Mark Sanford, John Ensign, and 'The Family'

By Becky Garrison 7-24-2009

Presently, the glare of the media spotlight has started to shine on a number of political figures, all of whom coincidentally have a connection to a D.C.-based group called The Family. Stories linking The Family to these politicos have appeared on a number of media outlets including NPR's Fresh Air, The Rachel Maddow Show, and Salon. Recently, I contacted religion scholar Jeff Sharlet, author of the New York Times bestseller The Family: The Secret Fundamentalism at the Heart of American Power and contributing editor for Rolling Stone and Harper's, to discuss his research into this group and its connection to this current round of political scandals.

What is The Family?

Let me put in the words of a Washington insider who's an admirer of the group: David Kuo, White House aide in Bush's term, calls it "the most powerful group in Washington that nobody knows." That's actually been quantified by a Rice University sociologist, who surveyed 360 Christian politicians, including two former presidents, and discovered that more respondents -- 1 in 3 -- named The Family as a key player more than any other organization. That shouldn't be surprising, given that it's also the oldest Christian conservative organization, dating back to a 1935 new revelation from God (so Family founder Abraham Vereide believed) that Christians should work on behalf not of the down and out -- the poor, the suffering, the meek -- but the "up and out," the powerful "key men," as The Family calls them, who will dispense blessings to the rest of us. One evangelical Senate aide describes that as "trickle down religion." So why haven't you heard of them before? The Family believes it's most effective behind the scenes. "The more invisible you can make your organization," says Family leader Doug Coe, "the more influence it will have."

Briefly elaborate how you came into contact with this group.

The way you become a member is you get invited. I was invited. A friend -- a conservative Christian, as it happens -- asked me to talk with her brother, who she feared had joined a cult. He invited me to join his movement, too. I'm less of an investigative reporter than I am a religiously curious writer, so I agreed, moving into a house The Family runs for young men they're grooming for leadership.

How is embattled Governor Mark Sanford connected to The Family's C Street House?

Gov. Sanford says he turned to the C Street House for spiritual counsel. He was aware of it from his days in Congress. What's disturbing is that he brought this news to his political peers months before it was disclosed by someone who hacked into his mistress's computer, and these guys kept Sanford's secrets for him. They consider that accountability; I think most people would call it a cover-up. Because when you're a governor, your actions impact far more people than just you and those around you. Here was a man besotted with love or infatuation, going off the rails, and, eventually, abandoning his post -- and The Family brothers thought it appropriate to protect his interests before the people of South Carolina.

What's The Family's role with the Senator John Ensign scandal?

Senator Ensign has been living at the C Street House for some time now. (I met him there in 2002). He was part of a prayer group to which, according to Family documents, he would have given "veto rights" over his life. If we believe the allegations of Doug Hampton, his former friend and aide whom he cuckolded -- and I think we should -- we saw those exercised when The Family learned of his affair. Their first instinct, however, was not to look out for the people of Nevada -- it was to protect their "brother." They forced him against his will to break it off, and then, according to Hampton, urged him to make large cash payments to his mistress and her family. That's what we call hush money. The Family, however, saw it as a means to make the "victims" whole. Of course, the real victims here are the people of Nevada, who sent this guy to Washington to be his own man, to make his own decisions, and to be open with them about the influences in his life.

What's the significance of David Coe citing King David as a model for present-day political power?

It's important to recognize which aspect of King David they're drawn to. It's not the repentant king or the wise king or even simply the powerful king. It's the bad king. David Coe -- the son -- explained it by way of example, asking a Family man what he thought Coe would think of him if Coe heard he'd raped three little girls. The guy of course said he assumed Coe would think he was awful; but Coe assured him he wouldn't, because he was "chosen." That's dumbed-down Calvinism, and very dangerous politics. It means that guys like Mark Sanford and John Ensign have a justification for staying in power, even though both in the past called for Bill Clinton -- NOT chosen -- to resign for the very same actions. But much more importantly, it's the justification by which The Family supports some of its most brutal overseas allies, dictators such as the late Suharto. The CIA called the massacre of some 600,000 Indonesians by which he came to power one of the worst mass killings of the 20th century. The Family called it a "spiritual revolution," and Suharto was God's man for Indonesia. Suharto was a Muslim, but that didn't bother them -- as far as they were concerned, he was chosen to keep Indonesia from going red.

How has The Family managed to stay off the radar?

Mainly through the religious illiteracy of the American political press corps. A lot of my friends who are strictly political reporters are very wary of asking questions about religion. In part because they respect the First Amendment and liberty of conscience -- they don't want to inadvertently contribute to creating a de facto religious test for public office. And, in part, for commercial considerations -- they're afraid of offending their Christian readers and viewers. But the truth is, that kind of tip-toe approach is a lot more offensive. If politicians like Senator Coburn and Senator Ensign are declaring their religious affiliations central to their political identities, we have a responsibility to ask them tough questions about what that entails. Had those questions been asked a long time ago, I don't think The Family would have grown as powerful as it has.

portrait-becky-garrisonBecky Garrison is featured in the documentaries The Ordinary Radicals and Nailin' it to the Church.

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