Rachel Maddow: GOP Sex Scandal Exposes Secretive Conservative Religious Group -- 'The Family'
The following is a transcript from The Rachel Maddow Show on Washington D.C.'s "C Street House," which is now at the center of a media firestorm. Now GOP Senator Tom Coburn, sex-scandal embroiled GOP leaders Senator John Ensign and South Carolina Governor Mark Sanford have been tied to the C Street House, which is registered as a church and provides substantially lower than market rate rent. Coburn and Ensign have lived at the C Street house, while Sanford has participated in its Bible study group.
We start with a mystery -- a mystery that's unfolding alongside the two major political scandals of the summer. It's a mystery that concerns this house at 133 C Street Southeast in Washington, D.C. I'm calling it a house because that's what it looks like to me and people do live there.
But if you consult this building's financial paper trail, you will find that it's actually considered to be a church. That designation makes C Street a convenient tax-free haven for the secretive organization that runs it, an organization known as the Family. It also makes for some awkward tax and income questions for the at least five, probably seven members of Congress who live at the house, in exchange for what appears to be substantially below market rent.
As explained by our guest last night, Jeff Sharlet, who secretly infiltrated the family to write a book about them, the C Street house is a former convent. It's used as a sort of subsidized, really upscale dorm for members of Congress who are associated with this powerful, poorly understood religious group.
The Family and the house at C Street have ended up reluctantly in the headlines now because of the two major politicians' sex scandals that are embroiling the Republican Party this summer and that have taken two of their reported 2012 presidential hopefuls out of political contention.
Embattled Nevada Senator John Ensign lives at the C Street house. The husband of Senator Ensign's mistress says that prominent members of the Family -- this religious group -- including the sons of the group's founder, as well as other members of Congress who live at C Street -- were both aware of Ensign's secret affair and were involved in his efforts to pay off the mistress and her family as the affair was on again-off again ending.
Republican Senator Tom Coburn lives at C Street with Ensign. He has said he encouraged Ensign to end the affair but he has denied the allegation that he specifically encouraged Senator Ensign to pay the mistress off to the tune of millions of dollars.
South Carolina Governor Mark Sanford mentioned C Street by name in his long public statement of regret about his affair with a woman in Argentina.
Unidentified male: Did your wife and your family know about the affair before the trip to Argentina?
South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford: Yes.
Unidentified male: For how long?
Sanford: We've been -- we've been working through this thing for about the last five months. I've been to a lot of different -- I was part of a group called C Street, when I was in Washington. It was a, believe it or not, a Christian Bible study -- some folks that asked of members of Congress hard questions that I think were very, very important and I've been working with them.
Maddow: Hard questions.
Governor Sanford said he was working with C Street somehow about his affair for months -- while the affair was ongoing, while it was still secret, and while Governor Sanford continued to lie about it publicly.
This is the first point about C Street and the Family that makes the group more than just a cameo appearance in both of these sex scandals. In both instances, these powerful family values preaching, conservative politicians who were themselves having adulterous affairs say now that they disclosed those affairs to other members of Congress and other people affiliated with the secretive religious group for a long time while the affairs continued and while they were kept secret from the world at large. This organization was allowed to know but nobody else was.
Zack Wamp of Tennessee is a Republican member of Congress who says he has lived in the C Street house for 12 years. Today, he told "The Knoxville News Sentinel" that the members of Congress who live there are sworn to secrecy.
Quoting from the "News Sentinel," "The C Street residents have all agreed they won't talk about their private living arrangements, Wamp said and he intends to honor that pact. 'I hate it that John Ensign lives in the house and this happened because it opens up all of these kinds of questions,' Wamp said. But, he said, 'I'm not going to be the guy who goes out and talks.'"
When you start looking into this organization and its members' oaths to secrecy and fidelity to one another that "I'm not going to be the one who talks here" theme looms very large. But last year, when Jeff Sharlet's book about the Family first came out in hardback, the resultant buzz around the secrecy and high level connections of the Family and the C Street spurred NBC's Andrea Mitchell to obtain sermons of the group's long-time leader, Doug Coe, in order to find out more about what this group's agenda might be.
Here's some of what she found.
Douglas Coe, Leader of "The Family": I've seen pictures of the young men in the Red Guard. They would bring in this young man's mother. He would take an ax and cut her head off. They have to put the purposes of the Red Guard ahead of their father, mother, brother, sister, and their own life. That was a covenant, a pledge. That's what Jesus said.
Maddow: That's what Jesus said?
Here's more from the same sermon.
Coe: Jesus said, you have to put me before other people. And you have to put me before yourself. Hitler, that was a demand to be in the Nazi party. You have to put the Nazi party and its objectives ahead of your own life and ahead of other people.
Maddow: Again, the man speaking here is Doug Coe. He's the leader of the group the Family, that runs the secretive C Street house that features in the sex scandals of both John Ensign and Mark Sanford.
Doug Coe describing the group's mission here in this next clip through his interpretation of the life and words of Jesus.
Coe: One of the things he said is "If any man comes to me, and does not hate his father, mother, brother, sister, his own life, he can't be a disciple." So I don't care what other qualifications you have, if you don't do that, you can't be a disciple of Christ.
Maddow: If you don't hate your father, mother, brother, sister, you can't be a disciple of Christ.
Every American's faith is her or his own business. It's our constitutional inheritance as Americans. Now, there is no religious test for public office, there's no official religion in this country, and every American has a right to believe or not believe, to worship or not worship, or as he or she sees fit. Religion is a private matter in this country.
And religion is the organizing principle of many, many powerful interests in the United States, including this one very connected, sworn to secrecy, ministry only to the powerful, that has had a key role in how two major Republican sex scandals have unspooled this summer, that has a theology of power that is poorly understood, and cites Hitler a lot, and that currently houses at least seven members of Congress in what it calls a church.
Joining us now once again is Jeff Sharlet, who lived among this group as part of the research for his book "The Family: The Secret Fundamentalism at the Heart of American Power," which is now out in paperback.
Maddow: I realize when we finished our interview last night there were more questions about the connection between this theology and these politics that I really wanted to ask you. And when I asked you last night how a group like the family could essentially sanction John Ensign putting his mistress's son on the Republican Party payroll -- you said, essentially, that this group would be solely focused on looking out for John Ensign dealing with it internally.
Well, it now seems like a big part of the way Ensign responded to the scandal was by spreading a lot of money around. So, I wanted to ask you to talk to me a little bit about wealth and financial power and how that fits into the theology of this group.
Sharlet: Well, to understand the Family's approach to wealth, it's a good place to start is their own label for themselves. They like to call themselves the Christian mafia at times. And they mean this in the sense of money moving quietly behind the scenes.
As David Coe -- one of the leaders of the group, the son of the man we just saw, and also John Ensign's spiritual counselor we now know -- as David Coe explained it to me a few years ago, if money moves around behind the scenes through what they call the man-to-man financial method, then we are able to sort of maintain this veneer of privacy, and that this is very important, because when you're dealing with members of the Family, these guys have been chosen by God for leadership and what the Family is going to do is in some ways almost play the role of consigliores, as fixers for these guys.
So, when I heard about the Ensign money, that makes sense as a kind of thing that they might be comfortable with. But you've got to pull it out into sort of a broader picture. Doug Coe, the leader of the group has said, he said, "I loan or give money to all sorts of people or I have my friends do so."
Now, Coe takes no salary many years. All of the money is sort of moving through this man method and when you apply that overseas -- as they do -- you start to see what the idea of this is. They believe in something called "biblical capitalism," and biblical capitalism is the way they're going to bring the gospel to the already powerful. Where the money goes they believe God goes.
Maddow: So, biblical capitalism, this idea of the man-to-man financial method, which is one of the more awkward terms of a summer full of awkward terms. That -- it's not just part of the way that they exert power. That is part of their theology, that's part of the way they understand how they are, their version of Christianity at least.
Sharlet: Absolutely yes. It's a theological position.
And when they call themselves a Christian mafia and talk about sort of avoiding institutionalization, talk about avoiding, you know, the books and records and all of that kind of stuff -- all of this stuff allows them to avoid accountability. What they see it as is avoiding the building up of an edifice.
There is a level in which they're almost antichurch. They don't like an organized church because it's too democratic. They like this sort of behind-the-scenes elite approach.
Maddow: Well, you write in the family about how Doug Coe has done political favors for dictators like Suharto of Indonesia and Siad Barre in Somalia, Jonas Savimbi in Angola. What is the Family doing with these guys? Why are there so many dictators that Doug Coe and the other members of the Family cross paths with? How does that work?
Sharlet: Well, you know, we heard in that clip, we heard Coe talking about Mao's China and so on. And we also hear him again and again using the model of Hitler as an ideal of strength. And I've heard him -- this is really boilerplate sermon for Doug Coe.
It's not that he's a neo Nazi of some sort. It's that they fetishize strength. They look for the leader who they believe is chosen by God. Evidence is his power, his wealth, and his willingness to align himself with their version of American power.
The dictator Suharto in Indonesia was one such. They organized meetings for him with American defense contractors, with the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, with the secretary of defense, and most notably, since Indonesia is a major oil producing company with American oil executives, who described their meetings in memos of Congress as great moments of spiritual honesty between themselves and the dictator.
Maddow: Jeff, briefly, we're just about out of time -- but religion is obviously a private matter in this country. Do you think that the members of Congress who belong to this religious group should feel compelled to tell the country more about the group? Do you feel that would be appropriate?
Sharlet: I think when you have -- when you have members of Congress who are looking to a particular religious group for a sense of authority, which is explicitly antidemocratic, that explicitly fetishizes strength and dictatorial power, if they want to do that, that it's their choice. But I think they owe it to their constituents to say, "Here is why I have chosen to leave the mainstreams of American religion and affiliate myself with this sect that is so unorthodox and so really brutal in its theology."
More: Read Bruce Wilson's extended account of 'The Family.'