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C Street’s Merry Band of Sinners

Correction Appended

‘Taking a hike on the Appalachian Trail’ was never the same after June 24, 2009.

On that Wednesday, an uncomfortable South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford (R) told TV cameras that he had not been out for a jaunt on the historic trail for the previous week, as his staff and the entire political world had thought. Instead he was gallivanting around South America with his mistress.

‘The bottom line is this: I’ve been unfaithful to my wife,’ Sanford told reporters that day, according to the Chicago Tribune. ‘I’ve developed a relationship with a dear, dear friend from Argentina.’

The incident was also the latest in a string of bad press that would befall the residents past and present of 133 C St. SE, a religious commune of sorts for Christian lawmakers in Washington, D.C. Just eight days before Sanford took to the mics, Sen. John Ensign (R-Nev.), a current C Street resident, copped to an affair with the spouse of an ex-staffer. Ex-Rep. Chip Pickering (R-Miss.), who had also lived in the Capitol Hill group house until he decided not to run for re-election in 2008, was accused of infidelity in 2009 divorce filings by his now ex-wife.

But it’s the occasion of Sanford’s announcement that author Jeff Sharlet uses to start off ‘C Street: The Fundamentalist Threat to American Democracy,’ a book that suggests there is a paternalistic Christian plot under way by lawmakers and members of the military.

Starting with Sanford, Sharlet begins his book by detailing the torrid extramarital relationships of the lawmakers who lived there and how the secretive benevolent organization that owns the house, dubbed ‘The Family,’ as well as fellow lawmakers, allegedly attempted to cover up misdeeds. ‘The Family sees itself as a ministry for the benefit of the poor, by way of the powerful. The best way to help the weak, it teaches, is to help the strong,’ Sharlet writes. ‘In 2008 and 2009, the Family did so by helping Sen. John Ensign (R-Nev.), Gov. Mark Sanford (R-SC), and former representative Chip Pickering (R-Miss.) cover up extramarital affairs, and in Ensign’s case secret payments.’

He continues: ‘Not to avoid embarrassment for the Family, an organization that until 2009 denied its own existence, but because the Family believes that its members are placed in power by God; that they are his ‘new chosen’; that the senator, the governor, and the congressman were ‘tools’ with which to advance his kingdom, and ambition so worthy that beside it all personal failings pale.’

Sharlet’s new allegations follow 2009’s ‘The Family: The Secret Fundamentalism at the Heart of American Power.’

His new book also provides a list of current lawmakers who are allegedly affiliated with the group: Sens. John Thune (R-S.D.), Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa), Mike Enzi (R-Wyo.) and Bill Nelson (D-Fla.), as well as Reps. Frank Wolf (R-Va.), Zach Wamp (R-Tenn.), Joe Pitts (R-Pa.), Mike McIntyre (D-N.C.), Heath Shuler (D-N.C.) and Bart Stupak (D-Mich.).

Sharlet also alleges that there has been infiltration by religious extremists at a military service academy. In ‘C Street’ he writes, ‘if the fundamental front were to have a seminary, it would be the U.S. Air Force Academy, a campus of steel and white marble wedged into the right angle formed by the Great Plains and the Rockies.’ He suggests possible widespread Christian fundamentalism among active-duty military personal, a statistical curiosity, Sharlet claims, given that surveys suggest they don’t tend to be all that religious.

‘Taken as a whole, the military is actually slightly less religious than the general population: 20 percent of the roughly 1.4 million active-duty members checked off a box that says ‘no religious preference,’ compared to the 16.1 percent of Americans who describe themselves as ‘unaffiliated,’ Sharlet writes. ‘Around 22 percent, meanwhile identify themselves as affiliated with evangelical or Pentecostal denominations. But that number is misleading because it leaves out those among the traditional mainline denominations ‘ about 7 percent of the military ‘ who describe themselves as evangelical.’ Sharlet concludes that the quasi-evangelical conspiracy poses a threat to the freedoms of average Americans.

But the threat isn’t theocracy. It’s what Sharlet describes as ‘the conflation of democracy with authoritarianism.’

‘Not the jackbooted kind or even the iron fist within the velvet glove, but rather the ‘Father knows best’ variety, trickle-down paternalism,’ he writes.

Correction: Oct. 12, 2010

Author Jeff Sharlet’s last name was misspelled in the original version of the article.

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