If you follow the subject of American religion, you have likely heard of author Jeff Sharlet.
Sharlet has published five books on the subject, including C Street: The Fundamentalist Threat to American Democracy and The New York Times best seller The Family: The Secret Fundamentalism at the Heart of American Power. He has profiled influential religious figures like Pastor Ted Haggard of Colorado Springs and spent time in Uganda reporting on the country’s anti-homosexuality bill — a bill that would have imposed lifelong prison sentences and the death penalty.
Jeff Sharlet is one of the hardest-working journalists I know. He is always hopping on a plane to follow some lead. He is a writer who believes in getting a story directly from the source. He will spend days, weeks, or months with a subject if he has to. He is never afraid to ask the hard questions, and never daunted by power, fame, or stacks of archival materials.
This combination of hard-hitting, investigative journalism, literary style, and historical knowledge is what makes Sharlet’s work unique. He has written about the intersection of religion and politics for publications like Rolling Stone, Harper’s, and Mother Jones and appeared on NPR’s Fresh Air, The Daily Show, CNN, the BBC, and the Bill Maher Show. He has received grants and fellowships from the Pew Charitable Trust, The MacDowell Colony, the Blue Mountain Center, The Nation Institute, and the Kopkind Foundation.
In 2000, Sharlet teamed up with novelist Peter Manseau to create Killing The Buddha, which has since become an award-winning online literary magazine. That led to a year on the road for Sharlet and Manseau, investigating the varieties of religious experience in America, including a cowboy church in Texas, witches in Kansas, a Pentecostal exorcism for a terrorist in North Carolina, an electric chair gospel choir in Florida.
Sharlet is also the co-founder of two influential websites that cover the subject of spirituality and religion: Killing the Buddha (now edited by Nathan Schneider) and The Revealer (edited by Ann Neumann). In my biased opinion, both of these journals publish some of the finest writing on religion I’ve seen online or in print. Sharlet and the team of writers who keep these projects going deserve credit for filling a void. It’s rare to see the top of religion covered with such intelligence, humor, and open mindedness.
Although Sharlet has a reputation for his journalism and work at The Revealer and Killing the Buddha, he is best known for his investigative reporting on the Family, a powerful, secretive fundamentalist network in Washington, D.C., that has been influencing American government, the military, and foreign policy since the 1930s.
Working as an intern, Sharlet obtained unprecedented access to the group’s headquarters on C Street and is the only reporter to have written about the group from the inside. As reported in Newsweek and on NPR, the evangelical group’s views on religion and politics are so exceptional and inclusive that some other Christian-right organizations consider them heretical.
A year after the book’s publication, the Family was suddenly thrust in the media spotlight when several sex scandals involving Senator John Ensign and Governor Mark Sanford, both prominent members of the Family, made headlines. The group was also accused of illegally subsidizing the rent of certain members of Congress and enabling the anti-homosexuality legislation in Uganda. It was Sharlet’s work that finally brought the group to the public’s attention.
The author’s most recent book, Sweet Heaven When I Die, is a collection of 13 essays about belief, skepticism, and spirituality. Sharlet writes about Brad Will, an anarchist journalist who filmed his own murder by police while covering an uprising in Mexico; BattleCry, an evangelical youth movement devoted to spreading its particular brand of the Christian message; a new-age healer named Sondra Shaye; and renowned intellectual Cornel West.
Entertaining, humorous, incisive, and original, Sweet Heaven is a unique melding of literary genres. In reviewing the collection for The Washington Post Michael Washburn wrote: The “book belongs in the tradition of long-form, narrative nonfiction best exemplified by Joan Didion, John McPhee [and] Norman Mailer…Sharlet deserves a place alongside such masters.”
My favorite essay in Sweet Heaven is “Born, Again,” a thought-provoking piece on hope that draws chilling parallels between artistic desire, parental loss, and the murderous, “coal-filtered” blues of Dock Boggs. Few writers can be as informative and entertaining as Sharlet, particularly when it comes to the subject of music:
Dock Boggs — a man with fists for hands and a voice like strychnine — belongs as much on a bill with filth-punk G.G. Allin…, grunge fatality Kurt Cobain…, and assassinated hip-hop genious Biggie Smalls — dead, respectively, of overdose, despair, and the murderous ebb and flow of insult and capital — as he does with old-timey all-stars Dick Justice, Aunty Molly Jackson, and Clarence Ashley. Maybe more so, for like Allin, Cobain, and Smalls, Boggs was a theatrical man, both a balladeer and a blues singer. He knew how to snarl and wink at the same time. That’s what makes such artists frightening — you can never be certain which is surface and which is true meaning. Is it the threat or the invitation?
What marks Boggs as different from other musicians murdered by their own songs is that he survived. That’s simply a fact, not a clue; it’s a result of chance, not the saving grace of art, much less the religion Boggs would find and then lose again.
The opening essay of the book — a piece that combines reportage with the story of an old college girlfriend who has found love and religion in the mountains of Colorado — is both funny and moving. It is Sharlet’s vivid descriptions of place that I often find most enjoyable:
On your way to Cañon City you pass Cotopaxi, one of Colorado’s many abandoned utopias, a trick played in 1882 by a Portuguese Jew on Eastern European Jews lured into a dark canyon with promises of farmland evidently false to anyone who bothered to consult a map of the region. Jews mined, Jews died, Jews moved. Cotopaxi is now a Christian town, inasmuch as one can worship a loving God in the deep armpit of dry, brown mountains.