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Meet the Senators in the Creepy Right-Wing Cult Trying to Defeat Health Care Reform

The Family has spent decades consolidating power within the GOP and may have come to dominate the party even among those who do not belong to the cult.
 
 
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In the heat of summer, a din of voices arose from the U.S. Senate in opposition to the health care reform legislation that was taking shape in both houses of Congress. Overlooked in media coverage of the health care brouhaha is the membership of many of the senators who most vociferously oppose the legislation in the right-wing religious cult known as The Family.

With the Senate Finance Committee's passage last Tuesday of its version of health care legislation, expect the debate to flare again as the bill moves to the Senate floor. The Family's point men -- "key men" in the cult's theological lexicon -- will likely try once again to defeat reform in the service of their Supply-Side Jesus.

You could chalk it up to nothing more than pure partisanship, this obstructionism on the part of these Republicans. Or you could say that the ideology-cum-theology of The Family, which has spent decades consolidating power within the GOP, has at last come to dominate the party even among those who do not belong to the cult.

While leaders of religious right we've come to know assert their claim to "a place at the table," The Family sets its table for only a select few. They are the nation's powerful: senators, congressmen, business executives and the strong-armed leaders of Third World countries. Together, in secret, they worship a Jesus unrecognizable to most practicing Christians. (In their secret theology, the leadership model of Adolf Hitler is one of which Jesus would approve.)

The people of South Carolina, Oklahoma, Iowa, Nevada, Kansas and Wyoming find themselves represented by at least one U.S. senator who belongs to The Family. If he subscribes to the theology of the cult of which he is a member, the senator believes himself to be anointed to his lofty position by Jesus himself -- a Jesus who tells him that his constituents' health care dilemmas are of no consequence to God; they are just the natural order of things as deemed by him.

The Jesus worshiped by The Family is neither Jesus the peacemaker, the champion of the poor, nor even Christ the personal savior. He is Jesus the power broker, who works his will through well-situated men committed to free enterprise of a most unregulated sort.

Things are as they are in the world because that's the way God wants them. The poor are poor because God ordained it to be so -- a condition that they may have earned through disobedience to the creator. The powerful are powerful -- be they murderous dictators or corporate polluters -- because they are God's chosen. Any regulated economic system, according to this theology, is less than godly, because regulation forestalls the exercise of free will.

Sens. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, and Mike Enzi, R-Wyo., Family members who did their bit to slow down reform in their roles on the negotiating team for the Senate Finance Committee health care reform bill, remain unmoved by the 865 preventable deaths suffered each week by people without access to proper health care.

The God of The Family's teaching would never hold Grassley or Enzi -- or any other official -- to account for those deaths, because Grassley and Enzi are key men in God's plan.

Even Grassley's dishonest campaign to convince his constituents that President Barack Obama is looking to use health care reform to "pull the plug on Grandma" -- God is just fine with that, because Grassley is doing exactly what God wants him to do, preserving the social order.

Not His Brother's Keeper

It's that theology that led The Family, over the years, to aid and abet such dictators as Haiti's Francois "Papa Doc" Duvalier, Indonesia's Haji Muhammad Suharto, Chile's Augusto Pinochet, and the brutal Angolan rebel Jonas Savimbi, who among them killed more than a million people.

The Family seems to be fond of "revolutions" of a particular type: Those that overthrow socialists or any kind of leftists, even those, like Chile's Salvador Allende, who were democratically elected. As Jeff Sharlet explains in his masterful book, The Family, "God chooses his key men according to His concerns, not ours ..."

Other Family members, identified as such by Sharlet, loom large in the health care debate. Sen. Jim DeMint, R-S.C., said right-wingers could "break" Obama by defeating health care reform. Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., told NBC's David Gregory that members of Congress had "earned" the threats of violence they were receiving at town-hall meetings focused on the health care bill.

After Grassley and Enzi succeeded in dragging out Senate Finance Committee negotiations through the summer, Sen. John Ensign, R-Nev., threatened to slow the committee's mark-up session by offering 30 amendments to the bill, most of them deemed "nuisance amendments" by opponents.

And Sen. James Inhofe, R-Okla., characterized the entire health care bill -- not just the contested public option -- as creating a "socialized" system. One of The Family's few Democratic members, Sen. Bill Nelson of Florida, seems to have felt his loyalties torn by health care reform, refusing  to stake a position on the Finance Committee bill until the 11th hour.

In the House, Family members Zach Wamp, R-Tenn., Joe Pitts, R-Penn., and Frank Wolf, R-Va., rank high among health care obstructionists. So, too, does Democrat Bart Stupak of Michigan, who, with Pitts, is trying to derail the House bill by gumming up the works with a proposal that would virtually eliminate any private plans that offer coverage for abortion from health care exchanges.

While it's tempting to look to the amount of campaign donations received by these lawmakers from the health sector as the reason for their knee-jerk opposition to heath care reform, that doesn't tell the whole story.

While many of these Family members indeed enjoy the largess of donors from health care concerns, few have reaped as much as the $534,141 from the health sector collected by Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus, D-Mont., in his last election. Baucus may have overseen the crafting of a bad health care bill, but it's still a health care bill for which he will likely vote -- which is more than you can say for nearly all of The Family's key men on the Hill. 

And campaign donations from the health sector fail to account for the opposition of Inhofe, for whom the health sector doesn't even rank among the top five industries from which he draws his funding.

I called the offices of Coburn, Enzi, DeMint and Grassley for comment on how, or if, their faith informs their position on health care reform. At press time, none had returned my call.  [UPDATE: After this story posted, I received a call from John Hart, director of communications for Sen. Coburn, who disputes my characterization of The Family as it appears in this essay. While he did confirm that Coburn takes part in The Family's weekly prayer meeting, and that he lives in The Family's C Street residence, he also took issue with the notion that Coburn is "an associate" of The Family. Coburn, he said, "is active in the group." More from this conversation and a subsequent e-mail exchange will appear shortly at the end of this piece.]

Beyond the Religious Right

The Family grabbed the attention of mainstream media when a series of adulterous affairs by its members exposed it as an extraordinarily scandal-ridden religious group whose Southeast Capitol Hill townhouse on Washington's C Street served as home away from home for philandering lawmakers.

In addition to  Ensign, who is under investigation by the Senate Ethics Committee for alleged violations involving his mistress and her husband, others in the cult include South Carolina Republican Gov. Mark Sanford, who disappeared for five days in August, ostensibly hiking the AppalachianTrail while actually visiting his Argentine mistress, and former Rep. Chip Pickering, R-La., whose affair led his wife to sue his alleged mistress for loss of affection.

All of these men at one time lived at The Family's C Street townhouse -- Ensign and Pickering at the time they were conducting their affairs. All were "family values" men, politicians who ran on platforms promoting abstinence-only sex education and opposed to LGBT rights.

While the apparent hypocrisy of fallen, self-righteous prudes will grab the spotlight every time, The Family's other scandals -- its cozy relationships with despots around the world, its embrace of big business at the expense of the poor, its reinvention of Jesus as a figure contraindicated by his teachings -- should be of far greater concern to the rest of us. Especially when one considers the group's longevity and its extraordinary power.

Before Sharlet broke the story of The Family in Harper's magazine seven years ago, few had heard of the group, even among religion writers. Sharlet stumbled into the group when, while he was researching a book on religious communities, an acquaintance invited him to live at one of The Family's group houses in Northern Virginia. 

That secrecy is the way The Family wants it, or at least Family leader Doug Coe, who took the group underground when he grabbed the reins in 1969. In fact, The Family really only comes above ground once a year, sponsoring the annual National Prayer Breakfast, where the high and mighty of government, business and sometimes even popular culture (Bono addressed the gathering in 2006) gather, usually to hear the U.S. president speak to the subject of prayer. Obama gave his first National Prayer Breakfast speech shortly after his inauguration.

The Family is not the religious right as we know it -- that noisy, moralizing fracas of a movement, rooted in the most conservative forms of the Baptist and Methodist denominations (and more recently expanded to include Pentacostals). In the 1990s, "family values" became the credo of the religious right's populist front, as its leaders set about convincing the nation's most socially conservative Protestants that the values of the left were inherently anti-family.

While progressive journalists focused on the power of the populist religious right -- its electoral organizing prowess, its takeover of the machinery of the Republican Party -- The Family remained in the shadows, quietly steering U.S. foreign policy in the service of right-wing dictators and marshaling forces against labor unions through the creation of a global network of "prayer cells" presided over by key men in U.S. government agencies, as well as business and government entities throughout the world.

But behind the scenes, in a weekly Capitol Hill meeting of something called the Values Action Team, the two strains -- the elite and the populist -- are intertwined. Founded by then-House Majority Whip Tom DeLay, R-Texas, 10 years ago and supported by Focus on the Family's James Dobson, the VAT is a legislative strategy session that is currently led by Family member Sen. Sam Brownback, R-Kansas, and was formerly led by Rep. Joe Pitts, R-Pa.

Years ago, the late Rabbi Arthur Hertzberg explained the appeal of the religious right: "They are putting on the magic act of family values," he told me, "while the pickpocket in league with them goes through the crowd and steals their wallets."

That pickpocket is The Family. And even worse than stealing the wallets of the faithful, it has stolen their Jesus, rendering him into a figure who can only be deemed a blasphemous conception of the man whom Christians believe to be the son of God.

In the Beginning, There Was the Great Depression

From its inception in the 1930s, The Family -- then known as The Fellowship, as it is sometimes still called -- had at its root a pronounced hostility toward communism and socialism, and an affinity with fascism.

Created in the depths of the Great Depression, The Fellowship evolved as a bulwark against the populist rage that demanded its due after the barons of Wall Street and the captains of industry had crushed the economy in a spiral of greed.

The collapse of systems, be they economic, governmental or even religious, offer the potential for a completely new order to arise from the rubble. And that is precisely what the business leaders of the 1930s saw gathering around them as the government became a major employer, and labor organized, organized, organized.

Fellowship founder Abraham Vereide regarded the Great Depression as God's retribution for human disobedience and set out to gather powerful business leaders around him. He gathered them to pray, to testify before each other. Through these prayer meetings, he facilitated the means by which they would organize themselves against the encroaching rabble.

Vereide admired the efficiency of dictatorships, seeing them as ideal means for maintaining what he deemed to be a God-ordained social order -- one that left the resources of the world concentrated in the hands of those at the top. Vereide's followers were party to brutal crackdowns on labor unions, and they took on the task of dismantling the New Deal of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, which they eventually accomplished.

After World War II, Vereide set up prayer cells in Germany among former Nazis, even intervening on the behalf of several with U.S. officials.

Vereide's successor, Doug Coe, today displays a certain obsession with Adolf Hitler and other of history's great villains, including the communists Vladimir Lenin and Mao Zedong. What he admires is the manner in which they organized their movements.

"Hitler, Goebbels and Himmler were three men," Coe told a gathering of evangelical leaders in 1989. "Think of the immense power these three men had, these nobodies from nowhere." He recounts with awe the nobodies' success with their improbable plan of killing 6 1/2 million "Polish people" (a figure, Sharlet reminds us, that includes 3 million Polish Jews, to which I'll add more than 100,000 Polish gypsies).

Coe offered this observation as an illustration of the workings of one of his favorite verses of scripture, Matthew 18:20: "When two or three are gathered together in my name, there I am in the midst of them." Coe is not saying that Hitler & Co. were gathered in the name of Jesus, but he is interpreting Scripture through the prism of power politics of a most murderous kind.

Today, the nation stands on the precipice of another economic disaster, having elected a charismatic leader to pull it back from the brink, just as it did in 1932 with the election of Roosevelt, to whom The Family's earliest incarnation coalesced in opposition.

Like Roosevelt, Obama seeks the way out of the economic abyss through government programs, and today's Family has revived its historic role.  At their dynamic essence, the same two forces stand in opposition as they did in the 1930s: A brilliant communicator who has captured the populist imagination with government solutions to current woes, and an ever-consolidating corporate cabal determined to stop him.

Followers of Jesus

At the 9-12 Tea Party march on Washington, signs carried by protesters equated Obama with Hitler, his "czars" with the S.S., health care reform with fascism. The Tea Partiers likely never heard of Doug Coe or The Family, yet the cult's pet themes and fears seem to provide a sort of connective tissue for that otherwise-inchoate movement: Hitler, socialism, government regulation.

What the Tea Partiers fear most, it seems, is the power of a personality -- Obama's -- whose worldview stands in opposition to theirs. And if there's anything the leaders of the right understand, it's the power of personality.

And so, within The Family, they have made Jesus into a sort of uber-personality, but an enigmatic one at that.

Sharlet refers to The Family's theology as one of "elite fundamentalism," but that's not quite right. Fundamentalism refers to a literal reading of the Bible. Little in The Family's ideology seems rooted, either literally or figuratively, in the Gospels, or much in the Bible at all.

The Jesus of The Family is a Jesus unmoored from his own teachings; a blank slate of a Jesus who demands nothing but acceptance of the power structure of the world as it currently exists in exchange for his blessing. And since this Jesus is offered mostly to men of high rank, that's not so hard a bargain.

It's an idea that Coe, as Sharlet reports, calls "Jesus plus nothing." As the man who invited Sharlet into The Family explained, "We're not even Christian. We just follow Jesus."

Followers of Jesus, followers of Christ: key phrases in the key man's code. But who is this Jesus? He seems to be at once a personal guide, yet unknowable -- except as someone, something, who must be served.

There appear to be only two decipherable things about the God of The Family: his unyielding disdain for government regulation of any kind and his demand for obedience to that notion.

The Family's notion of free-market capitalism renders Adam Smith's invisible hand as the one extended in Michelangelo's iconic fresco, giving the spark of life to the original Adam; any attempt to regulate a market means you're messing with God. This doctrine is known, in The Family's language, as "Biblical capitalism." 

And so government services, by this doctrine, are against God's will; they interfere with God's markets, skewing values and disturbing the natural order of things, just as a public health-insurance plan would do to the current insurance industry. Having been exempt from anti-trust law since 1946, the health-insurance business must be as close to godly perfection as one can get, in the minds of The Family's key men.

And what of the poor and suffering, the health care-related defaults on mortgages that claim 60 percent of all home foreclosures? What of those who have no health insurance? They are simply not among the anointed. Or worse, according to a report commissioned by The Family, Sharlet reports, the cause of their poverty, the cause of all poverty, is "disobedience." 

(In the 1950s, Family founder Vereide celebrated as a "prophet" a German nationalist  who taught, according to Sharlet, that the demand for government services stemmed from "a failure to trust that God would provide.")

Listen to Oklahoma's Coburn, responding to a woman at an August town-hall meeting; she was sobbing because the company that insured her husband cut off his nursing-home care after a brain injury, sending him to her care with a feeding tube in his chest and no coverage for the equipment or training she would need to care for him. Nor would they pay for a speech pathologist or a physical therapist who could teach him how to eat and drink again.

After telling his constituent that his office will help her, as an individual, to navigate the system, Coburn added this: "But the other thing that’s missing in this debate is us as neighbors, helping people that need our help. ... The idea that the government is the solution to our problems is an inaccurate, a very inaccurate, statement."

God will provide. Or your neighbors will. Whatever you get, that's what God wanted for you.

South Carolina's DeMint told a reporter from his hometown newspaper, the Charleston Post and Courier, "I think health care is a privilege. I wouldn't call it a right. ..." On the House side, Family member Zach Wamp of Tennessee told MSNBC's Tameron Hall virtually the same thing in March: "Health care is a privilege." As described on the NBC blog First Read, "Zach Wamp, the always self-assured Tennessee congressman, was on MSNBC this morning, railing against any health care reform effort, calling it a move toward 'socialism' and that Obama was engaging in almost 'class warfare.' "

As Oklahoma's luck would have it, both the state's U.S. senators belong to The Family. While other lawmakers complained they hadn't been given time to read the weighty health care bills on which they were to vote, Inhofe seemed untroubled by that dilemma: his religion would appear to demand that he oppose health care reform as a matter of principle.

As a government disruption of God's free markets, the very concept, by The Family's reckoning, is an abomination. At an August town-hall meeting, Inhofe told residents of Chickasha, Okla., according to theExpress-Starof Grady County, that "he does not need to read the 1,000-page health care reform bill, he will simply vote against it." Inhofe explained: "I don't have to read it, or know what's in it. I'm going to oppose it anyways." 

Later in the meeting, the senator elaborated. "People are not buying these concepts that are completely foreign to America," Inhofe said. "We're almost reaching a revolution in this country." And when you think about what a revolution means to members of The Family -- Savimbi, Pinochet -- that's enough to give one pause.

Appearing on C-SPAN's Washington Journal last month, Inhofe was asked by a caller to explain what bearing, if any, his religion had on his politics. "I'm a follower of Jesus," he said, "and I’m not embarrassed about it."

 

UPDATE: As noted above, after this story posted, John Hart, director of communications for Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., returned my call. As one might expect, he takes issue with my characterization of The Family as depicted in this essay.  For starters, Hart asserted that "there's a tremendous disparity in economic policy positions" among the senators who take part in Family activities. Hart cited the example of Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., who, after a long silence on health-care reform, voted in favor of the Finance Committee bill. (Nelson is one of a handful of Democrats associated with The Family. The overwhelming character of the group is Republican.)

Hart took issue with my emphasis on The Family's doctrine of "biblical capitalism" as a theological principle that governs the policy aims of some members. "That’s a term I’ve never heard [Sen. Coburn] use," Hart said. "That’s not a serious theological term."

Coburn's opposition to government programs, Hart said, stemmed from his concern for the poor. "His faith informs everything he does," Hart said. He went on to say that, in the New Testament, Jesus mentions the poor some 300 times. "He doesn't view the Bible as a think-tank document.," Hart said. So, Coburn, before he contemplates a policy, Hart said, first asks himself, "How will it impact the people least able to fend for themselves?"

"He has come to the conclusion that large government enterprises harm poor more than help them," Hart said, offering Medicaid as an example. He conceded that the government health-care program does help some poor people, but he contends that it hurts others, because "40 percent of doctors refuse to accept Medicaid." (Coburn is an MD himself.) Hart said that the expansion of Medicaid beyond the ranks of the "truly poor" will only hurt more people. A truly compassionate health-care program, Hart asserted in a subsequent e-mail, is this one, proposed by Coburn in lieu of the bills currently under consideration in the Senate.

Aside from concern for the impact of government programs on the poor, Coburn also challenges the notion that deficit spending is compassionate, Hart wrote, giving as an example, this quote from Coburn: "It is deeply personal with me. I have five grandchildren. I look in their eyes, and I see the potential of their lives and all of these other children who are out there. There is tremendous potential in them. You know what? We are going to waterboard them. That is what we are going to do. We are going to waterboard them. We are going to flood them with debt. We are going to shackle their opportunities. We are going to limit their possibilities because we don't have the courage to make the difference for their future."

In our conversation, Hart said that the picture of The Family painted by Jeff Sharlet (to whom he referred as "Jeff Charlatan") is "an invention and a conspiracy theory that panders to one constituency’s ideological prejudices." (People on the right, he said, also indulge in conspiracy theories.) Coburn's Jesus is not a matter of politics, Hart said. "Dr. Coburn would be profoundly offended if you said that his friend, Barack Obama, was less of a Christian because he took a different approach," Hart said.
 

(Image credit: today's top story image tied to this article is taken from Jeff Sharlet's book, The Family).

Adele M. Stan AlterNet's Washington bureau chief.