Jeff Sharlet. The Family

I really wanted to like this book, The Family: The Secret Fundamentalism at the Heart of American Power. I think it is important. I had read an article by Sharlet in Harper’s a few years ago about his encounter with a secretive group of fundamentalist Christians playing power politics in the Washington, DC shadows. I also regularly read his blog, “The Revealer.”

He has a fascinating and frightening story to tell–and I think he is onto something and have no reason not to think he is a fairly reliable reporter.  He traces the development and philosophy of an exclusive and reclusive organization known as “the Family” through the life and work of its founder Norwegian immigrant Abraham Vereide and Vereide’s successor Doug Coe.

Most known for its sponsorship of the National Prayer Breakfast in DC and its work with the Christian Embassy, “the Family” as portrayed by Sharlet, has had a kind of Zelig-like existence in relation to many of the key events of the last half of the twentieth-century, showing up in key moments through its cultivation of close relationships with powerful people from around the world.

So, Sharlet has a noteworthy story to tell. However, as much as I wanted to like it, I ended up seeing this book as a loose, baggy monster that falls short of the task it sets out to accomplish. Sadly, it didn’t have to be this way. Sharlet has personal experience with the Family that adds important insights to his analysis. He has done extensive archival work in what appear to be largely untapped sources. He writes engagingly.

However, in the end, I felt frustrated with this book. It is way too long. It takes Sharlet forever to tell a story and then, often, the point of the story remains elusive. He gives extensive detail on Vereide’s early life but we are never quite given a clear sense of why. Then the last part of the book seems to completely spin out of focus as Sharlet gives us vignettes into Pastor Ted Haggard and contemporary evangelicals in Colorado Springs with no clear sense of their connection (if any) with the Family. The book peters out in the end (to this reader’s relief and annoyance) with no sense of resolution or concluding analysis.

I found myself trying to figure out what I had learned. I am sure that the history of the Family is very important. It’s influence seems highly problematic for people who care for genuine democracy and justice in our society and the wider world. But instead of hooking the reader with his own experience followed by an account the history of the Family (which Sharlet does do, though in an unnecessarily rambling and vague way) then leading to the payoff of an in-depth and reliable account of the problems of how the Family operates (both for American Democracy and for the witness of Christianity), Sharlet forgoes the analysis and strikes off into what seem to be largely irrelevant tangents into the by-ways of evangelical Christianity in the U.S.

I recommend this book only for those with a deep interest in fundamentalist Christianity and its influence in American political life. Sharlet gives us information unavailable elsewhere. But I can’t imagine the general reader persevering to the end of this book.

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