming, but there could be a real massive shift in what establishment means. Sarah Palin may not lead that, but she may just ride the crest of that wave, or maybe she's opened the door for someone who is a little bit of a smoother operator.
Question: Do the current “tea parties” inspire or alarm you?
Jeff Sharlet: I remember a friend of mine, it was in France or Italy, I don't remember, he was sitting in a cafe and someone come running down the streets yelling, "The professors are coming! The professors are coming!" A rampaging mob of professors, which I think liberalism wants to dismiss as extremism. But I prefer—My favorite forgotten President in American history is James Buchanan, who in defending really robust and sharp-elbowed debates said, "I like the noise of democracy. I like the sound of people in the streets making noise." Which is what’s made it actually ironic that so many liberals have rushed to denounce these tea parties, these folks on the street as somehow anti-democratic and mob violence and so on.
Now, I don't agree with these demonstrations at all. But they're doing the work of democracy. They feel that the government's not responding to them. They're correct, and I hope it doesn't, but they're saying, "Look, we're going to make a lot of noise." And there's going to be sharp elbows. We're not going to go out and do this civilly and say, "Well, I disagree with you." That kind of keeping the conversation quiet always favors whoever is holding the power. Whoever is holding the power says, "Yeah, let's keep things civil and quiet." Whoever's outside say's, "No, I'm not going to keep things civil and quiet, I'm going to bang on the door." And I think we may be in this moment—I know we're talking about the future of conservatism, but what's interesting to me also is I think there's a sense in which where maybe, 1964, or 1963, that we could also moving toward a period of radical revival as disillusionment with the Democratic Party sets in and as a generation of folks with just no attachments to the last great radical revival come up and just say, "Look, I'm pissed about this. I don't care if Fox News is going to say I'm a 60's retread because I was born in 1985, so clearly I'm not." I think that moment could be coming.
Question: Are the two parties sustainable as they are, or will we see shakeups?
Jeff Sharlet: I think they are sustainable and when we talk about the future of conservatism, that's it. I mean, these parties are so consolidated now that the idea of a serious third-party challenge is just kind of ridiculous and so on. That's the future of conservatism. The Democratic and Republican parties combined. The Max Baucus approach to healthcare. That's the future of conservatism, a government in the interest of big business, essentially. So, the parties are going to stay put, but that doesn't mean politics are going to be defined by the parties. There's going to be a lot of stuff happening beyond that. On the right, right now there's all this stuff happening.
What I've been interested in, in fact, is the really incredible, just sort of ****-like growth of fundamentalism in the military. That's a faction—that' something in play that hasn't been in play for a long time. It's one thing to have fundamentalist activist, it's another thing to have fundamentalist generals who are armed and to have decided that the time has come to redefine their oath to protect and defend the Constitution.
I don't think we're in danger of any coups, but I talked to enough senior officers who have lost hold of that traditionally pretty solid subordinate relationship between the military and civilian structure. There's no radical movement like that on the left, but there could be and I think a lot of the political action, the political life of America is going to start happening outside of the parties.
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