Does John Baldacci belong to a secretive, powerful, conservative Christian group?
He says no. It was just a cheap rent in Washington, DC. So was he deceiving his "brothers in Christ"?
BY LANCE TAPLEY
What does it mean for Maine that, when he was a congressman, John Baldacci lived for four years in a church in Washington, DC, run by a secretive, powerful, right-wing Christian organization?
Yes, that’s right, he literally lived in a church, known as the C Street Center.
According to Governor Baldacci, it means nothing that he lived there. "It was a cheap rent," he said dismissively in a brief interview. He refused to say anything more about the subject, aside from the observation that "it has been well covered" in the press — even though the fact that he lived in a religious community has been completely uncovered in the Maine press until now.
This is not the case in the national press, where interest in his place of residence, and the theological movement associated with it, has been swelling, though Baldacci himself has only been a footnote to the stories.
According to the Los Angeles Times, Harper’s magazine, and the Associated Press news service, his former address, 133 C Street, S.E., two blocks from the United States Capitol, is legally and actively a church, and the six to eight congressmen and US senators domiciled on the top floor are brothers in "the Family" or "the Fellowship," a mysterious, 60-year-old, conservative, worldwide group dedicated to ending the traditional American separation between religion and politics.
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The Family, or the Fellowship (both names are used by different sources), is a conspiracy theorist’s wet dream. But . . . seriously, could our down-to-earth John Baldacci be a member of a Christian cabal? True, since he ascended to the governorship he has shocked some in his Democratic Party with his service-slashing, Big-Business-friendly fiscal conservatism, and he has reneged on his campaign promise to limit the fingerprinting of teachers. As a state legislator in the 1980s and early 1990s, he was quite conservative.
Yet, in Congress, he was considered moderately liberal, and few people would consider his positions on social issues expressive of the Christian right. He is pro-choice on abortion and favors equal-rights laws for gays. These stands disagree with even the more mainstream Catholic Church into which he was baptized.
Perhaps his residence at the C Street Center was just what he said it was: an inexpensive place to stay.
"So he lied to a religious group for a cheap place to rent?" asked, rhetorically, Tom Fusco, who led Jonathan Carter’s Green Independent Party campaign for the governorship against front-runner Baldacci. Either he agreed with the religious life or he deceived them, Fusco added. "And it’s shameful that this kind of information was not reported in the campaign — to help people make their choices."
But only one national story about the inner workings of the Family/fellowship had surfaced by last fall, in spite of the group’s above-ground work, which has been known widely for years: the sponsorship of prayer groups — hundreds around the globe and, most notably, Washington’s annual National Prayer Breakfast, attended by 3000 people including the president and many other dignitaries.
The spokesman for the C Street Center, Jim Slattery, a former Democratic congressman from Kansas, seemed as disheartened as Tom Fusco when informed that Baldacci had denied any religious content to the life he lived at the C Street Center — as if, like the apostle Peter, he had denied knowing Christ.
"I have no comment on that," he said glumly. "I’m not going to judge him."
Slattery, an earnest, voluble man, explained that there was no denominational requirement to live at the house, and one didn’t have to be conventionally religious to live there. Still, he said the assumption was that residents would find "value in understanding the teachings of Jesus. It’s all about the teachings and the spirit of Jesus."
In amplifying the thinking behind the Center and its Family or Fellowship members, Slattery seemed to despair about getting his point across.
Jesus is arguably the most important person who has lived in the last 2000 years, he said, but "there is so much deep cynicism and ignorance of matters of faith and religion among many intellectuals. I have observed through the years that in the quintessential Ivy League Eastern Establishment there’s not much interest in matters of the spirit."
Yet, he averred, "the force of the Christian religion is extremely powerful in American politics."
That is precisely why some people are worried about the Family/fellowship.
Whose Family is this?
Revelations about the Family/fellowship began emerging last fall with a story by investigative reporter Lisa Getter in the Los Angeles Times. She describes an organization that, while "in the shadows," has had "extraordinary [political] access and significant influence on foreign affairs for the last 50 years."
Its accomplishments range from financing an anticommunism film used by the Pentagon in the Cold War to, in recent years, bringing together the warring leaders of the Congo and Rwanda in the first of a string of meetings that led to a peace treaty. The Fellowship (Getter’s preferred label for the group) also has brought several notorious, right-wing Latin American generals to Washington for prayer meetings — men connected to the torture of civilians and CIA-linked death squads.
Getter quotes the group’s long-time leader, Doug Coe, 73, as saying that its mission is to establish a "family of friends" around the world by spreading the word of Jesus to powerful people: "The people that are involved in this association . . . are the worst and the best. Some are total despots. Some are totally religious. You can find what you want to find."
Members, who carry no cards and are very loosely defined, are required to keep quiet about their activities. But publicly available documents reveal that the Fellowship Foundation — a central legal entity, but far from the only one involved with the group — has an $11-million-a-year budget and a board of directors including Grace Nelson, wife of Florida’s Democratic US Senator Bill Nelson. Its president is Richard Carver, Air Force assistant secretary under President Reagan. Its rich backers include Jerome Lewis, a Denver oilman; Republican contributor Michael Timmis; and Paul Temple, a Maryland investor. Among members, Getter writes, are congressmen who are in charge of the State Department and foreign-aid budgets.
"It’s an incredibly secretive, powerful group that has entree all around the world," Getter said in an interview about her article. "It has tentacles everywhere."
The group was founded by Abraham Vereide, a Methodist minister who, in 1930s’ Seattle, thought he could fight Socialist influence in local government through the power of prayer groups. He took his idea to Washington during World War 2, where the political establishment — particularly, the right — embraced him. The first National Prayer Breakfast was held in 1953, with President Eisenhower in attendance. One of Vereide’s first supporters on Capitol Hill was Senator Ralph Owen Brewster, a Maine Republican who had won a term as governor in the 1920s by gaining the support of the Klu Klux Klan, and who himself may have been a Klan member.
In addition to 133 C Street, the organization owns a $4.4-million estate, the Cedars, just outside the District of Columbia in Arlington, Virginia, as well as a number of homes near the Cedars, some of which house young men and women who serve both as apprentices in the Fellowship and servants for the Cedars. The mansion is a political and religious meeting place for the rich and powerful as well as a hideaway for the likes of Michael Jackson and various ethically or maritally challenged members of Congress.
The C Street Center where Baldacci lived is used for "prayer meetings, fellowship meetings, evangelical meetings," according to a Fellowship lawyer quoted in Getter’s article. "Our mission is Capitol Hill."
Getter, in an interview, maintained "if you lived there, you’re part of the Fellowship." She was given a tour. "It’s a gorgeous place," she said. A $1.1-million three-story brick townhouse, it was once a Catholic nunnery and, after that, headquarters of the quite secular Public Citizen, a public-interest watchdog group founded by Ralph Nader.
In her piece, Getter mentions Second District Representative Baldacci as a resident of 133 C Street, along with other congressmen including Representative Zach Wamp (R-TN), Representative Bart Stupak (D-MI), and Senator John Ensign, a Republican from Nevada. A second US senator, Sam Brownback (R-KS) now lives there.
Another investigative writer, Jeffrey Sharlet, whose piece "Jesus Plus Nothing: Undercover Among America’s Secret Theocrats" appeared in the March Harper’s, also visited 133 C Street. In order to write about the organization, he joined its young acolytes who work at C Street as well as at the Cedars. He calls the organization "the Family." In an interview, he said that’s the name he heard exclusively.
The members of Congress who live at C Street, Sharlet writes, are "brothers in Christ just like us, only more powerful. We scrubbed their toilets, hoovered their carpets, polished their silver." In the interview, he described C Street as a place for "centering your decision-making on Christ."
Sharlet, in both interview and Harper’s article, sees the Family as a scary institution — not exactly conspiratorial, he said, but behind-the-scenes activists whose work is troubling. Among his observations:
• "The most important thing for them is power," and the ultimate goal of the Family is "a government built by God."
• "Doug Coe is one of the most important people on the planet."
• Coe — whom he described as "frighteningly charismatic" — and his son David Coe, the Family’s heir apparent, refer to the Mafia and Hitler as role models in the acquisition of power, although, in the Family’s case, power is gathered to spread the word of Jesus. "You guys are here to learn how to rule the world," he quotes David Coe telling the residents at the house — called Ivanwald — where he lived with the other male apprentices/servants.
• The group, although bipartisan, is deeply conservative. While somewhat opposed to institutionalized Christianity, "they have a deep affection for the military" and see themselves as waging "spiritual war." In his instruction by the Family, he heard about "biblical capitalism" — laissez-faire capitalism. Among those involved, he writes, are many prominent corporate executives as well as John Ashcroft, the attorney general, and Charles Colson, the Nixon aide convicted in the Watergate scandal who became an evangelist.
• In the Family’s prayer groups, or cells, a central idea, Sharlet said, is to cede your life to the authority of the group. Yet membership makes you part of "a chosen, and if you’re in leadership, God has chosen you." He believed this kind of thinking "starts shifting you rightward."
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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