If you follow the subject of American religion, you have likely heard of the author and journalist Jeff Sharlet. A three-time MacDowell Fellow, 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 and has spent time in Uganda reporting on the country’s anti-homosexuality bill, which would have imposed lifelong prison sentences and the death penalty.
Sharlet also helped found two influential Web sites that cover the subject of religion: Killing the Buddha and The Revealer. He has written about the intersection of religion and politics for publications like Rolling Stone, Harper’s, and Mother Jones,and has appeared on NPR’s Fresh Air, The Daily Show, CNN, the BBC, and the Bill Maher Show.
Sharlet 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. He obtained unprecedented access to the group’s headquarters and is the only reporter to have written about the group from the inside. The resulting book took years to research and write. Sharlet says his residencies at The MacDowell Colony were critical to the process of putting the book together.
His most recent book, Sweet Heaven When I Die, is a collection of 13 essays about belief, skepticism, and spirituality. Featured in the book is 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 priestess named Sondra Shaye; and renowned intellectual Cornel West. Entertaining, incisive, and original, Sweet Heaven is a unique melding of literary genres. The “book belongs in the tradition of long-form, narrative nonfiction best exemplified by Joan Didion, John McPhee [and] Norman Mailer,” says The Washington Post. “Sharlet deserves a place alongside such masters.”
At a recent reading in New Hampshire, Sharlet told his audience that he is “not a seeker” and that he is not on a spiritual quest for answers. “It’s really just more about these poles of certainty,” Sharlet explained, “certainty of faith and the despair that can be — not always, but can be — implicit in faithlessness, and all these people just sort of wandering around, lost in the desert and between.”
His next project, The Hammer Song, is a short book about pop, folk, punk, sex, riots, and the Cold War. Recently, he spent a month visiting the Occupy Wall Street protests in New York and D.C. His response was to create occupywriters.com, an online petition in support of the global Occupy movement.