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Sex and power inside "the C Street House"

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« on: July 22, 2009, 01:22:38 pm »

Sex and power inside "the C Street House"

Jeff Sharlet
Wed, 22 Jul 2009 00:15 UTC
Sanford, Ensign, and other regulars receive guidance from the invisible fundamentalist group known as the Family

I can't say I was impressed when I met Sen. John Ensign at the C Street House, the secretive religious enclave on Capitol Hill thrust into the news by its links to three political sex scandals, those of Gov. Mark Sanford; former Rep. Chip Pickering, R-Miss., who allegedly rendezvoused at the C Street House with his mistress, an executive in the industry for which he then became a lobbyist; and Sen. John Ensign, R-Nev. Although Sanford declared today that his scandal will actually turn out to be good for the people of South Carolina because he's now more firmly in God's control, the once-favored GOP presidential prospect will finish out his term and fade away. And Ensign's residence at the C Street House during his own extramarital affair now threatens to end a career that he and other Republicans hoped would lead him to the White House.

When I met Ensign, he was just back from a run, sweaty and bouncing in place, boasting about the time he'd clocked and teasing a young woman from his office. She seemed annoyed that the senator wouldn't get himself into a shower and back on the job. When I wrote about Sen. Ensign in my book about the evangelical political organization that runs the C Street House, "The Family: The Secret Fundamentalism at the Heart of American Power," I described him as a "conservative casino heir elected to the Senate from Nevada, a brightly tanned, hapless figure who uses his Family connections to graft holiness to his gambling-fortune name."

Now, of course, I know I was wrong: John Ensign is a brightly tanned, hapless figure who used his Family connections to cover up the fruits of his flirtations, to make moral decisions for him, and to do his dirty work when his secret romance sputtered. Doug Hampton, the friend and former aide whom Ensign cuckolded, tells us that it was Family leader David Coe, along with Coe's brother Tim and Family "brother" Sen. Tom Coburn, who delivered the pink slip when it was time to put Cynthia Hampton out of Ensign's reach.

If sexual license was all the Family offered the C Street men, however, that would merely be seedy and self-serving. But Family men are more than hypocritical. They're followers of a political religion that embraces elitism, disdains democracy, and pursues power for its members the better to "advance the Kingdom." They say they're working for Jesus, but their Christ is a power-hungry, inside-the-Beltway savior not many churchgoers would recognize. Sexual peccadilloes aside, the Family acts today like the most powerful lobby in America that isn't registered as a lobby -- and is thus immune from the scrutiny attending the other powerful organizations like Big Pharma and Big Insurance that exert pressure on public policy.

The Family likes to call itself a "Christian Mafia," but it began 74 years ago as an anti-New Deal coalition of businessmen convinced that organized labor was under the sway of Satan. The Great Depression, they believed, was a punishment from God for what they viewed as FDR's socialism. The Family's goal was the "consecration" of America to God, first through the repeal of New Deal reforms, then through the aggressive expansion of American power during the Cold War. They called this a "Worldwide Spiritual Offensive," but in Washington, it amounted to the nation's first fundamentalist lobby. Early participants included Southern Sens. Strom Thurmond, Herman Talmadge and Absalom Willis Robertson -- Pat Robertson's father. Membership lists stored in the Family's archive at the Billy Graham Center at evangelical Wheaton College in Illinois show active participation at any given time over the years by dozens of congressmen.

Today's roll call is just as impressive: Men under the Family's religio-political counsel include, in addition to Ensign, Coburn and Pickering, Sens. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, and Jim DeMint and Lindsey Graham, both R-S.C.; James Inhofe, R-Okla., John Thune, R-S.D., and recent senators and high officials such as John Ashcroft, Ed Meese, Pete Domenici and Don Nickles. Over in the House there's Joe Pitts, R-Penn., Frank Wolf, R-Va., Zach Wamp, R-Tenn., Robert Aderholt, R-Ala., Ander Crenshaw, R-Fla., Todd Tiahrt, R-Kan., Marsha Blackburn, R-Tenn., Jo Ann Emerson, R-Mo., and John R. Carter, R-Texas. Historically, the Family has been strongly Republican, but it includes Democrats, too. There's Mike McIntyre of North Carolina, for instance, a vocal defender of putting the Ten Commandments in public places, and Sen. Mark Pryor, the pro-war Arkansas Democrat responsible for scuttling Obama's labor agenda. Sen. Pryor explained to me the meaning of bipartisanship he'd learned through the Family: "Jesus didn't come to take sides. He came to take over." And by Jesus, the Family means the Family.

Family leaders consider their political network to be Christ's avant garde, an elite that transcends not just conventional morality but also earthly laws regulating lobbying. In the Family's early days, they debated registering as "a lobby for God's Kingdom." Instead, founder Abraham Vereide decided that the group could be more effective by working personally with politicians. "The more invisible you can make your organization," Vereide's successor, current leader Doug Coe preaches, "the more influence you can have." That's true -- which is why we have laws requiring lobbyists to identify themselves as such.

But David Coe, Doug Coe's son and heir apparent, calls himself simply a friend to men such as John Ensign, whom he guided through the coverup of his affair. I met the younger Coe when I lived for several weeks as a member of the Family. He's a surprising source of counsel, spiritual or otherwise. Attempting to explain what it means to be chosen for leadership like King David was -- or Mark Sanford, according to his own estimate -- he asked a young man who'd put himself, body and soul, under the Family's authority, "Let's say I hear you raped three little girls. What would I think of you?" The man guessed that Coe would probably think that he was a monster. "No," answered Coe, "I wouldn't." Why? Because, as a member of the Family, he's among what Family leaders refer to as the "new chosen." If you're chosen, the normal rules don't apply.

So it is for Ensign. Sen. Jim DeMint, one of Ensign's C Street roommates, insists that the prayer groups that meet there -- "invisible believing groups," in the Family's words, designed to facilitate private prayer between partners of equally high status -- are all about accountability. That is, the kind that takes place behind closed doors. We now know that the Family was aware of Sen. Ensign's affair long before Doug Hampton's wounded pride forced it into the public. What's more, if Hampton is to be believed, their concern with the payoffs made by Ensign and his parents to his mistress's family was that they were too small; operating in a medical and spiritual capacity, Sen. Coburn counseled $1.2 million, according to Hampton. Coburn is no hypocrite -- he's a true believer in the faith of the Family, the idea that the chosen need to look out for one another. Christian right leader -- and Watergate felon -- Chuck Colson, converted through the efforts of the Family, has boasted of it as a "veritable underground of Christ's men all through government."

What do they do? Rep. Zach Wamp, one of Ensign's fellow C Streeters who's been in the news for defending the Family's secrecy, has teamed up with Family-linked Reps. Ander Crenshaw, R-Fla., and John R. Carter, R-Texas, on an obscure appropriations committee to help greenlight tens of millions in federal funds for new megachurch-style chapels on military bases around the country. Former Rep. Chip Pickering was not only sleeping on the sly with a representative of the telecom industry, he was living with one -- former Oklahoma Republican Rep. Steve Largent, a C Streeter who in his post-Congress capacity as the head of a telecom association paid for travel by Pickering and John Ensign. Some might call that "crony capitalism"; Family members call it "biblical capitalism."

A review of Ensign's and Sen. Coburn's travel records, undertaken with researcher Chris Rodda of the Military Religious Freedom Foundation, reveals an even more disturbing overlap of the pious and the political. On at least three occasions in recent years, Sen. Ensign traveled to Asia and the Middle East on what he described as official policy trips, paid for entirely by the International Foundation, one of the network of little-known nonprofits that make up the Family. Sen. Coburn, meanwhile, traveled to Beirut in 2005 on the Family's dime, with the explicit mission of setting up Lebanese political prayer groups, just like the one that covered for Ensign. The following year, Coburn humbled himself in prayer at a special Family event in the British Virgin Islands, a Christian mission of earthly rewards also undertaken, at Family expense, by fellow C Streeter Rep. Mike Doyle, D-Penn., who also sacrificed himself for God with a Family-paid trip to Aruba.

To be fair, most of the trips sponsored by the Family aren't pleasure junkets. They're missionary work. Only the Family missionaries aren't representing the United States. They're representing "Jesus plus nothing," as Doug Coe puts it, the "totalitarianism of God," in the words of an early Family leader, a vision that encompasses not just social issues but also the kind of free-market fundamentalism that is the real object of devotion for Ensign, Coburn, Pickering, Wamp and Sanford, along with Family insiders such as Sens. DeMint, Sam Brownback and Chuck Grassley. At the heart of the Family's spiritual advice for its proxies in Congress is the conviction that the market's invisible hand represents the guidance of God, and that God wants his "new chosen" to look out for one another.

When they arrive in other countries, on trips paid for by the Family, at the behest of the Family, they are still traveling under official government auspices, on official business, with the pomp and circumstance -- and access -- of their taxpayer-funded, elected positions. Here's how a former National Security Council official who traveled with Family leader Doug Coe on a tour of Pacific nations described the Family effect in small nations where a visitor like John Ensign is a major event: "It reminded me of the story in World War II, where the British sent an OSS type into Borneo ... And this guy parachuted out of the sky and they had never seen anything like this so they looked on him as -- he had blonde hair and white skin and he was a white god who had come out of the sky to mobilize them. Obviously his side was going to win so they had no trouble aligning themselves."

One needn't be a Marxist to find fault with the Family's mash-up of New Testament and unfettered capitalism -- Adam Smith himself would have recognized that theology as a disingenuous form of self-interest by proxy. Such interests have led the Family into some strange alliances over the years. Seduced by the Indonesian dictator Suharto's militant anti-communism, they described the murder of hundreds of thousands that brought him to power as a "spiritual revolution," and sent delegations of congressmen and oil executives to pray to Jesus with the Muslim leader. In Africa, they anointed the Somali killer Siad Barre as God's man and sent Sen. Grassley and a defense contractor as emissaries. Barre described himself as a "Koranic Marxist," but he agreed to pray to Grassley's American Christ in return for American military aid, which he then used to wreak a biblical terror on his nation. It has not yet recovered. More recently, the Family has paid for congressional Christian junkets to bastions of democracy such as Serbia, Sudan, Belarus, Albania, Macedonia and Musharraf's Pakistan.

If the Family men who stood over John Ensign as he wrote a baldly insincere breakup letter to his mistress were naive about hearts that want what they want, they don't claim ignorance about the strongmen with whom they build bonds of prayer and foreign aid. They admire them. Counseling Rep. Tiahrt, Doug Coe offered Pol Pot and Osama bin Laden as men whose commitment to their causes is to be emulated. Preaching on the meaning of Christ's words, he says, "You know Jesus said 'You got to put Him before mother-father-brother sister? Hitler, Lenin, Mao, that's what they taught the kids. Mao even had the kids killing their own mother and father. But it wasn't murder. It was for building the new nation. The new kingdom."

Sen. Ensign, facing calls for an investigation of what may have been felony abuses of campaign funds in his attempt to cover up his affair, might not get there. Then again, the Family's preview of a "new kingdom" -- a private club of men protecting one another's secrets -- doesn't sound so different from the old kingdom. That's the awful secret behind the closed doors of the C Street House, the Family's authoritarian rhetoric, and even the Family's real mission: business as usual, fortified by faith in more power for the powerful and privilege itself a form of piety.
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« Reply #1 on: July 22, 2009, 04:26:27 pm »
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« Reply #2 on: July 22, 2009, 04:51:35 pm »

Rachel Maddow: GOP Sex Scandal Exposes Secretive Conservative Religious Group -- 'The Family'
By Rachel Maddow, The Rachel Maddow Show
Posted on July 14, 2009, Printed on July 22, 2009

The following is a transcript from The Rachel Maddow Show on Washington D.C.'s "C Street House,"  which is now at the center of a media firestorm. Now GOP Senator Tom Coburn, sex-scandal embroiled GOP leaders Senator John Ensign and South Carolina Governor Mark Sanford have been tied to the C Street House, which is registered as a church and provides substantially lower than market rate rent. Coburn and Ensign have lived at the C Street house, while Sanford has participated in its Bible study group.

We start with a mystery -- a mystery that's unfolding alongside the two major political scandals of the summer.  It's a mystery that concerns this house at 133 C Street Southeast in Washington, D.C.  I'm calling it a house because that's what it looks like to me and people do live there.

But if you consult this building's financial paper trail, you will find that it's actually considered to be a church.  That designation makes C Street a convenient tax-free haven for the secretive organization that runs it, an organization known as the Family.  It also makes for some awkward tax and income questions for the at least five, probably seven members of Congress who live at the house, in exchange for what appears to be substantially below market rent.

As explained by our guest last night, Jeff Sharlet, who secretly infiltrated the family to write a book about them, the C Street house is a former convent.  It's used as a sort of subsidized, really upscale dorm for members of Congress who are associated with this powerful, poorly understood religious group.

The Family and the house at C Street have ended up reluctantly in the headlines now because of the two major politicians' sex scandals that are embroiling the Republican Party this summer and that have taken two of their reported 2012 presidential hopefuls out of political contention.

Embattled Nevada Senator John Ensign lives at the C Street house.  The husband of Senator Ensign's mistress says that prominent members of the Family -- this religious group -- including the sons of the group's founder, as well as other members of Congress who live at C Street -- were both aware of Ensign's secret affair and were involved in his efforts to pay off the mistress and her family as the affair was on again-off again ending.

Republican Senator Tom Coburn lives at C Street with Ensign.  He has said he encouraged Ensign to end the affair but he has denied the allegation that he specifically encouraged Senator Ensign to pay the mistress off to the tune of millions of dollars.

South Carolina Governor Mark Sanford mentioned C Street by name in his long public statement of regret about his affair with a woman in Argentina.

Video transcript:

Unidentified male: Did your wife and your family know about the affair before the trip to Argentina?

South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford: Yes.

Unidentified male: For how long?

Sanford: We've been -- we've been working through this thing for about the last five months.  I've been to a lot of different -- I was part of a group called C Street, when I was in Washington.  It was a, believe it or not, a Christian Bible study -- some folks that asked of members of Congress hard questions that I think were very, very important and I've been working with them.

Maddow: Hard questions.

Governor Sanford said he was working with C Street somehow about his affair for months -- while the affair was ongoing, while it was still secret, and while Governor Sanford continued to lie about it publicly.

This is the first point about C Street and the Family that makes the group more than just a cameo appearance in both of these sex scandals.  In both instances, these powerful family values preaching, conservative politicians who were themselves having adulterous affairs say now that they disclosed those affairs to other members of Congress and other people affiliated with the secretive religious group for a long time while the affairs continued and while they were kept secret from the world at large.  This organization was allowed to know but nobody else was.

Zack Wamp of Tennessee is a Republican member of Congress who says he has lived in the C Street house for 12 years.  Today, he told "The Knoxville News Sentinel" that the members of Congress who live there are sworn to secrecy.

Quoting from the "News Sentinel," "The C Street residents have all agreed they won't talk about their private living arrangements, Wamp said and he intends to honor that pact.  'I hate it that John Ensign lives in the house and this happened because it opens up all of these kinds of questions,' Wamp said.  But, he said, 'I'm not going to be the guy who goes out and talks.'"

When you start looking into this organization and its members' oaths to secrecy and fidelity to one another that "I'm not going to be the one who talks here" theme looms very large.  But last year, when Jeff Sharlet's book about the Family first came out in hardback, the resultant buzz around the secrecy and high level connections of the Family and the C Street spurred NBC's Andrea Mitchell to obtain sermons of the group's long-time leader, Doug Coe, in order to find out more about what this group's agenda might be.

Here's some of what she found.

Video transcript:

Douglas Coe, Leader of "The Family": I've seen pictures of the young men in the Red Guard.  They would bring in this young man's mother.  He would take an ax and cut her head off.  They have to put the purposes of the Red Guard ahead of their father, mother, brother, sister, and their own life.  That was a covenant, a pledge.  That's what Jesus said.

Maddow: That's what Jesus said?

Here's more from the same sermon.

Video transcript:

Coe: Jesus said, you have to put me before other people.  And you have to put me before yourself.  Hitler, that was a demand to be in the Nazi party.  You have to put the Nazi party and its objectives ahead of your own life and ahead of other people.

Maddow: Again, the man speaking here is Doug Coe.  He's the leader of the group the Family, that runs the secretive C Street house that features in the sex scandals of both John Ensign and Mark Sanford.

Doug Coe describing the group's mission here in this next clip through his interpretation of the life and words of Jesus.

Video transcript:

Coe: One of the things he said is "If any man comes to me, and does not hate his father, mother, brother, sister, his own life, he can't be a disciple."  So I don't care what other qualifications you have, if you don't do that, you can't be a disciple of Christ.

Maddow: If you don't hate your father, mother, brother, sister, you can't be a disciple of Christ.

Every American's faith is her or his own business.  It's our constitutional inheritance as Americans.  Now, there is no religious test for public office, there's no official religion in this country, and every American has a right to believe or not believe, to worship or not worship, or as he or she sees fit.  Religion is a private matter in this country.

And religion is the organizing principle of many, many powerful interests in the United States, including this one very connected, sworn to secrecy, ministry only to the powerful, that has had a key role in how two major Republican sex scandals have unspooled this summer, that has a theology of power that is poorly understood, and cites Hitler a lot, and that currently houses at least seven members of Congress in what it calls a church.

Joining us now once again is Jeff Sharlet, who lived among this group as part of the research for his book "The Family: The Secret Fundamentalism at the Heart of American Power," which is now out in paperback.

Maddow: I realize when we finished our interview last night there were more questions about the connection between this theology and these politics that I really wanted to ask you.  And when I asked you last night how a group like the family could essentially sanction John Ensign putting his mistress's son on the Republican Party payroll -- you said, essentially, that this group would be solely focused on looking out for John Ensign dealing with it internally.

Well, it now seems like a big part of the way Ensign responded to the scandal was by spreading a lot of money around.  So, I wanted to ask you to talk to me a little bit about wealth and financial power and how that fits into the theology of this group.

Sharlet: Well, to understand the Family's approach to wealth, it's a good place to start is their own label for themselves.  They like to call themselves the Christian mafia at times.  And they mean this in the sense of money moving quietly behind the scenes.

As David Coe -- one of the leaders of the group, the son of the man we just saw, and also John Ensign's spiritual counselor we now know -- as David Coe explained it to me a few years ago, if money moves around behind the scenes through what they call the man-to-man financial method, then we are able to sort of maintain this veneer of privacy, and that this is very important, because when you're dealing with members of the Family, these guys have been chosen by God for leadership and what the Family is going to do is in some ways almost play the role of consigliores, as fixers for these guys.

So, when I heard about the Ensign money, that makes sense as a kind of thing that they might be comfortable with.  But you've got to pull it out into sort of a broader picture.  Doug Coe, the leader of the group has said, he said, "I loan or give money to all sorts of people or I have my friends do so."

Now, Coe takes no salary many years.  All of the money is sort of moving through this man method and when you apply that overseas -- as they do -- you start to see what the idea of this is.  They believe in something called "biblical capitalism," and biblical capitalism is the way they're going to bring the gospel to the already powerful.  Where the money goes they believe God goes.

Maddow: So, biblical capitalism, this idea of the man-to-man financial method, which is one of the more awkward terms of a summer full of awkward terms.  That -- it's not just part of the way that they exert power.  That is part of their theology, that's part of the way they understand how they are, their version of Christianity at least.

Sharlet: Absolutely yes.  It's a theological position.

And when they call themselves a Christian mafia and talk about sort of avoiding institutionalization, talk about avoiding, you know, the books and records and all of that kind of stuff -- all of this stuff allows them to avoid accountability.  What they see it as is avoiding the building up of an edifice.

There is a level in which they're almost antichurch.  They don't like an organized church because it's too democratic.  They like this sort of behind-the-scenes elite approach.

Maddow: Well, you write in the family about how Doug Coe has done political favors for dictators like Suharto of Indonesia and Siad Barre in Somalia, Jonas Savimbi in Angola.  What is the Family doing with these guys?  Why are there so many dictators that Doug Coe and the other members of the Family cross paths with?  How does that work?

Sharlet: Well, you know, we heard in that clip, we heard Coe talking about Mao's China and so on.  And we also hear him again and again using the model of Hitler as an ideal of strength.  And I've heard him -- this is really boilerplate sermon for Doug Coe.

It's not that he's a neo Nazi of some sort.  It's that they fetishize strength.  They look for the leader who they believe is chosen by God.  Evidence is his power, his wealth, and his willingness to align himself with their version of American power.

The dictator Suharto in Indonesia was one such.  They organized meetings for him with American defense contractors, with the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, with the secretary of defense, and most notably, since Indonesia is a major oil producing company with American oil executives, who described their meetings in memos of Congress as great moments of spiritual honesty between themselves and the dictator.

Maddow: Jeff, briefly, we're just about out of time -- but religion is obviously a private matter in this country.  Do you think that the members of Congress who belong to this religious group should feel compelled to tell the country more about the group?  Do you feel that would be appropriate?

Sharlet: I think when you have -- when you have members of Congress who are looking to a particular religious group for a sense of authority, which is explicitly antidemocratic, that explicitly fetishizes strength and dictatorial power, if they want to do that, that it's their choice.  But I think they owe it to their constituents to say, "Here is why I have chosen to leave the mainstreams of American religion and affiliate myself with this sect that is so unorthodox and so really brutal in its theology."

More: Read Bruce Wilson's extended account of 'The Family.'

2009 The Rachel Maddow Show All rights reserved.
View this story online at:'the_family'/?page=entire
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