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The Family: The Secret Fundamentalism at the Heart of American Power
The Family: The Secret Fundamentalism at the Heart of American Power
by Jeff Sharlet
Edition: Hardcover
Price: $19.12
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58 of 64 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A Brilliant, Scary, Witty Eye-Opener, July 11, 2008
The Family is much more than an expose into some shadowy religious group with political aspirations. Jeff Sharlet's book is a brilliant dissection and contextualization of the makings and workings of a political powerhouse that gained its following by tapping into mythic American ideals, has tasked itself with making Jesus America's main export, and has fine-tuned how to operate in the political sphere to ensure "a leadership led by God" across the globe. There are many things that make this book so good, but especially notable is how expertly Sharlet charts the evolutionary course of American fundamentalism and The Family's ascendency to power through the lens of politics and culture wars from the 1930s through today.

In a whirlwind through recent history, Sharlet shows us everywhere the fingerprint of the organization that eventually became The Family. The Family found its calling in the tumultuous post-WW America that was forced to deal with Labor on the home front and to grapple with new ideas about modern nations and internationalism. It found its focus during the Cold War when it backed small nation allies as the new Christian frontier. And in the culture wars of 60s and 70s and in the 80s moratorium on those previous two decades, the Family figured out that its best bet was to take a trickle-down approach to faith from the elite to the masses and to practice the "quiet diplomacy" that George H. Bush praised it for. Today, The Family has become the oil to the political machinery of connections and mutual back-scratching.

I met Jeff Sharlet when we spent a few weeks at the same artists' colony where he struck many as someone who's as intellectually gifted as he's curious, and it's no surprise that his book is equally rigorous in its examination as it is humanizing of the people he writes about. Forget the shady figures of smoke-filled backrooms. The people of The Family are neither naively misled nor simply reactionary; their leaders are keen tacticians whose actions are grounded deeply in religious thought, in nationalism, and in a sense of providential duty.

This is a book of big ideas, but to Sharlet's credit, it's one that was compelling and entirely comprehensible even to this reader with little knowledge about Washington or fundamentalism. It's also filled with some hilarious anecdotes (there's an attempted seduction to sway the author from writing his tell-all) and a host of characters not likely to be grouped together(Billy Graham, General Suharto, the Black Buffers, and Hillary Clinton, really?). It's the story of one scary marriage of American empire and gospel that Sharlet manages to tell with a gentle wittiness. The Family is the hand that will feed you what's good for you (American democracy, free enterprise, military aid, education) even if you don't know yet that it's good for you.

Sharlet doesn't just unmask the wizard behind the curtain; he outlines the unobservable architecture of how political deals get made. The Family is frightening for its invisibility, its insidiousness, and the staying power it will have, in part because it operates in the language and beliefs of what America is about. Sharlet's book is an eye-opener and truly important in a time when the US's relationship with the rest of the world is challenged with a different urgency, and when political responses are played out again in the context of religious and cultural wars.

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