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Sen. Coburn's Office Responds to AlterNet: Our Story on The Family Based on "a Conspiracy Theory"

Responding to AlterNet's story on the role in opposing health-care reform of senators affiliated with a secretive right-wing religious group, Coburn's spokesman talks compassion.

Our story on The Family, the secretive religious group based on Capitol Hill, has apparently caught the eye of one of the senators we mention.

After the story posted, John Hart, director of communications for Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., returned the call I had placed the day before. As one might expect, he takes issue with my characterization of The Family as depicted in the 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 smattering 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. He then inverted my assertion that the Jesus of the family was, in essence, a figure conjured to suit right-wing politics. "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," he said.

In my essay, I note as evidence of The Family's laissez-faire approach to the needy the dispassionate reply Coburn offered to a woman at a town-hall meeting who was sobbing because the insurer of her husband, who was recovering from a brain injury, had cut off his nursing-home care, and refused to cover the costs of a speech pathologist who could help him learn how to speak again. (While he offered to help her as an individual constituent, he said that the idea that government was the solution to her problems was wrong, and then spoke to the audience about how neighbors have to do a better job helping neighbors.)

Hart said that Coburn and his staff spent hours with the woman in his office, going over her options. Later, I asked Hart via e-mail whether Coburn had ultimately been able to help the woman.  Here's his reply:

Yes, our staff spent many hours helping her. What helped the most though was a speech pathologist in Tulsa saw the story on CNN and called our office. We then put her in contact with the lady from the town hall. The speech pathologist referred the lady to an organization in Oklahoma City that was willing to assist with treatments. As of last week we were told the husband is making progress.
 
This shows that Coburn’s answer was correct. She didn’t need a costly new government programs. Her neighbors and existing programs and services were able to help.

Adele M. Stan is AlterNet's Washington editor.
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