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After his article appeared, Sharlet received phone calls and an email that he considered threatening. He has run with the topic of the Family, giving interviews to news media from England to Australia. Abroad, many people are fascinated and concerned with Washington’s peculiar mix of Christianity and politics.
Another writer/researcher on the subject, Ben Daniel, a Presbyterian minister from California, also sees the Fellowship (his preferred moniker) as creepy. He believes it promotes what he calls " spiritual abuse " in the tyranny it exerts over members’ lives. In an article soon to appear on the Beliefnet.org religious news Web site, he sees the organization fostering " environments wherein the kind of spiritual abuse often associated with cults can thrive. " In an interview, he frankly described the Fellowship as a cult of power.
" Absolute commitment is required, " he writes.
The organization views women through 19th-century bifocals, he believes. At the Cedars, for example, the young women servants are requited to wear " feminine " attire such as long skirts, a requirement also mentioned by Sharlet in his article.
More important for the young apprentices, Daniel writes, " work that does not meet strict standards can result in a worker’s public humiliation. "
Illustrating the weirdness, Daniel writes of a former Fellowship employee relating to him that he was " chastised for offering a drink of water to the chauffeur of a foreign ambassador who was attending a prayer meeting at the Cedars. " He quotes an ex-member from San Francisco who depicts the Fellowship as " a priesthood of rich white guys, " whom no one wants to cross because of their power and wealth.
The most recent news story about 133 C Street and the " secretive religious organization " of the Fellowship appeared last month in an Associated Press dispatch carried by numerous newspapers around the country, including the Portland Press Herald, although it didn’t mention Baldacci — probably because he had left Washington in January to become governor.
The AP story relates that the Center’s tenants " dine together once a week to discuss religion in their daily lives " — a meeting described by a tenant, Representative Jim DeMint (R-SC), as a Bible study group. Most C Street lawmakers/residents refused to comment to the AP reporter or the other writers (and none would return phone calls to this writer) on their lives at the house.
But, after the AP story appeared, Representative Zach Wamp, the Tennessee Republican, was questioned by the Knoxville News Sentinel on whether his rent was improperly subsidized by a religious association. Wamp replied that the group didn’t lobby Congress. And Common Cause, the national government-ethics watchdog organization, weighed in with the supportive observation that $600 a month didn’t represent " an incredibly bargain rate " for a room in a house with shared bathrooms, even in expensive DC.
Some of the congressmen who lived there also shared an interest in a good time. Baldacci and two of his congressional cohabiters at the C Street Center were among the subjects of a Vanity Fair magazine article that appeared in December, 2001. The gossipy piece by Vicky Ward ( " The Capitol buildings ooze sexual tension " ), portrayed nine congressmen boisterously partying it up with lobbyist-invited, attractive young females at Washington’s Capital Grille restaurant. The session of " rowdy " song and drink took place on September 13, 2001, immediately after some of the congressmen returned from viewing the damage at the Pentagon inflicted by the terrorist attack.
In addition to Baldacci (featured in a photo along with two colleagues and a pretty young woman), the dinner party included his C Street roommates Bart Stupak and Michael Doyle (D-PA). The article created a stir on Capitol Hill and elsewhere. Some of the congressmen involved — post-Monica Lewinsky, post-Chandra Levy, as well as post-September 11 — found themselves explaining to their local news media their relationship with pretty young interns and their sensitivity about terrorist attacks.
Baldacci was treated with care in Portland, including a rousing editorial-column defense in the Maine Sunday Telegram. Another Portland papers’ story did not challenge Baldacci’s statement that " Nobody was partying " — contradicted by the Vanity Fair photos alone. The episode did not become an issue in the 2002 gubernatorial campaign.
Perhaps revealingly, congressman Doyle, in defending himself to his local newspaper, called the colleagues with whom he was partying and with whom he lived in the C Street Center his " surrogate family. "
" IT DOESN’T SOUND LIKE JOHN "
Although Baldacci refused to go into detail on his tenure at C Street, his chief public-relations man, Lee Umphrey, did. When interviewed, he had several neat responses to explain his boss’s relationship to religion:
Has Baldacci ever been a member of the Family? " The only family he’s a member of is the Baldacci family. "
Does he feel chosen by God? " He feels chosen by the people of Maine. "
Did he take a vow of silence? " The only vow he took there was to pay his rent. "
When Baldacci was invited by his colleagues to stay at C Street, Umphrey said, he was living in " not-so-great a neighborhood " some distance from the Capitol. He moved to C Street for convenience and cost. " There was never any requirement for religious actions on his part. " He never participated in a religious event, Umphrey said. Baldacci didn’t attend weekly prayer or Bible-study meetings — " although maybe they’ve changed, " he added, suggesting that the Center’s practices may have altered since Baldacci was there.
The governor has been a consistent Catholic who does not wear his religion on his sleeve and who is not a " born-again " Christian, Umphrey said. He was " not sure " Baldacci knew he was living in an official church. Unlike some congressmen, Baldacci never took Family-financed trips abroad and never went to the Cedars, he said.
" It doesn’t sound like John, " mused Jonathan Carter, Baldacci’s Green challenger last fall, when told of the Family’s activities and the C Street Center. Carter spent a lot of time debating Baldacci. " John doesn’t mix religion into his speeches and comments. "
True, Baldacci is not known for religious speech. A news database search produced a story on a talk he gave from a Bangor pulpit in 1995 in which he referred to how actions can have effects in the afterlife. But he was discussing the need to oppose a Maine Christian Civic League referendum proposal to restrict gay-rights laws. He has been the subject of anti-abortion protests outside his Catholic church, St. John’s, in Bangor.
Yet many commentators have observed how much politics in Washington in recent years, especially under the Bush administration, has become insidiously imbued with conservative Christianity. " A lot of religious and quasi-religious stuff is going on, " admitted a prominent Republican Washingtonian who did not want his name used in this article. " It’s a growth phenomenon. "
In one way or another, the phenomenon caught up Baldacci. For some, this religious trend is a source of joy. Their viewpoint tends to disparage concerns about the Family/Fellowship on the part of those cynical, atheist Easterners.
" We have no power at all. All we do is allow the spirit of Christ, " said Richard Carver, the former Air Force subcabinet officer (and former Republican mayor of Peoria, Illinois) who is the Fellowship Foundation’s president. " And we’re not a secretive organization. We’re anonymous. We don’t seek publicity. "
Carver, who confirmed that the AP and L. A. Times stories were substantially correct (but he didn’t like the more aggressive conclusions of the Harper’s piece), also dismissed the idea that the group is elitist:
" We have hundreds of people working all around the world. We see ourselves as a Family. This is a group that believes in the teachings of Jesus Christ and that believes in the spirit of Christ. " He even maintained you could be a Muslim or a Jew and be part of the Family. You just have to believe, he said, that the New Testament’s I Corinthians: 13 has a message for everyone: " And now abideth faith, hope, charity, these three; but the greatest of these is charity. " In more modern translations, the word charity is rendered as love.
But the Family is worrisome for other people, especially because its central mission is to capture the politically powerful within a governmental system supposedly based on the separation of church and state — and this government now has, both supporters and critics agree, imperial power over the world.
" You’re combining, on some level, religion and politics, " Chuck Lewis, director of Washington’s Center for Public Integrity, told the L. A. Times’ Lisa Getter, about the Fellowship.
A similar reaction to the group came from the Reverend Barry Lynn, head of Americans United for the Separation of Church and State, as expressed to the AP: " What concerns people is when you mix religion, political power, and secrecy. "
On the Fellowship Foundation’s annual Form 990 tax-exempt-organization report to the Internal Revenue Service, under " Relationship of Activities to Accomplishment of Exempt Purposes, " the foundation declares that its aim is " to identify laymen who have an understanding of what it means to work towards a leadership led by God and introduce them to others with similar goals and interests. " Theocracy literally means government by God, and it could be defined as " a leadership led by God. "
What does it mean for Maine that John Baldacci lived in the C Street Center, a strange church? If Baldacci was living there only for the rent and location and he had nothing to do with the religious goings-on, then, if he is guilty of anything, it may be only of hypocrisy, not a cardinal and certainly not an uncommon sin for politicians — although perhaps still a concern for his term or terms as governor.
Jeffrey Sharlet, the Harper’s writer, scoffed at the idea that Baldacci wasn’t connected to the religiosity at the C Street Center: " It’s absurd to say that. Everything there began with a prayer. It’s an opportunity for men to live close in Christ. "
If Baldacci lived in a Family devoted to a kind of theocracy, that may be quite troubling. His turn to the right would bear close watching.
Lance Tapley can be reached at email@example.com
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Issue Date: May 9 - 15, 2003
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