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In general, it’s a bad idea to use the forum of re How To Did My Boyfriend Back In My Love latively small blogs like this one to argue with foolish columnists like this one. You don’t have the audience to make your rebuttal effective, so you just end up adding a drop in the bucket of the columnist’s online fame. But David Brooks’ latest column opens with a statement so politically depressing and metaphorically revolting that I can’t resist passing it along for the sake of a stomach-churning giggle: “But deep in the bowels of the G.O.P., there are serious people having quiet conversations.”
Eww! That makes me think of the “Radiolab” episode I heard last night about hookworms singing lullabies to your immune system within your intestines. Unfortunately, Brooks isn’t talking about hookworms — he’s talking about right-wing senator John Thune, of South Dakota, whom Brooks would like us to consider as a presidential contender for 2012. Gushes Brooks: “The first thing everybody knows about him is that he is tall (6 feet 4 inches), tanned (in a prairie, sun-chapped sort of way) and handsome.” Say no more! This slab of South Dakotan man-beef has my vote. Skeptics, however, will want to know that “John was a high school basketball star and possesses idyllic small-town manners, like the perfect boy in a Thornton Wilder play. He appears to be untouched by cynicism.” Not even the cynicism of recruiting the misunderstood avant-garde playwright Wilder for a faux endorsement of “small-town manners,” that mythical horseshit that heaps contempt on the majority of Americans and condescension on those still living in small towns.
“After high school,” the Stage Manager continues, “he attended Biola University, a small Christian college outside of Los Angeles.” That’d be the Bible Institute of Los Angeles, long one of the premier fundamentalist colleges in America, a “small Christian college outside of Los Angeles” the same way Harvard’s a little liberal arts school outside of Boston. But Thune is hardly a conventional Christian. Here he is back in 2005, telling Christianity Today about his involvement with two of the most unorthodox — and dishonest — religious groups in Washington, Christian Embassy and the prayer cell movement known variously as the Family or the Fellowship:
Do you find fellowship with other legislators?
I do. There are several different Bible study groups on Capitol Hill. I’ve not had an opportunity yet in the Senate to really get immersed. But when I was a member of the House, there were a couple of organizations, one called Christian Embassy that is affiliated with Campus Crusade for Christ whose mission it is to reach out and reach and disciple people in the legislative branch, the executive branch, and in the military at the Pentagon. And also the C Street ministry, which initially came from Doug Coe. Coe was influential at Chuck Colson’s conversion too. But those are a couple of ministries that are active out there. And there are other members of Congress who come to those events. There are a number who are very serious about their faith. I do have a chance to interact with them.
Is this something you do behind closed doors, a “members only” sort of thing?
It can be. I mean the Bible studies are, yes, sort of, members only.
Regular Killing the Buddha readers know that the Family and Doug Coe are special interests of mine. I’ve written about Christian Embassy, too, though at the time I thought they were linked only by similar ideas. Turns out they’re sharing resources, too: This summer, Chris Rodda of the Military Religious Freedom Foundation discovered that the two groups were mixing money in their sponsorship, acknowledged and not, of overseas travel by U.S. congressmen, a maneuver that’s now illegal under the 2007 Honest Leadership and Open Government Act. Both groups practice a mixture of Machiavellianism and evangelicalism, a toxic blend of faith and power that makes even honest Christian conservatives queasy. As World, the leading Christian Right magazine, puts it, “Behind the scandal-tainted C Street house [host of Coe’s “Bible studies”] is an organization big on protecting its own and small on church ties and theology.”
And then there’s Chuck Colson, the Watergate felon about whom Thune says “I’m a big, big reader of pretty much everything that Chuck Colson has written.” Great! Discipline and obedience, Colson writes in Against the Night: Living in the New Dark Ages, were the foundations of the Roman Empire, just as “biblical obedience” should be—must be—the cornerstone of “the West’s” stand against the “new barbarians,” whether they come in the form of Muslims or secular schoolteachers, the two sets of villains Colson finds most menacing. In a 1980 letter to Doug Coe — whom he credits for leading him to Christ, and unfairly forgets to credit for springing him from prison early by recruiting congressmen to write the parole board saying Colson was needed for religious work — Colson puts it as plainly as possible. He’s describing a Family cell in Bonn with which he had met at Coe’s request. “It is a fabulous group of men. In fact, I’ve never met any group quite like it. I think we should arrange to use them as a model for leadership groups around the world. We’d better do it in a hurry, however, before they lead the next Nazi takeover out of Germany.” (November 20, 1980, folder 8, box 368, collection 459, Billy Graham Center Archives.)
The idealization of strength that manifests itself even in this peculiar sense of humor is the foundation of Colson’s faith. “We should look at our churches exactly the way you look at Marine Corps training for combat because that’s what it is!” he instructs his followers. “That is how we are preparing today for the spiritual combat in which we live, and we should take it every bit as seriously as soldiers in the Marines preparing to go to war.” War against what? Al Qaeda? Islam writ large? Yes and yes, but Colson’s thinking bigger: the Enlightenment, he teaches, is our true enemy.
Politicians like Thune — not to mention two other C Streeters much in the news lately, Rep. Bart Stupak and Rep. Joe Pitts — are the officer corps of Colson’s spiritual army, “a veritable underground of Christ’s men all through government,” as he writes of the Family in his memoir Born Again. Sort of gives a new meaning to the “bowels of the G.O.P.,” as Brooks puts it.
Thune, along with fellow C Streeters Senator Tom Coburn and Senator Jim DeMint, has endorsed C Streeter Rep. Jerry Moran to fill Senator Sam Brownback’s soon-to-be-vacant seat, prompting yet another C Streeter, Senator James Inhofe, to tell World magazine, “I wouldn’t speak for them, but the fact that everyone that lived in the same house and room—that can’t just be a coincidence.” That’s no lefty conspiracy theory. It’s just a powerful Republican senator speaking honestly, for once, about “serious people, having quiet conversations,” behind closed doors.
Jeff Sharlet is a founding editor of Killing the Buddha, coauthor with Peter Manseau of Killing the Buddha: A Heretic's Bible (2004) and co-editor of Believer, Beware (2009). Sharlet is also the author of Sweet Heaven When I Die, (2011), C Street, (2010), and the New York Times bestseller The Family (2008).