As the Republican Party implodes the public is becoming aware of a secretive Christian society known as the Family or the Fellowship. The group was founded in 1935 in opposition to FDR’s New Deal and its adherents subscribe to a far right Christian fundamentalist and free market ideology. A minister named Abraham Vereide founded the Family after having a vision in which God visited him in the person of the head of the United States Steel Corporation (no, I’m not making this up). The Family has a connection to house on C Street in Washington, D.C., known simply as C Street. Officially registered as a church, the building serves as a meeting place and residence for conservative politicians.
Few members of the fellowship talk about the group’s mission. The organization organizes the annual National Prayer Breakfast which is attended by the president, members of Congress, and diplomats from around the world. Earlier this year Obama presented his Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships at the event. According to Jeff Sharlet who wrote a book about the group the Family’s philosophy is based on “a sort of trickle-down fundamentalism,” which believes that the wealthy and powerful, if they “can get their hearts right with God … will dispense blessings to those underneath them.” True believers in market orthodoxy, Family members think that God’s will operates directly through Adam Smith’s “invisible hand.”
The Family’s current leader Doug Coe is secretive but enjoys considerable political influence as a spiritual adviser. When South Carolina Governor Mark Sanford, himself a visitor and a kind of honorary alumni at C Street, compared his political difficulties involving his affair with an Argentine woman to those of biblical King David the South Carolina politician was falling back on a central figure in Family theology. You could “almost hear Doug Coe’s voice” coming out of Sanford, Sharlet remarks.
C Street’s stately red brick, $1.1 million building is subsidized by secretive religious organizations and is located a mere stone’s throw away from the Capitol. Lawmakers who live there include Reps. Zach Wamp, R-Tenn.; Bart Stupak, D-Mich.; Jim DeMint, R-S.C.; Mike Doyle, D-Pa.; and Sens. John Ensign, R-Nev., Tom Coburn, R-Oklahoma, and Sam Brownback, R-Kan. The lawmakers, all Christians, live in private rooms upstairs and pay an incredibly low rent — a paltry $600 — to live at C Street.
Tenants dine together once a week to talk about religion in their daily lives. Richard Carver, a member of the Fellowship’s board of directors who served as assistant secretary of the Air Force during the Reagan administration, says “Our goal is singular—and that is to hope that we can assist them in better understandings of the teachings of Christ, and applying it to their jobs.” Senator DeMint, a Presbyterian who moved into C Street less than a year ago, says that members are wont to share a verse or a thought in Bible Study “but mostly it’s more of an accountability group to talk about things that are going on in our lives, and how we’re dealing with them.”
It’s not uncommon for C Street residents to invite fellow congressmen to the lodging for spiritual bonding. Sanford for example turned to C Street for answers and support as his marriage crumbled apart. Now Sanford is joined in his troubles by another C Street member, John Ensign, who had a sexual relationship with a staffer. The Ensign affair has threatened to take down yet another C Street member, Tom Coburn. In February, 2008 Coburn and Ensign’s former mistress’ husband confronted Ensign and urged him to end the affair. Reportedly, Ensign paid the woman more than $25,000 in severance when she stopped working for him in 2008.
Now comes word that that Ensign’s parents paid his mistress and her family almost $100,000 “out of concern for the well being of longtime family friends during a difficult time.” The severance payment could lead to campaign finance or ethics issues for Ensign. But the scandal is also damaging for Coburn who is said to have encouraged Ensign to compensate the couple and to help them relocate. Coburn has denied any knowledge of the payments.
Coburn, who is a physician, will not comment on the advice he provided Ensign saying his position as a doctor and ordained deacon required that he keep all information private. “I’m not going to go into that — that’s privileged communications,” the Oklahoma Senator said. “I’m never going to talk about that with anybody. I never will, not to a court of law, not to an ethics committee, not to anybody — because that is privileged communication that I will never reveal to anybody.”
Projection of U.S. Power Abroad
When they’re not philandering and violating their own professed Christian morality, C Street members push for the projection of U.S. power abroad. As Obama went to Port of Spain, Trinidad for the Summit of the Americas in April it was Ensign who criticized the President for shaking Hugo Chávez’s hand. “I think it was irresponsible for the president to be seen kind of laughing and joking with Hugo Chávez,” he said. Ensign, a big booster of corporate-style free trade, voted for the Central American Free Trade Agreement or CAFTA in 2005. He also supports the coup government in Honduras and signed a letter to Secretary of State Clinton calling on the Obama administration to revoke its support for deposed Honduran President Manuel Zelaya.
Coburn, who is an obstetrician, has advocated the death penalty for any of his peers who carry out abortions. In the foreign policy realm he has stuck to a moralistic credo. He criticized a USAID program for example which sought to teach commercial sex workers in Central America about condom use to prevent HIV AIDS. An irate Coburn wrote President Bush to demand that the United States cease financing the preventative program, run by the non-profit Population Services International (PSI). Apparently the note had the desired effect and shortly after Coburn made his appeal PSI received word that USAID was cutting off money for the program. When not working to defeat sexual education in Central America Coburn supports free markets in the region, voting like his colleague Ensign to support CAFTA. He also supports the coup regime in Tegucigalpa.
C Street’s real free trade messiah is South Carolina native son Jim DeMint who just chastised the White House for supporting Zelaya, thereby carrying out what he called “a slap in the face to the people” of Honduras. Hondurans “have struggled too long to have their hard-won democracy stolen from them by a Chávez-style dictator,” he remarked. The South Carolinian, a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, went even further and attacked the Organization of American States for “trampling” over the hopes and dreams of a “free and democratic people.” It’s hardly surprising that Demint would come out for the military takeover in Honduras given that he’s been a long time booster of Central American free trade. In this sense, he shares the ideological views of newly installed Honduran President Roberto Micheletti, a former businessman and conservative politician who has supported CAFTA. Demint has long been on the other side of the fence from the likes of Zelaya and Chávez. First elected to the House in 1998, he has been an eager promoter of far right wing economic orthodoxy like privatizing social security and abolishing the federal minimum wage.
Zach Wamp is another free trade zealot at C Street. Like his fellow Christian members, he supported CAFTA. At the time Wamp conceded that America’s trade policies were unpopular but defended his vote remarking that the trade agreement was beneficial to his native Tennessee. In the never ending race to the bottom, Wamp said that “if we ever want to compete with China, we must build alliances in our region with countries – like these CAFTA partners – so we can preserve American jobs and not lose any more manufacturing jobs to China or the Pacific Rim.” The southerner then went on to explain his other reasons for supporting the trade agreement. “During this critical time in American history,” he declared, “we are facing multiple national security implications for U.S. leadership and the Western hemisphere. The influences of communism and dictatorships are on the rise to our South.”
Warming to his theme, Wamp continued “in Venezuela, Hugo Chávez rules with an ‘iron fist’ and stands ready to team up with his mentor, Cuban dictator Fidel Castro, to expand their influence in these Central American countries. Countries such as Nicaragua and El Salvador impacted by CAFTA must see the United States as a partner – not the adversary – so this region can be stable and secure.” Raising the alarm bell, Wamp continued “instability in Central America might also jeopardize U.S. border security. Should the Communists succeed in spreading their philosophies and regimes throughout Central America, even more illegal aliens will want to flee their countries and cross our southern border.”
Wamp has also signed on as a co-sponsor to legislation which condemns former Honduran President Manuel Zelaya for carrying out unconstitutional moves. The resolution chastises Zelaya for forging close ties with Chávez and Cuban rulers Fidel and Raul Castro and for joining the Bolivarian Alternative of the Americas (ALBA), an anti-free trade initiative including Venezuela, Bolivia, Cuba and Nicaragua.
In their own personal lives, C Street members have made a mockery of the group’s Christian teachings. Yet when it comes to the far more important and consequential issue of foreign policy these Republicans have stuck to their guns. From Chávez to Zelaya to free trade in Central America they have been consistent in seeking to overturn progressive reform and working to maintain U.S. imperial hegemony.
NIKOLAS KOZLOFF is the author of Revolution! South America and the Rise of the New Left (Palgrave-Macmillan, 2008)