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Many in the Pikes Peak Region will remember Jeff Sharlet as the writer who profiled New Life Church in the 2005 Harper’s Article, “Soldiers of Christ: Inside America’s Most Powerful Megachurch.” Sharlet’s article was among the first national media spotlights pointed at Ted Haggard’s empire as it rose to international power shortly before Haggard’s own peccadilloes brought it back to earth.
Sharlet has made a career of chronicling and picking apart all stripes of American religious culture in books like Killing the Buddha (spawned from the website of the same name he and Peter Manseau founded), and therevealer.org, a blog on religion and the media that he also founded. But his eye for the less-visible details of evangelical Christian culture makes for some of his most pointed writing. He’s the author of the recent book The Family: The Secret Fundamentalism at the Heart of American Power and, most recently, “Jesus Killed Mohammed: The Crusade for a Christian Military,” an expose on what he calls “Christian fundamentalism” or a “fundamentalist front” in the U.S. armed forces. The Big Something spoke to Sharlet at length about fundamentalist culture in the military, its ties to the Air Force Academy, looking back at the Haggard scandal and more.
(Because the conversation was long, we’ve divided the interview into the individual written questions and Jeff Sharlet’s recorded responses, which you can listen to by clicking on the arrows. Please Note: This is an author interview and the views of Jeff Sharlet do not necessarily reflect those of KRCC or of Colorado College. Jeff Sharlet has kindly agreed to personally respond to questions over the next couple days in the comments section below.)
The Big Something: Talk about the story from which you took the title of your article, Jesus Kills Mohammed.
The Big Something: You talk about chaplains in the military in this story and you talk about how much their role in the military changed during the Reagan years. I wonder if you could elaborate on that.
The Big Something: Can you define what you mean by “fundamentalist”? Do you make a distinction between evangelicals and fundamentalists?
The Big Something: You also refer to many officers such as Major General Johnny A. Weida, Major General Robert Calsen and Lieutenant General Robert Van Antwerp and many others who, you say, are responsible for promoting a fundamentalist Christian culture within the military. You write: “What men such as these have fomented is a quiet coup within the armed forces: not of Generals encroaching on civilian rule but of religious authority displacing the military’s once staunchly secular code.” How do you think that come about?
The Big Something: Why do you think that for the fundamentalist officers and soldiers that you describe that swearing an oath to the Constitution, which guarantees their religious freedom, isn’t enough?
The Big Something: So you’re saying that Democracy is empty to them—that it isn’t worth fighting for?
The Big Something: But even if Christianity is providing the meaning that the government can no longer provide and the US is now an empire rather than a world power, aren’t these soldiers defending an empire of God? One of the soldiers you spoke to said that when you become a Christian you make yourself a willing slave. And the power to which they make themselves slaves is outside Democracy, isn’t it? (NOTE: Sharlet speaks more about the officer who performed exorcisms in the question below about the hierarchical nature of military culture)
The Big Something: So what they’re saying is that it’s easier to pull the trigger for God than it is for me to pull the trigger for the United States of America?
The Big Something: The Air Force Academy is obviously in close proximity to New Life Church, Focus on the Family and the culture that you wrote about in Soldiers of Christ. How much of this culture of the God soldiers has come from that proximity?
The Big Something: Would you say that the hierarchical military culture makes soldiers more susceptible to evangelism from their superior officers?
The Big Something: The most vociferous opponent to this culture of fundamentalist Christianity in the military is Mikey Weinstein of the Military Religious Freedom Foundation. It wouldn’t be hyperbolic to characterize him as rabidly confrontational and he’s turned a lot of people off. Is he the right person to be standing up to this culture?
The Big Something: I reread your article about New Life and Ted Haggard and I couldn’t help but be struck by some of the ironic foreshadowing. You wrote: “He moved to a church strip mall. There was a bar, a liquor store, New Life Church, a massage parlor.” You wrote about him staking out gay bars to evangelize. I wonder if you saw any of Ted’s homosexual tendencies at that time. I also can’t help but wonder if fundamentalists are their own worst enemies in the end?
The Big Something: What would you say is the overall state of fundamentalism in America in the post-Bush/Obama era we’re in now? Has it gone underground the way of those cadets in your story?
The Big Something: Is the use of homosexuality as a wedge issue dead or dying?
Jeff Sharlet will be answering questions and responding to comments for the next couple of days. Please post them below and please keep it civil (i.e. please refrain from ad hominem (personal) attacks and the use of unnecessary language which may result in the removal of your comments).
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