Michael Jackson, Mark Sanford, & the Synagogue of Satan

After ignoring the most politically influential religious group in Washington for decades, the Washington Post is going big with the revelation that randy Republicans Mark Sanford and John Ensign both sought spiritual solace in the C Street House of the Family, aka the Fellowship. I happen to have written a book about The Family, so the Post called me: I didn’t get back to them in time, but I did speak to reporters from a few other papers. Mainly, the whole thing makes me sad — show the media documentation of the Family’s role as accessories to murderous regimes such as those of Siad Barre in Somalia and Suharto in Indonesia, and you get a big eye roll; but consensual sex between adults — that’s news!

Especially if it’s a chance to give Republicans a couple of black eyes. I’m no fan of Republicans, myself, but it sounds to me like Sanford was in love (and Ensign was already separated from his wife). More than that, we don’t really know. Their hypocrisy is ugly, true; but their heterosexist, anti-poor people, pro-empire politics are a lot uglier. That, unfortunately, wasn’t on the table for discussion.

Maybe it would have had I made the Rachel Maddow Show, as scheduled. I’ve spoken to Maddow several times before, and I think she’s smart — she’s doing mass media, so there’s not too much subtlety allowed, but she reveals the complexity of issues better than any other political TV host. Still, I was conflicted about going on the show to talk about Sanford. Why pile on when the man is already down? Sanford’s done — the question is do we gloat over his hypocrisy, and in doing so reinforce the very puritanical ideas about sex and love of which he was a champion? Or do we welcome Sanford into the human race? You know, the one where the heart wants what it wants and that’s not always a simple thing, even when it’s a true thing.

I don’t think I would have been able to do that on the Maddow show, so thank god for Michael Jackson. I imagine Mark Sanford is saying much the same thing. Jackson’s death has bumped his affair and that little to-do in Iran from the top of the news.

I was buying a new pair of shoes when I heard. I’m traveling at the moment, and when I got the invite to the Maddow show, I had only flip flops with me. That seemed too casual for 30 Rock, and besides, I needed a new pair of shoes. I tried Shoe Mania, in Union Square. The store was abuzz: He’s dead! Who? Michael Jackson! Michael Jackson is dead. I was stunned. In my grief, I bought a pair of shoes Michael might have liked, flashier than any I’d ever worn.

I walked out onto Broadway wearing my new shoes, thinking about Michael Jackson. As it happens, I’ve been listening to the deluxe edition of Off the Wall lately, and marveling at the early versions of songs like “Don’t Stop Til You Get Enough” that Michael recorded with his brothers and sisters in their basement studio. He was a genius. I don’t use the term casually — Michael Jackson was a genius, and his decline and death is an American tragedy. So why the hell was I going on TV to talk about the lovestruck governor of South Carolina?

Well, I wasn’t. I wasn’t a block away from the store when a call came. I’d been bumped. For a moment, I mourned my lost book sales — the Maddow show would have really helped The Family, which is just out in paperback. But then I thought, at what cost? Exploiting the personal woes of Mark Sanford?

Meanwhile, my feet hurt. My new shoes lacked enough padding. Every step I took banged my soles. So I turned around and headed back up Broadway. Cars opened their windows and jacked up their radios, early Jackson, “Rock With You” amidst the honk and roar of Broadway at rush hour. “Thank you, Michael Jackson,” I thought, “for bumping me from Rachel Maddow.” Even in death, the King of Pop had saved my soul.

I immediately squandered my spiritual gain. When the store refused my request to return the shoes, I asked to speak to the manager. The clerk said no. No? Gimme a break — get the manager. The manager arrives. “No returns on sale items,” he says. But this is Shoe Mania — everything is always on sale. “No returns,” he says. Outside, I hear Michael’s falsetto, calling to me. “Just beat it, Jeff,” he’s saying. Don’t be an asshole. But do I listen? I do not. I demand my refund. I declare the manager a dishonest businessman. I stomp my flip-flopped foot.

In the end, I got my money back — and a pound of flesh, too. The manager slid the blame over to the clerk who’d said I couldn’t speak to him. “Why would you tell a customer that?” he snapped. She looked close to tears. Oh, shit, I thought — her job for my shoes. “Look,” I tried to say, “don’t blame her, she was fine”–but the manager waved me off, my receipt for my refunded 30 pieces of silver in hand, and then turned back to the cashier.

The manager happened to be an Israeli, I believe, and I found myself thinking as I left, “fucking Israelis.” I’m Jewish, so I can get away with that in the privacy of my own head, or in a blog post in which I’m confessing my tendency to blame the rudeness of some Israelis on Israel. It’s not anti-Semitism. Politics aside — and that’s a lot to put aside — I’ve resented Israel ever since I learned that early Israelis loathed Yiddish so much they’s smash up Yiddish movie theaters. Yiddish encapsulates everything I love about Jewishness. Also, everything anti-Semites hate about Jewishness. In fact, the reason I really started this shaggy dog of a blog was Cathy Grossman’s report in USA Today on new Nixon tapes revealing Billy Graham, at it again with the anti-Semitism. You may remember Billy got busted back in 2002 for tapes of him telling Nixon that while the Jews think he’s their friend, “They don’t know how I really feel about what they’re doing to this country.”

The new tapes reveal that he wasn’t too fond of their doings in Israel, either. Was Billy a champion of the Palestinians? Not at all. No, he was touting a conspiracy theory that held that Israel was going to expel Christians. “Fucking Israelis,” he told Nixon, only he was more eloquent — he called them “the synagogue of Satan.”

Billy’s defenders say that Billy was never an anti-Semite, that you have to understand these remarks in context. I completely agree. After all, I cited context — the context of me being a Jew — in my defense. What’s Billy’s? The “synagogue of Satan” is a reference to the Book of Revelation, “which says in verse 3:9 that there are those who claim to be Jews who are liars, and that they belong to a ‘synagogue of Satan.'”

Oh, well, that’s cool then. Just to bring this full circle, that happens to be similar to rhetoric used by the Family, with which Billy first began working in the late 50s (the Family’s 600 boxes of archives are stored at the Billy Graham Center). The Family’s founders and its current leaders decided that God had told them that the Jews had broken their covenant with God and thus no longer enjoyed special status. Instead, the Family itself represents what they call the “New Chosen.” You know, guys like Mark Sanford and John Ensign. They’re the new Jews! Or so the Family believes. Which makes them, technically-speaking — I say this with no malice, as a Jew who believes we should all be a lot freer about sex — fucking Jews.

Nothing wrong with that. Let’s rise above prudish politics of the Right and the gloating of liberals and the stealth anti-Semitism of America’s preacher. John Ensign, Mark Sanford, I salute you — don’t stop til you get enough. Just stop trying to stop everybody else from getting some, too.

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).