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Power Theology in Government

How important are a politician’s religious beliefs when it comes to the job of governance?

Those on the right probably consider it more important than those on the left, as they tend to vote for candidates whom they believe share their Christian values. Those on the left are more likely to consider religion a private matter, better left out of politics altogether. As a result of this strange dichotomy, politicians looking to win support from both sides must walk a fine line whereby they proudly profess themselves as Christian but rarely ever talk about what Christianity means to them or exactly what their fundamental beliefs and values are. Those on the right, who tend to avoid looking deeper than the surface in most matters, are satisfied as long as the politician pays homage to Jesus. Those on the left refuse to press them on these issues because they believe such matters fall outside the scope of government. This is quite convenient for the politicians, who are naturally quite happy not to be pressed.

I’m beginning to think we ought to press them.

This past week, an extremely fascinating and highly underreported development has come to light regarding a link between the John Ensign and Mark Sanford sex scandals. Both politicians are associated with a religious group known as “The Family” which operates out of a house on C Street in Washington D.C., a building classified as a church but which actually serves as housing to 6-8 congressmen at a time. As far as I can tell, the only news outlet doing any reporting on this story has been The Rachel Maddow Show, which has broadcast several interviews with Jeff Sharlet, a journalist who lived with members of The Family for a year and who has written a book on them and their beliefs.

The way the group operates is quite simple—if you’re a politician who shares their beliefs and you’re going through a difficult time in your life (for instance, you’re having an affair with an employee and her husband is threatening to take the story to the media) you can go to one of the meetings of The Family and confidentially share this information and receive “spiritual counsel”. In the case of John Ensign, this “spiritual counsel” apparently involved telling him to pay his mistress’s family to keep quiet. We don’t know what kind of counsel Mark Sanford received, but we do know that both politicians refuse to resign in spite of their flagrant abuses of power and downright immoral behavior (by which I mean paying hush-money or disappearing from the state for five days without a word—not sleeping with another woman, which in itself has no bearing on a person’s ability to govern).

It’s certainly a fair question to ask why these men won’t resign, especially when they’ve vocally called for the resignation of other public leaders like Bill Clinton and Larry Craig when news of their respective infidelities came to light. You would think that faced with such disgrace and humiliation, a politician’s gut reaction would be to slip out of the public spotlight as quickly and quietly as possible. But both of them have made a conscious decision to hold on to the power they have for as long as possible. It seems that to them, power itself is the highest value, more important than marital fidelity, responsibility to one’s constituents, or any other basic social conventions.

Here is where it becomes critical to break down that convenient barrier these men have set up between their public persona and private faith, and ask just what it is members of The Family believe and whether that is what’s behind their decision to remain in office and continue to represent millions of people.

During his first interview with Rachel Maddow (9 July), Jeff Sharlet describes the basic ideals behind The Family’s version of Christianity:

SHARLET: […] I got to sit in on a spiritual counseling session between the leader of the family and Congressman Todd Tiahrt on the C Street house. I actually, met Senator Ensign there.

As the leader of the family was counseling Congressman Tiahrt, who had this very standard issue, bill of issues related to the Christian right, and he said, you’ve got to have a bigger vision of what we’re talking about here. He described—he called it “Jesus plus nothing.” And he said it’s sort of a totalitarian idea of Christianity and he gave his examples of men who he believed, understood the way power should wielded. He actually gave his examples, Hitler, Pol Pot, Osama bin Laden and Lenin.

MADDOW: Wow. When I—when I read your book, “The Family,” when it first came out in hardback, Jeff, I—my notes on, I write notes in the fly leaf about what I’m thinking about it. And my notes about it, I went back and looked for that. It was essentially to promote—its role is promoting American power worldwide, unfettered capitalism, 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 was the impression that I was left with. Was I close?

SHARLET: That’s dead on the money. The Family—again, it’s the oldest Christian conservative organization in Washington. And it goes back 70 years when the founder believed that God gave him a new revelation, saying that Christianity had gotten it wrong for 2000 years, and that what most people think of as Christianity is being about, you know, helping the weak and the poor and the meek and the down and out.

He believed God came to him one night in April of 1935 and said, what Christianity should really be about is building more power for the already powerful and that these powerful men who are chosen by God can then—if they want to dispense blessings to the rest of us, through a kind of trickle down fundamentalism.

The fact that this is not bigger news, that it’s not the subject of water-cooler and dinner conversations all across America is shocking to me. Here we have what is essentially a religious cult of powerful men who believe that they are chosen by God to build a world in which all of the wealth and power is concentrated in the hands of a few chosen elites. If this was just your ordinary run-of-the-mill group of religious nuts living in some convent in Montana, it wouldn’t be a big deal at all. But these are lawmakers, people who are responsible for the lives of millions of citizens. Theoretically, their decisions are supposed to be made for the benefit of the people they represent. But as Sharlet says in a later interview (15 July):

If you’re outside of the Family, well then you’re accountable to the public. But inside the Family, you are accountable to a higher calling which is this idea that the Family teaches the politicians involved that they’ve been chosen for their leadership positions not by the people who elected them but by God who they believe put them in power.

[…]

I think one thing we have to deal with when looking at religious groups like the Family, we have to take their beliefs seriously. So, when they say your first loyalty is not to your constituents, it’s not to the public that elects you, it’s not even to your own personal family, it’s to your brothers in this family, they mean it. And they do believe it seriously.

If these kinds of beliefs are to be withheld from public knowledge, then exactly what is fair game when it comes to questioning politicians about religion? If a politician really believes that his first loyalty is not to the public but to a religious group, it seems self-evident that the public has a right to know.

Just imagine if they were honest with the people, and stood up and said, “If you vote for me, I’ll work on behalf of God-as-I-perceive-him to do what I believe he wants me to do, which is put more wealth and power into the hands of the already wealthy and powerful.” Obviously they’d never have a chance of getting elected.

So why is it okay as long as they keep these beliefs secret? Why shouldn’t we have a right to know?

This idea that a person’s spiritual beliefs have no bearing on the kind of job they’ll do as a public servant is actually complete bullshit. What could possibly say more about a person than what they believe to be the fundamental nature of the world we live in and how they believe human beings ought to behave in life? You can tell far more about how a person will govern by understanding their basic conception of right and wrong than just by going over their publicly stated positions on a handful of issues.

So when it comes to The Family, a group that idolizes men like Hitler and Pol Pot, just what is their conception of right and wrong? John Ensign and Mark Sanford both said in press conferences that they believe their infidelity was wrong, but is that even true? Sanford compared himself to King David, which Sharlet, in his first interview with Maddow (9 July), thought was very revealing:

[T]he King David story is the core teaching of the Family. When I first heard it, I was living with the Family.

One of the leaders in the Family was explaining why King David was important. And he says, it’s not because he was good man, it’s because he’s a bad man. You know, seduced another man’s wife. He actually had the husband murdered.

And he wants to explain why this was a model—and he says to one of the men in the group, he says, “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.”

So according to members of The Family, concepts of right and wrong do not apply to them. To them, morality seems to mean nothing more than the appearances they must keep up for the sake of the masses when in reality they operate behind closed doors, “beyond the din of vox populi” (beyond the voice of the people) to use the words of their leader. They are lawmakers who consider themselves to be above the law.

If nothing else, this story highlights just how important religious beliefs actually are when it comes to our leaders in government. And while there is certainly a strong argument to be made that there should be no religious litmus test for public office, it seems that in come cases there should be one.

Unfortunately, we are far from any level of philosophical sophistication in the U.S. that would allow politicians to speak openly and honestly about their beliefs regarding the deepest questions. Should a presidential candidate actually express even a slight modicum of doubt regarding the divinity of Christ, their chances of winning the election would be instantaneously shattered. Thanks to a shrinking but still extremely influential section of the populace, the hardcore religious fundamentalists, our national discourse with regard to spirituality is being held hostage. The most important questions of life—how it all came to be and how humans ought to behave—have been reduced to whether or not you label yourself a Christian.

The ironic part is that most of these evangelicals would be horrified at the beliefs of members of The Family, but they are never made aware of them and it suits The Family perfectly well to keep them in the dark. Because The Family also uses The Bible for moral guidance, they can attach that Christian label to themselves in spite of the fact that they’ve interpreted The Bible in a way completely contradictory to—almost the polar opposite of—traditional Christianity.

Hopefully this story will become better known and more widely talked about, because a serious discussion about religion in government has been long overdue in the United States for quite some time. Sure, we go on and on about religion in politics but we’re only skimming the surface, focusing on trivial issues like whether the phrase “under God” should be removed from the Pledge of Allegiance or whether it’s okay to post the Ten Commandments in a public courtroom. What we should be talking about is just what our leaders actually believe, and whether our representatives really represent our basic values.

It’s no surprise that those in power care more about their own personal gain than about the public good, but when this is actually a part of their ideology, when self-aggrandizement at the expense of the people is actually at the core of their religious beliefs, the people have a right to know about this so that they can make informed decisions about whom to put in positions of power, and so that they can keep power out of the hands of those whose beliefs would actually justify its abuse.

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