sharlet300jpgMany 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.

Jeff Sharlet:

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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.

Jeff Sharlet:

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The Big Something: Can you define what you mean by “fundamentalist”? Do you make a distinction between evangelicals and fundamentalists?

Jeff Sharlet:

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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?

Jeff Sharlet:

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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?

Jeff Sharlet:

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The Big Something: So you’re saying that Democracy is empty to them—that it isn’t worth fighting for?

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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)

Jeff Sharlet:

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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?

Jeff Sharlet:

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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?

Jeff Sharlet:

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The Big Something: Would you say that the hierarchical military culture makes soldiers more susceptible to evangelism from their superior officers?

Jeff Sharlet:

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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?

Jeff Sharlet:

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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?

Jeff Sharlet:

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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?

Jeff Sharlet:

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The Big Something: Is the use of homosexuality as a wedge issue dead or dying?

Jeff Sharlet:

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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).

(As always, we love your feedback and tips for other Big Somethings. Please forward this post or share it via numerous social networking sites by clicking on the “Share This” icon below. For anything else, you can email us directly at thebigsomething@krcc.org. Thanks!)

 

11 Responses to God Soldiers: An Interview With Jeff Sharlet

  1. Jimmy says:

    Jeff,

    yesterday I stumbled upon your article (while at base, oddly enough). you r piece was great and hits the nail on the head. while not a pervasive problem, this subtle culture shift IS still a big problem. It has been a source of discomfort for me (one of those military “non-religious” you talked about) since i first joined college ROTC in 2001– thank god (pun intended) i steered clear of the USAFA– i dont think i would have made it. i think the blurred line between establishment and free exercise is dangerous. when the general didn’t know what you were talking about, i laughed knowingly. and i laughed because what else can i do? sometimes leadership doesnt see the difference between their free exercise and the Bully Pulpit (to borrow from ole Teddy Roosevelt). As a young officer, i’ve stepped outside the bounds of what i deem appropriate as well– but trust me, i do so unwillingly– to serve my troops and peers as a brave counterweight to the incorrect impression that if you aren’t evangelical, you arent welcome. its worked and there are pockets of resistance! i’ve borrowed from the “enemy’s” playbook– i push the envelope of professionalism, daring someone to raise the issue. even if no one ever does, the secular troops can at least let everyone know we believe in a secular institution, based on historical and constitutional principles. Career be damned!

    -jimmy

  2. Jimmy says:

    to add:

    Thank you for addressing here the difference in thought between the idea of an empire of god and the many many secular officers who look to the current state of affairs and find no backing for wars of aggression and the American empire. i missed the part in my oath of office that says anything but support and defend the constitution.
    Obama’s administration should be bringing positive changes to our military, but he’s failing a lot of hopeful soldiers so far– from the secular troops, to the homosexual troops, to those who really believed they’d see a retreat from the American empire. Jeff, can you explain why Obama has not come out strongly for “change”?

    thanks, jimmy

  3. Aaron Retka says:

    You talked about Haggard’s resignation in 2005 that gay marriage was an inevitability, and now he’s poised to start a new church in the Springs. Is there a possibility that evangelicals could take a gay-friendly turn—that Haggard, perhaps, or another gay ideologue, could spearhead a gay-positive ministry?

  4. Noel Black says:

    Are you two Jimmys the same Jimmy? Or Jimmy 1 and Jimmy 2?

  5. Jeff,

    Thanks for taking the time!

    To what extent has the influence of the value voter block faded? Was its power always grossly overstated?

    I remember hearing bloated claims such as: “As president of the National Association of Evangelicals, Haggard represents 30 million conservative Christians spread over 47,000 churches from 52 diverse denominations.” I don’t believe that Haggard actually “represented”, nor did the vast majority even know that they were being counted as members of the NAE.

    Did the religious right overstate its influence to the point where they scared moderate and secular citizens to the point that there was a backlash?

  6. Jeff Sharlet says:

    Great to hear from you, Jimmy. Your point about the conflation of free exercise and an individual officer’s own bully pulpit is dead on. While I didn’t encounter a whole lot of fundamentalist activists who were conversant with the First Amendment, most regularly invoke freedom of religion — theirs. That’s linked to the sense of persecution many evangelicals and fundamentalists experience, their belief that the U.S. is hostile to Christianity. What I find fascinating about that is that they’re keying in on a current that IS hostile to a lot of their values (and good, fairly universal values, too). Not the “New Atheists,” a powerless bunch, but the commodification of just about everything. They know they’re being turned from human beings into consumers. But they don’t respond by asserting their common humanity; rather, they turn toward obedience to divinity.

    Anyway, I’m glad you’re out there, Jimmy, fighting the good fight.

  7. Jeff Sharlet says:

    Aaron — alas, not a chance. When Ted spoke of the inevitability of same-sex marriage, he meant it in the sense of the inevitability of sin in what he perceived as a decadent culture.

    John — You tell me. I know you’ve been looking at these questions about as long as I have. My sense is that A) yes, the formal organizational power was always overstated, which means leaders — and thus voting blocs — were never as strong as they claimed, but that B) the cultural power has always been underestimated, in large part because it doesn’t necessarily express itself predictably. I think, for instance, that the absence of the kind of longstanding left that exists in every other developed nation has a lot to do with the cultural influence of evangelicalism and fundamentalism. Not in terms of specific political ideas, but rather in the form of a culture that refuses to see systemic critiques. That continues. Is it weaker? I dunno — I don’t think that movements that take decades to build disappear in a day (Jan. 20, that is). The leaders will change, but I suspect the movement will endure, and, possibly, deepen. Abortion, homosexuality, and such were always spoken of among the smart religious right leaders as wedge issues designed to develop alienation from the broad culture of secularism. That worked, and it continues — indeed, a significant part of the Democratic Party now actively and explicitly rejects “secularism,” a straw man caricature that ignores the word’s real meaning, which isn’t about abolishing faith.

    That’s my two cents. Or maybe 4, since I can go on. What do you think, John?

  8. I think that there was something of a backlash when the religious right appeared to be a powerful lobby who was going to take away our beloved beer and porn. This is about when James Dobson was accused of hating Sponge Bob and our President appeared to be in bed with fundamentalist wacko’s. I think that this scared even a lot of relatively moderate evangelicals. The rhetoric coming out of Focus Action was really over the top. Then the Ted Haggard scandal hit, along with Larry Craig. By the time the elections rolled around only the most hardcore of my New Life Church attending friends were voting for McCain. Even my pal Pastor Rob Brendle voted for Obama.

    I see the pendulum as having swung in the other direction. It’ll be back. I do find it surprising how quickly the movement seemed to be taken apart though.

  9. On a separate topic, I’ve long been fascinated by how the religious right (a good example is Focus Action) stands in harsh opposition to the environmental and global warming movements. The only reasoning I’ve been able to come up with is that these attacks are part of a larger effort to discredit science in general, making a 6,000 year old earth theory easier to swallow.

    In your opinion, why is global warming a Christian issue to begin with?

  10. Jeff Sharlet says:

    I’ve never seen fundamentalism and science as necessarily antagonistic. Some of the oppo to taking climate change seriously is simply generational, little different than
    my secular father’s complete disinterest in the issue. Then there’s that concern about environmentalism as a religion. But most important, I think, are the economic implications. Despite the happy yuppie rhetoric about cap and trade and all that,
    there’s no real freemarket response. Which freaks guys
    like chuck colson out because it means a systemic human response is demanded.

  11. Oh, and word on the street, doubly confirmed, is that Ted Haggard is starting a new church in Colorado Springs. He’s been holding services in his house, but the plan is to expand into a decent sized space this summer. It should be fascinating to attend a service.

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