C Street: sinister or benign?

Is C Street a nefarious, shadowy group of power-hungry religious zealots?  Or just a Bible study and support group?

This is the question that emerged a couple of years ago thanks to the work of journalist Jeff Sharlet.  And it has now emerged again thanks to the dalliances and machinations of two high-profile C Street members: Nevada Senator John Ensign and South Carolina Governor Mark Sanford.

A few years back, Sharlet went undercover to expose the inner workings of “The Family,” a secretive Christian group that ministers to the powerful, and C Street, the house that serves as the group’s Washington base and includes a number of congressmen.  In Sharlet’s view, this group is sinister indeed — training its members to “rule the world” and using its connections to bust unions and prop up genocidal dictators.

But there is a more banal explanation of why conservative politicians might join this group: it’s what evangelical Christians do.  They participate in so-called “small groups” that facilitate prayer, Bible study, and accountability for “right living.”  Sometimes the people in these groups live communally to strengthen the sense of intimacy and support.  And as for the secrecy, closed groups can increase trust and allow people to share things with one another that they otherwise wouldn’t.  Especially for people in power, who are used to putting up barriers in their personal lives, the secrecy may be crucial to achieving personal growth.

So which narrative is closer to the truth?  MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow is deeply concerned it’s the former — particularly since Ensign’s C Street friends may have been complicit in his efforts to pay his mistress hush money.

OK, so members of C Street may have encouraged Ensign to write checks to shut up the family of his erstwhile mistress. Or they might not have. Either way, is that an indictment of C Street or simply the members of it? In other words, do we blame the institutional structure of this Christian support group, or do we just say that, well, human beings screw up?

And what of Mark Sanford, who lived at C Street when he was a congressman and claims to have been getting support for the last few months while his adultery was causing marital problems? Maddow seems to think it’s a big deal that C Street members knew about the affair (as well as Ensign’s) without notifying the public. But is that their responsibility? Should congressmen not be entitled to private support groups?  Or should they expect that anyone to whom they turn for help should blab about it to the nearest reporter?

What do you think?

Jesse Lava also blogs at jesselava.com.

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