July 10, 2009

I was listening to the Thom Hartmann show the other day, and Thom was interviewing an author that caught my attention. Little wonder since the topic was "Is there a secret society of Christian crazies and is Mark Sanford a member?".

That author was Jeff Sharlet and after listening to to Hartmann interview, I wondered if anyone in the main stream media would put him on the air. Of course, Rachel Maddow, who seems to be getting all of the best guests lately-- or at least when the "news" hasn't been canceled all week for Michael Jackson's death and she mysteriously ends up taking vacation the same week-- ended up being the first one to have him on.

Sharlet is the author of The Family: The Secret Fundamentalism at the Heart of American Power. Scary, scary stuff for any of us that don't like the idea of our government being run by creepy, extremist, right wing Christain fundamentalists.

Sharlet also wrote a piece for Rolling Stone on Sam Brownback which is well worth the read back in 2006 titled God's Senator: Who would Jesus vote for? Meet Sam Brownback.

Maddow: As part of the research for the book, Jeff lived among the family and saw many of its actions first hand. [...] What is C-Street? I know it's a house on C Street in Washington. How is it part of the family?

Sharlet: Well, the C-Street house is actually a former convent and now it's registered as a church and it's run by The Family and used by them to provide housing for six to eight congressmen at any given time, and to provide spiritual counseling for these congressmen.

Which all sounds fine so far, but what makes it a little bit different than other Christian conservative organizations, two things, you said that it's secretive. Indeed the leader of the group describes, he says, the more invisible you can make your organization, the more influence it will have. And the other things is the nature of the influence they want to have.

I got to sit in on one of these spiritual counseling sessions between the leader of the family and Congressman Todd Tiahrt when I visited the C-Street House, I actually met Sen. Ensign there. As the leader of The Family was counseling Congressman Tiahrt, he had this very standard issue, bill of issues related to the Christian right. He said you've got to have a bigger vision of what we're talking about here. He called it Jesus plus nothing.

He said it's sort of a totalitarian idea of Christianity and he gave as examples men who he believed understood the way power should be wielded. He actually gave as examples, Hitler, Pol Pot, Osama bin Laden and Lenin.

Maddow: Wow. When I read your book, The Family, when it first came out in hardback, my notes on um, I write notes in the flyleaf about what I was thinking about. And my notes about it, I went back and looked, were that it was essentially to promote, it saw its role as promoting American power, world wide, unfettered capitalism with no unions, no programs to help poor people, all with this idea that godly powerful rich men should get as many resources as possible personally, and they should just privately help everyone else. That is the impression that I was left with. Was I close?

Sharlet: That's dead on the money. The family began, it's the oldest Christian conservative organization in Washington and it goes back seventy years. And the founder believed that god gave him a new revelation saying that Christianity had gotten it wrong for two thousand years and that what most people think of as Christianity, as being about, you know, helping the weak and the poor and the meek and the down and out, he believes god came to him one night in April in 1935 and said what Christianity should really be about is building more power for the already powerful. And that these powerful men who were chosen by god can then if they want to dispense blessings to the rest of us, through a kind of trickle-down fundamentalism.

Maddow: Well do you see a connection between that large sort of power theology and the fact that neither John Ensign or Mark Sanford for that matter, who's also affiliated with the group, aren't quitting despite these scandals. Is there something about this type of theology that tells these guys, hey don't worry about the affair, you know, big picture, you're good, stay where you are, it's important for you to stay in power?

Sharlet: Yeah, no, I think actually Gov. Sanford made it very clear when he cited King David as an example of the reason why he wasn't going to be resigning office and that struck a bell with me because I, the King David story, the core teaching of The Family, when I first heard it, I was living with The Family.

One of the leaders of The Family was explaining why King David was important and it's not because he was a good man. It's because he was a bad man. You know, he seduced another man's wife, he actually had the husband murdered and he once explained why this was a model and he said it to one of the men in the group. He said, suppose I heard you raped three little girls. What would I think of you? And this guy, being a human being says, you would think I was a monster. Well, the leader of The Family says no, not at all because you're chosen. You're chosen by god for leadership, and so the normal rules don't apply.

Maddow: When Sen. Jim DeMint of South Carolina talked about his relationship to this group, he's also lived at the C-Street House, he described the group to the AP years ago, six years ago by saying "We do have a bible study...somebody'll share a verse or a thought, 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". And you've written that members of The Family give each other veto power over their lives, which, with these two scandals, I mean looking at the John Ensign scandal, how does a group like that not veto putting the mistress' kids on the Republican party payroll? How does that not get outed by this group?

Sharlet: Well, because the responsibility of the other men in your accountability group, and I would say by the way, you don't have accountability behind closed doors, that's the opposite of accountability, what these other men are doing is they're saying, alright, we're going to look out for you. Sort of self interest by proxy and what they're calling accountability is a man might bring to the group for instance that he is having an affair with another woman, or the fact that he is perhaps corrupt in some way and so on, and these guys are going to deal with it internally.

Maddow: Wow.

Sharlet: Very much behind closed doors, and we as a group actually once said, what we do is, to use this pretentious Latin phrase, beyond the din of the vox populi. What it means is beyond the voice of the people.

Maddow: Jeff Sharlet is an editor at Harper's Magazine. He's also the author of the book The Family, and if you think this has incredible implications for domestic politics and hypocrisy and affairs, wait till you read about third world dictators and how these guys empower them.

UPDATE: Fester at Newshoggers has more on the ridiculously low rent being charged at the facility: C Street Group question.

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