What do South Carolina Governor Mark Sanford, Nevada Senator John Ensign and former Mississippi Congressman Charles Pickering, Jr. have in common? Other than all being wealthy, white, Republican politicians who campaigned on “Family Values” platforms, they each have had extra-marital affairs and each have ties to a secretive fundamentalist Christian group called “The Family.” The Sunday before last I preached a sermon entitled “What Would Jesus Say to Gov. Mark Sanford” and here I am bringing up adulterous politicians again! I don’t want to come across as obsessed with the tawdry details, because I really am much more concerned with how these men of power used a particular reading of the Bible to justify their behavior.
In my sermon two weeks ago, I shared that I thought Jesus would have two things to say to Gov. Sanford: 1. “Go and sin no more” (John 8:11) and 2. “Woe to you Pharisees” (Luke 11:37-44). I feel sure Jesus would condemn Sanford’s and others’ hypocrisy while still offering them grace. My sermon did not allow time for a discussion of “The Family,” a group with which Sanford, Ensign, Pickering and many other politicians of both parties have connections. For example close to us, Republican Senator Sam Brownback from Kansas and Democratic Senator Mark Pryor from Arkansas are involved with the group, although there is no evidence of either one of them having similar troubles of marital fidelity. “The Family’s” membership rolls include a Who’s Who of Washington politics, according to religion journalist Jeff Sharlet’s book, The Family: The Secret Fundamentalism at the Heart of American Power, not to mention members of the political elite from around the world.
According to Sharlet, “The Family” offers a take on Christianity extremely seductive to men seeking power. They believe that Christianity should focus not on “the least of these” but on the powerful, so that righteous men in power will bestow blessings upon those beneath them in a sort of “trickle down fundamentalism.” The reasoning goes that if a man is called by God to a position of power then that is all that really matters—not their sins or failings, only God’s call to lead. The group’s leader often cites the example of King David noting that David committed adultery and had the woman’s husband killed, but he was still “a man after God’s own heart.” In other words, personal integrity or righteousness doesn’t really matter if God chooses you to rule. Think I’m kidding? You may recall that when Gov. Sanford made public his decision NOT to resign following the revelations of his affair, he cited King David as an example of God continuing to bless a fallen leader.
As I’ve read about this secretive fundamentalist group and its ability to aid the rise in power of those who belong to it, I have kept shaking my head in disbelief and wondering if this is the plot of Dan Brown’s new novel? It doesn’t seem real. Then I do a double-take and realize that it is all too real, because it happens all the time and not just among Washington politicians. From its beginning, Christianity and its message of humility before a gracious God has been twisted into religion serving the powerful and corrupt. Why do you think Paul seems so angry in his letters? What do you think happened when Constantine made Christianity the official religion of the Roman Empire? Christianity, like anything we humans touch, can be twisted into a means for justifying our own selfish actions and desires.
If it seems far out that a conservative Christian group would countenance adultery for the sake of power, just consider how Christians through the ages have used scripture to justify slavery, racism, war, colonialism, destroying the environment, greed, materialism, etc. etc. etc. The lesson of these politicians and the group they belong to should be one of humility for anyone who dares to take the name Christian—a humility concerning our own ability to twist scripture and our beliefs to serve our own ends. “The Family” organizes the annual Presidential Prayer Breakfast attended by powerful elites from around the world, so it is worth casting a suspicious eye upon its proceedings. In the same way, we should approach our own prayer meetings with “fear and trembling” regarding our own tendency towards self-deception.
Grace and Peace,