[Please welcome Jeff Sharlet, the bestselling author of The Family: The Secret Fundamentalism at the Heart of American Power, and a contributing editor for Harper’s and Rolling Stone. Jeff brought The Family to Book Salon last year. –G.L.]
America’s favorite bloodsport — scandal — has thrust the Family, the subject of my 2008 book The Family: The Secret Fundamentalism at the Heart of American Power, back into the news. Lucky for me, the revelations of Senator John Ensign’s and Governor Mark Sanford’s sex scandals — and their links to the Family — come just as the book is being released in paperback. At first, I was reluctant to comment — what’s a sex scandal compared to the real business of the Family? Not cover-ups for congressmen but the projection of American power through the lens of piety and the sacralization of free market fundamentalism.
Then Mark Sanford invoked King David as a justification for staying in power, an unorthodox reading of scripture I was familiar with from my time as a member of the Family. In short, Sanford was telling the public that he’s governor not because they elected him but because he was chosen by God. That, to me, is a lot more disturbing than the news that he has a libido.
Things got more interesting — and more troubling with the revelation that not only had John Ensign and his parents paid his mistress off, the Family played a role in the arrangements. The man Ensign cuckolded, Doug Hampton, insists that Senator Tom Coburn, a resident with Ensign at the Family’s C Street House for congressmen, urged Ensign to offer even more than the $96,000 we know about — $1.2 million to make the Hampton family "whole."
Coburn’s no cynic. In fact, despite his extreme right-wing views — he’s proposed the death penalty for abortion providers — he’s known for personal integrity. The pay-off scheme, if it’s what it looks like, isn’t proof that he’s a hypocrite; it’s evidence that he’s operating under a different system of ethics than most of us are familiar with. The ethics, that is, of biblical capitalism, the belief that everything can be bought and sold, and that God sets the price. What looks like pimping to outsiders may well strike Senator Coburn as justice — a $1.2 million price tag for sex with another man’s wife and the destruction of a family.
And it keeps getting worse. Working with Chris Rodda of the Military Religious Freedom Foundation, I’ve learned that Ensign, Coburn, and several other congressmen have been representing the U.S. overseas on official business even as they traveled on the Family’s dime. Congressmen confused about who they were working for spread the Family’s unique American fundamentalism as far afield as Serbia, Sudan, Belarus, and Pakistan. Senator Coburn traveled to Lebanon to establish the same kind of Family prayer cells — that’s their word for them — that provided cover for Ensign in that religiously torn country. And, like many of his brothers in the Family, he humbled himself with strenous vigorous missions to the British Virgin Islands; the Family’s also been paying for travel to Aruba.
The mainstream media is finally catching up. The Washington Post, for instance, is calling for an investigation into the financial circumstances of Ensign’s affair. John Ensign, meanwhile, has announced that he’s sticking around — and seeking reelection.
Let’s hope the voters of Nevada are able to remind him who put him in power, and who can take power away. God may be John Ensign’s supreme authority, and the Family his priests; but in a democracy, it should be the electorate who giveth and taketh away.