The air in Washington in the last few months has been steamy with the warm stench of sex scandal and the sweet aroma of irony.
In the midst of a 50-yard-dash for ambitious Democratic policy goals that will irrevocably alter this country's future, the carnal appetites of some up-and-coming Republicans have been pushed into full view of the Washington press corps, and it hasn't been pretty.
To date, there are three: Mark Sanford, the governor of South Carolina, who absconded to South America to be with his mistress, and then held a series of disturbingly frank exchanges with the press about his strong feelings for her; John Ensign, a Republican Senator from Nevada, who carried on an eight-month affair with a campaign staffer, and then had his parents, who made their money in the casino business, pay her family $96,000; and Chip Pickering, a former Republican representative from Mississippi, who allegedly carried on an affair with an executive from the industry in which he would later become a lobbyist.
These stories continue to garner attention for a few reasons, some obvious, others less so. First and most evident, Washington is up to its elbows in grand questions about small details of policy. In the daily grind of stories on the recession, climate bills, and now health care reform, stories of sex, infidelity, and power offer a city that takes itself far too seriously moments of levity—and give reporters a veneer of legitimacy to write about what would be better suited for People magazine or US Weekly (those silly, superficial, and still very profitable publications).
Second, they expose the hypocrisy of "family values" conservatives who violated the terms of their own marriages while refusing to extend marriage rights to same-sex couples in order to "protect the sanctity of that institution." Of course, Democrats (cough, Elliot Spitzer) are no better at avoiding temptation or hypocrisy.
But finally, and most interestingly, the stories all intersect at a peculiar red brick row house in Washington known as the C Street House. The building—whose existence and role in the scandals came to light through statements made by Sanford and Ensign—is a place where a handful of elected officials live, exchange ideas, and share their particular brand of the Christian faith.
The lens through which many are learning about this house and the clandestine organization behind it has been provided chiefly by Jeff Sharlet, a onetime resident of the house and now a contributing editor at Harper's Magazine, where his essay detailing the C Street House first appeared in 2003. Sharlet has since written a book about the house and its mafia-like backers known as "The Family," and the picture he paints is one of a group of extremely secretive, powerful elites that meets to push policy toward Christian doctrine (as they read it) and who admire the leadership style of autocrats like Hitler. It's also a place where at least one senator—Republican James Inhofe of Oklahoma—meets with African ambassadors to discuss foreign policy.
This sounds absurd on its face, the kind of conspiracy theory that left-wing bloggers would love to believe but can't actually verify. Fortunately for East Tennessee, we've got a man on the inside who can clear all this up.
Third District Congressman and gubernatorial hopeful Zach Wamp has lived in the C Street house for more than a decade, and since reporters began asking questions last month, he has become one of its unofficial, red-faced spokesmen.
In a July 10 article, he told the Knoxville News Sentinel (an E.W. Scripps paper, like Metro Pulse), "I hate it that John Ensign lives in the house and this happened because it opens up all of these kinds of questions." But, he said, "I'm not going to be the guy who goes out and talks.'"
Then, in an almost comedic turn, Wamp's remarks to the News-Sentinel were picked up by the Rachel Maddow Show over at left-leaning MSNBC, prompting Wamp's staff to call the show to complain. They did not, however, claim the News Sentinel had misquoted him; instead, they were upset that his "stop asking questions about my super-secret club, I'll never talk" comment hadn't had its intended effect with the press.
Of course, as every 8-year-old boy knows, avoiding answering questions about what goes on in your secret clubhouse is why you have a secret clubhouse in the first place. But when it comes to the particulars of a stew that contains elected officials, religious extremism, secretive financial backers, allegations of aspiring to undemocratic power structures, and involvement in three sex scandals, the public is going to have some questions and deserves some answers.
And just for a moment consider a slightly different scenario. What if the group were tied not to Christianity but to Judaism or Islam? Would it still get the free pass Wamp thinks it deserves?
The July 10 News Sentinel article closed with a quote from Wamp, who said "In the state of Tennessee, if you are an elected official and you are involved in a Christian fellowship, it ain't gonna hurt you."
Wamp seems to think he stands to benefit politically from his association with this well-connected, wealthy, clandestine Christian fellowship. If so, he and his Christian roommates might ask themselves, Who from the good Book does such a group most nearly resemble?