Some atheist assailers of Christianity are know-nothings; one of the thoughtful ones is Jeff Sharlet. His latest attack is The Family (Harper, 2008), which takes a shadow-puppet look at Doug Coe's loosely knit Washington-area organization (sometimes called "The Fellowship") and turns that rabbit into a monster that secretly runs the capital and is likely to make the Dark Night of Fascism descend over America.
Some of the NYU adjunct professor's fans have produced over-the-top blurbs. Thomas Frank called The Family "terrifying" and Barbara Ehrenreich wrote, "Sharlet's book is one of the most compelling and brilliantly researched exposés you'll ever read-just don't read it alone at night." Ooh!! But evangelicals might dismiss Sharlet's work because he commits howlers such as identifying hippie-ish L'Abri as where "a generation of fundamentalist intellectuals studied a reenchanted American past." When Sharlet is inaccurate in referring to my own work, that doesn't leave me with great confidence in his research or discernment.
Nevertheless, Sharlet should not be dismissed for two reasons. First, he reflects a growing paranoia about evangelical influence in American politics. The academic and journalistic left used to dismiss followers of Jesus as boobs. Now some see us as diabolical, and what once was laughed at may now be legislated against.
Liberal historian Richard Hofstadter four decades ago wrote The Paranoid Style in American Politics, which has just been republished by Vintage: Conspiracy-seeing right-wingers feared a "sinister, ubiquitous, powerful" left-wing adversary, he wrote: "Often the enemy is held to possess some especially effective source of power." Now the paranoid left is in style.
Sharlet speaks of Coe and colleagues as super-secretive, even though they invited him to live with them for a month without apparently doing a background check, and even though he freely rummaged through 600 boxes of Fellowship documents and tapes in a publicly available archive that seems not to have been sanitized.
When we spoke for three hours recently and I asked him about that apparent anomaly, Sharlet said his subjects were hiding in plain sight. Maybe, but what's more likely is that the Fellowship at least at present is a politically innocuous but personally helpful networking group that wants people all over the world to know Jesus.
Why doesn't Sharlet see that? Hofstadter concluded that the "enemy is on many counts the projection of the self." Many Christians see evangelism as an expression of love for others, but Sharlet told me that evangelism is "an attempt to control the lives of others." Many anti-Christian leftists yearn for dominating power, and they create opponents in their own image.
Sharlet had a tough childhood. His parents-a secularized Jew and a Gentile who visited various churches to listen to music-divorced when he was 2 years old. He grew up in a small town in upstate New York where he was identified as the only Jew, called a "kike," and made fearful when kids threw rocks at his house.
Alienated in that way from what he mistakenly thought of as the "Christian" majority, he couldn't even fall back on a Jewish identity because when asked in class to explain the significance of a Jewish holiday, he had no answer because he had never celebrated it: Double alienation.
Attending Hampshire College in Massachusetts during Iraq War I, he turned against the "American empire" because its power would make other people subservient. Talk of helping people be free is just talk; everything is really about power. Sharlet's world is a loveless universe where the real mission of individuals and groups is expanding their own power and controlling the behavior of others.
And that's the second reason evangelicals should not dismiss Sharlet. Leo Tolstoy wrote, "I have learnt that all men live not by care for themselves but by love." Sharlet has not yet learned that, but he's only 36.