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The Da Vinci Senator

Why was a U.S. senator citing an Opus Dei study to justify an anti-gay constitutional amendment?
 
 
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The United States Senate is often called "the greatest deliberative body in the world," which usually raises the bar on the tenor and intellectual content of speeches given on the floor, if not for the official record.

Not so for Sen. Sam Brownback, R-Kan., who took to the Senate floor last week to deliver a strident push for the bigoted "Marriage Protection Amendment." Alongside the typical massive distortions of the issue was an argument that was based almost solely on the opinion of a little-known conservative think tank affiliated with the Roman Catholic organization Opus Dei.

"The problem we have in front of us is the institution of marriage has been weakened, and the effort to redefine it on this vast social experiment that we have going on, redefining marriage differently than it has ever been defined before," the Kansas senator grimly intoned last week. "This effort of this vast social experiment, the early data that we see from other places, harms the institution of the family, the raising of the next generation. And it is harmful to the future of the republic."

Brownback then went on to give figures for how various states have shown their hatred of gay people with their own prohibitions on same-sex marriage and used that as his rationale for a similar amendment to the U.S. Constitution.

But Brownback really hit his stride when he described a paper called " Ten Principles on Marriage and the Public Good," published by a fairly new and extremely conservative group at Princeton University. According to Brownback, the paper is an "important statement of principles from top American scholars [to] be considered carefully by my colleagues." He then added that the sentiments expressed in the nonscientific treatise were so vital to our national dialog that they should "… help guide our debate on this issue."

The paper, sponsored by the Witherspoon Institute at Princeton, makes a case for banning same-sex marriage altogether. What's extraordinary is the idea of a United States senator attempting to sway opinion on an amendment that would have altered our Constitution (had it not been defeated last Wednesday) by using a paper from an organization linked to Opus Dei, a strict religious group that some former members have described as a cult.

Brownback spent a good part of his lengthy Senate speech last week citing the study and attributing it to "this Princeton group of scholars," while never mentioning that all of the findings were based on the ultraconservative Witherspoon Institute bolstered by the involvement -- directly or indirectly -- of a nonprofit, tax-exempt religious organization in Opus Dei.

So what exactly is the Witherspoon Institute, whose paper formed the foundation of Brownback's anti-gay argument?

The institute, which has only been around since 2003, has close ties to Tony Perkins and the Family Research Council, but is also tightly aligned with Opus Dei. Indeed, Luis Tellez, the president of the Witherspoon Institute is also the director and lead cleric of Opus Dei in Princeton.

Since its founding in 1928, Opus Dei has been known for its traditionalist values and right-wing political stances. And critics in academia -- which include former members who sometimes go through "deprogramming" upon exiting Opus Dei -- charge that organizations like the Witherspoon Institute are just veiled attempts by Opus Dei to spread its influence in top-tier academic circles.

So why then, is a U.S. senator offering to Congress "research" linked to Opus Dei on something as vital as amending the Constitution? It turns out that Brownback, who was formerly an evangelical Protestant, converted to Catholicism by way of Opus Dei in 2002 and was sponsored in that conversion by Sen. Rick Santorum, R-Penn., a vocal Opus Dei advocate.

Tellez, the leader of Opus Dei in Princeton, is a "numerary," considered the most conservative of the sect's members -- they are unmarried, celibate, devote every aspect of their lives to their spiritual beliefs and turn over their salaries from secular jobs to Opus Dei.

Again, it bears repeating that Tellez is also the head of the Witherspoon Institute, the group Brownback cited at great length as his primary argument against gay marriage.

And remember, it is Brownback, as an Opus Dei convert, who also leads the charge on Capitol Hill against abortion and stem cell research and who, along with Santorum, is seen by the Religious Right as a point man on "culture war" issues.

The other central figure in the Witherspoon orbit is Dr. Robert George, a Princeton professor and a board member in the institute who, not coincidentally, helped draft the federal gay-marriage ban that was just defeated in the Senate. George chaired a meeting of religious leaders in late 2005 that included Dr. James Dobson and other members of the extreme Religious Right. In fact, in addition to his pivotal role in the Witherspoon Institute, George is also a board member at Perkins' Family Research Council, a group known for its bigoted positions on the gay community.

And, via Brownback, all of this is ultimately finding its way into the halls of Congress.

While it may not be technically illegal for Brownback to be so clearly mixing hard-right religious ideology -- and faux-academic papers promoted by religious organizations like Opus Dei -- with debate on the Senate floor, it should certainly raise some eyebrows. In a country where strict separation of church and state is mandated, it seems Brownback is freely blending the two, attempting to use religious dogma to influence public policy -- all the while not disclosing to his Senate colleagues the background sources of the research he is citing.

But this should not be surprising coming from Brownback.

In a January 2006 Rolling Stone article, "God's Senator," Brownback is described as a religious zealot with a view for America's future that could almost be described as medieval.

"In his dream, America, the one he believes both the Bible and the Constitution promise, the state will simply wither away. In its place will be a country so suffused with God and the free market that the social fabric of the last hundred years -- schools, Social Security, welfare -- will be privatized or simply done away with," reads the article. "There will be no abortions; sex will be confined to heterosexual marriage. Men will lead families, mothers will tend children, and big business and the church will take care of all."

After all, it was Brownback, who came to Congress in 1994 and refused to sign Newt Gingrich's " Contract With America" because he felt it wasn't conservative enough. Even then, as a newcomer to the House of Representatives, Brownback believed that the vast majority of what he saw as Big Government should simply be eliminated, including the departments of education, energy and commerce.

And, yes, it was also Brownback who was so outraged at the split-second glimpse of Janet Jackson's nipple during the 2004 Super Bowl, that he introduced the Broadcast Decency Enforcement Act, which substantially raised fines for such simple on-air displays of nudity.

Finally, in addition to being brought into Catholicism by the likes of Opus Dei and using laundered research by an affiliated group on the Senate floor, Brownback chairs a meeting every Tuesday night with the "Values Action Team," consisting of religious leaders like Dobson who help the senator formulate his thoughts on public policy issues.

According to Time magazine, Opus Dei has assets in the neighborhood of $2.8 billion and, with John McCain unlikely to significantly rouse the Religious Right in 2008, look for Brownback to be the guy that Opus Dei, Focus on the Family and the Family Research Council turn to as their presidential candidate.

And make no mistake about it: Brownback wants to run. So if you think his views for a new America, as viewed from the Senate floor, are scary, think of what he'll be like sitting at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.

In his mind, it may already be ordained.