Zach Wamp and the C Street Band

The congressman should be upfront about his Washington residence

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?

© 2009 MetroPulse. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Comments » 7

JeffSharlet writes:

Frank -- thanks for your reference to my book and my work for Harper's. I look forward to Wamp's clarifications. And I agree that much of the Family's approach sounds absurd. But it's hardly the stuff of blogger conspiracy theory. The original articles for Harper's and Rolling Stone that are its spine went through extensive fact checking and legal review, as did the book with its publisher, HarperCollins. I've footnoted all the historical documents with their precise locations in archives around the country. I've a bit of academic cred, too -- I spent the last five years as an associate research scholar at New York University's Center for Religion and Media, teaching graduate seminars in religious studies and journalism. The book received one of its best reviews from the Journal of American History, the wonkiest and preeminent journal for American historians. I've written for a number of national publications in addition to the magazines mentioned above, including The Washington Post, The Chronicle of Higher Education, New York magazine, Oxford American, and others, and have never had to make a correction. Moreover, I can hardly be called a conspiracy theorist given that I argue in the introduction and throughout that the Family is not a conspiracy.

All that said, my expertise pales next to that of red-faced Wamp. His clarifications have been gems, as you suggest. I wish I could say Tennessee is well-served by this dissembler, but I've a deep fondness for the Volunteer State and for Knoxville, in particular, whence my mother came and to which I traveled all the summers of my early youth.

Last, and certainly least: You may get a giggle from the odd coincidence that you share a name with the late Senator Frank Carlson of Kansas, who in the 1950s coined the Family's motto of "Worldwide Spiritual Offensive." May it spare proud Knoxville.

Jeff Sharlet

bubbajenkins writes:

You have got to be kidding me. Within an hour of this article's posting Jeff Sharlet himself has already written a 300 word comment on an article that mentions his name. In a Knoxville, TN weekly newspaper no less....

What a dork. This guy is the luckiest son of a gun in the world. He writes a book that NOBODY buys (because its wholly uninteresting, based on little fact and hugely exaggerated) and a couple years down the road a couple elected officials have affairs and POOF Rachel Maddow makes this Jeff Sharlet dork significant.

Crawl back in your hole're so full of it no wonder you're eyes are brown. You're hour is quickly fading brother...soon nobody will give a rip about your little C-Street conspiracy.

By the way, whence is not a word in Tennessee.

JeffSharlet writes:

That's a hell of a scoop, Bubba. You caught me with a google alert for the C Street House. And yeah, I think that story's important. Didn't know that I was supposed to be so high and mighty that I couldn't comment in Tennessee, "whence" not only my family came but also some much other writers -- James Agee and Peter Taylor come to mind -- who understood the use of ironic formality.

Apparently, I owe you an apology for taking up precious blog comment space. Guess defending yourself from insinuations of inaccuracy is another convention you don't believe has a place in Tennessee. I'm sorry, too, that you didn't like the book. Sounds like you read it and hated in hardcover, though -- unless, that is, you're talking trash about a book you know nothing about -- so thanks.

MikeMcShea writes:

I agree that this guy lucked out. I can’t afford the luxury of buying his book, besides I have seen him enough on TV and know the basic details. Never the less, this secret coven of white men is a little bit more than a frat house weekend gone wild. Maddow is after ratings and she is getting them – the flaming liberals in the audience smell blood in the arena and the lions don’t care if their next meal is half baked fundie or not. Secret organizations that are not accountable do not belong in America. Sounds like popery to me. And after close to two decades of the holier, holier than thou BS merchants of the GOP, I am enjoying the show. Let’s see if Wamp and his “Christian” fellowship organization shapes up to Tennessee standards. I’ll be following his run for office.

bubbajenkins writes:

Even better...Jeff Sharlet came back for more. It's pretty obvious, Jeff, that you're used to getting zero attention. Keep lapping it up, your hour is fading.

Maybe after the lefties have lost interest in your C-Street conspiracy you can go back to focusing on "ironic formality."

Insinuations of inaccuracy? No, I'm calling you a boldface liar out to pay off your debt by selling a book based on a conspiracy theory. Go away.

jswiller writes:

Bubba, I haven't read the Family, but I might. Twice you've said that Sharlet is a liar.
That would mean more than "you said mean things about Republicans so I hate you" if you said how and where he lied. Otherwise you're just a blowhard. Got any facts?

imalinedancer writes:

"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?"

Stupid question, if you ask me, because Zach Wamp never said they deserve a free pass, he SAID to stop asking him questions because he would never talk.

And as for that "the public is going to have some questions and deserves some answers" remark, yeah, SOME answers but not necessarily the ones YOU want, Jeff, you're not owed that by him or anyone, okay?

Oh, and Zach Wamp stands to benefit from GOD for being a good Christian man and proclaiming it proudly to anyone who will listen, not from any association with "this well-connected, wealthy, clandestine Christian fellowship."

And as for that "who he and his Christian roommates" remark goes? Again, the only thing that really matters is who GOD thinks most nearly resembles the good book, not you, guy!

But I guess it must be great to be you, Jeff, because from the things you write, it's clear that your family, friends, co-workers, and anyone you associate with are all sinless, blameless, upstanding and moral people, who would NEVER do anything illegal, immoral, or just plain wrong, thus making you equally as perfect as they are.

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