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Excerpt: 'C Street'

C Street by Jeff Sharlet


“As much as I did talk about going to the Appalachian Trail . . .that isn’t where I ended up.” — South Carolina governor Mark Sanford, at the June 24, 2009, press conference at which he confessed to cheating on his wife.

In 2008 I published a book called The Family, which took as its main subject a religious movement known to some as the Fellowship and to others as the Family and to most only through one of the many nonprofit entities created to express the movement’s peculiar approach to religion, politics, and power. One of these entities is the C Street Center Inc., in Washington, DC, or, simply, C Street, made infamous in the summer of 2009 by the actions of three Family associates: a senator, a governor, and a congressman, each with his own special C Street connection.

The senator lived there; the governor sought answers there; and the congressman’s wife says he rendezvoused with his mistress in his bedroom at the three- story redbrick town house on Capitol Hill, maintained by the Family for a singular goal, in the words of one Family leader: to “assist [congressmen] in better understandings of the teachings of Christ, and applying it to their jobs.”

Among the men thus assisted by the Family have been Sen. Tom Coburn and Sen. Jim Inhofe, Oklahoma Republicans racing each other to the far right of the political spectrum (Coburn has proposed the death penalty for abortion providers; Inhofe, who was a defender of the Abu Ghraib torturers, hosts regular foreign policy meetings at C Street); Sen. Jim DeMint of South Carolina, who insists that the Bible teaches we cannot serve both God and government; and Sen. Sam Brownback (R- KS), who says that through meetings of his Family “cell” of like- minded politicians he receives divine instruction on subjects as varied as sex, oil, and Islam. There’s also Sen. John Thune ( R- SD), Sen. Chuck Grassley ( R- IA), and Sen. Mike Enzi ( R- WY); Rep. Frank Wolf ( R- VA), Rep. Zach Wamp ( R- TN), and Rep. Joe Pitts ( R- PA). And Democrats, too: among them are Sen. Bill Nelson of Florida; North Carolina’s Ten Commandments crusader, Rep. Mike McIntyre; its newest Blue Dog, Rep. Heath Shuler; and Michigan’s Rep. Bart Stupak. In 2009 Stupak joined with Rep. Pitts to hold health care reform hostage to what Family leaders, pledging their support for Pitts early in his career, called “God’s leadership” in the long war against abortion.

Buried in the 592 boxes of documents dumped by the Family at the Billy Graham Center Archives in Wheaton, Illinois, are five decades’ worth of correspondence between members equally illustrious in their day: segregationist Dixiecrats and Southern Republican converts Sen. Absalom Willis Robertson (Pat Robertson’s father) and Sen. Strom Thurmond; a Yankee Klansman named Ralph Brewster and a blue- blooded fascist sympathizer named Merwin Hart; a parade of generals, oilmen, bankers, missile manufacturers; little big men of the provinces with fast food fortunes or chains of Piggly Wiggly supermarkets or gravel quarry empires. There was even the occasional liberal — Sen. Mark Hatfield, Republican of Oregon, and Sen. Harold Hughes, Democrat of Iowa — men of good faith and bad judgment who lent their names to the causes of the Family’s “brothers” overseas, the Indonesian genocidaire Suharto (Hatfield), the Filipino strongman Ferdinand Marcos (Hughes).

“Christ ministered to a few and did not set out to minister to large throngs of people,” says a supporter. The Family differs from more conventional fundamentalist groups in its preference for those whom it calls “key men” over the multitude. “We simply call ourselves the fellowship or a family of friends,” declares a document titled “Eight Core Aspects of the vision and methods,” distributed to members at the 2010 National Prayer Breakfast, the movement’s only public event. One of the Eight Core Aspects is the movement’s interpretation of Acts 9: 15 — “This man is my chosen instrument to take my name . . . before the Gentiles and their kings” (emphasis theirs). The Family’s unorthodox reading of this verse is that it is an injunction to work not through public revivals but through private relationships with “ ‘the king’ —or other leaders of our world — who hold enormous influence — for better or worse — over vast numbers of people.” The Family sees itself as a ministry for the benefit of the poor, by way of the powerful. The best way to help the weak, it teaches, is to help the strong.

In 2008 and 2009, the Family did so by helping Sen. John Ensign ( R- NV), Gov. Mark Sanford ( R- SC), and former representative Chip Pickering ( R- MS) cover up extramarital affairs, and in Ensign’s case secret payments. Not to avoid embarrassment for the Family, an organization that until 2009 denied its own existence, but because the Family believes that its members are placed in power by God; that they are his “new chosen”; that the senator, the governor, and the congressman were “tools” with which to advance his kingdom, an ambition so worthy that beside it all personal failings pale.

On June 16, 2009, Sen. Ensign flew home to Las Vegas to confess his affair. Ensign, fourth- ranking Republican and a man with Iowa and Pennsylvania Avenue on his mind, had made a career of going against the grain of his hometown. He was a moral scold who’d promoted himself as a Promise Keeper — a member of the conservative men’s ministry — and a family values man. He’d been a hound once, according to friends, but he’d come to Christ before he came to politics; for Ensign, the two passions were intertwined. He didn’t just go to church, he lived in one, the Family’s house at 133 C Street, SE, registered as a church for tax purposes.

Excerpted from C Street: The Fundamentalist Threat to American Democracy by Jeff Sharlet. Copyright 2010 by Jeff Sharlet.  Excerpted by permission of Little, Brown and Company.

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Jeff Sharlet