- The C Street house operates under a code of silence. Photo: AP
Lawmakers flock to 133 C St. SE for cheap rent, weekly dinners, Bible studies and spirituality sessions that serve as a sort of group therapy for some of the country’s most powerful men.
But now the stately brick house is becoming known for something else: It’s ground zero for Republican sex scandals. In February, Nevada Sen. John Ensign — who lives at the house — was confronted at C Street by colleagues who wanted him to end his affair with a staffer.
Earlier this month, South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford — who lived at C Street when he served in the House — said C Street was where he’d been asked the “hard questions” that were “very, very important” in his decision to admit an affair with an Argentine woman.
And last week, the estranged wife of former Rep. Chip Pickering said he carried on a long-term extramarital affair while living at the “well-known C Street Complex.”
The trifecta of trysts has made C Street an easy target for charges of “family values” hypocrisy — see the New York Times columns by Maureen Dowd and Gail Collins over the weekend.
But Christian lawmakers say Washington prayer and Bible-study groups — and the secrecy that surrounds them — provide crucial counseling for their lives in the nation’s capital.
“One thing about having members meet with members is they kind of understand what each other goes through and the stresses and the pressures and those kinds of things,” Congressional Prayer Caucus Chairman Rep. Randy Forbes (R-Va.), who participates in a small Bible study group on Wednesday mornings. “And one member can tell another member, ‘I don’t think that’s the right thing for you to do.’”
In an interview with the evangelical World Magazine, Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.) described living at C Street as “one of the best parts” of life in Washington.
“We kind of make that commitment to each other to get together once a week,” he said. “Sometimes it’s a Bible study; we always have a spiritual or scriptural thought. But sometimes we just talk about each others’ lives, try to get to know each other, remind each other that we are not important, that it’s just a title.”
Although titles may not be important, there are plenty of them at C Street. In addition to DeMint and Ensign, C Street residents include Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) and Reps. Mike Doyle (D-Pa.), Bart Stupak (D-Mich.) and Zach Wamp (R-Tenn.). Sen. Sam Brownback (R-Kan.) lived in the house before moving to his own condo, and he still attends events there. Former Reps. Steve Largent (R-Okla.), Jim Ryun (R-Kan.), and Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) have also studied at C Street.
The large townhouse, valued at more than $1.8 million, is run by Christian network of nonprofits and ministries known as “The Fellowship.” Headquartered in Arlington, Va., the group focuses on what Fellowship leaders call the “up and out,” or powerful politicians struggling to confront their personal demons. By ministering to the most powerful, The Fellowship believes, it can bring Christian beliefs to the larger culture. Jeff Sharlet, who wrote a book about his time in The Fellowship's Virginia headquarters, said the group believes that lawmakers have been "chosen" to lead by Jesus Christ.
Like most political prayer groups, C Street operates under a code of silence; supporters say it’s the only way lawmakers can feel safe being completely honest about their personal struggles.
Former Rep. Tony Hall (D-Ohio) said weekly prayer breakfasts he attended on Capitol Hill were “probably some of the best moments I had during the week” precisely because “we closed the doors.”
“No staff is allowed in,” he said. “No reporters are allowed in — nobody from the outside, only members.”
But in the wake of the C Street-related sex scandals, the code of silence can seem less like pastoral privacy and more like “what happens in Vegas stays in Vegas.” When news broke that Coburn confronted Ensign about his affair at C Street, the Oklahoma Republican and practicing OB-GYN declared that he couldn’t be compelled to testify about the matter because he was counseling Ensign “as a physician and as an ordained deacon.”
“When you operate in secret in Washington you raise an immediate red flag and then it gets redder when it gets mixed with any ideological agenda,” said Barry Lynn, executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State.
The Fellowship’s only public activity is organizing the National Prayer Breakfast, an annual event that draws thousands from around the world including members of Congress and the president. The group also organized the first weekly prayer breakfasts in the House and Senate during the 1940s.
Those breakfasts continue today.
About 40 members attend the House prayer breakfast each week, said Rep. Jo Ann Emerson (R-Mo.), a former president of the group that organizes it. According to one regular, Rep. Joe Pitts (R-Pa.), a member usually shares a life story or a “walk of faith” and then takes questions from the group.
“Somebody gets a word from the Scriptures,” Hall explained, “and somebody talks a little bit about their life in a very personal way. Sometimes the member becomes very vulnerable and you become vulnerable to one another. That’s good because in a political life, you don’t get a chance sometimes to build the kind of personal relationships that everybody needs.”
In the Senate, roughly 25 members meet for an hour at 8 a.m. every Wednesday.
“The meeting in small groups is scripturally based on Acts 2:42, where you get together on a regular basis and do four things: eat together, pray together, fellowship together and talk about the precepts of Jesus together,” said Sen. Jim Inhofe (R-Okla.), president of the Senate prayer breakfast.
Members of both houses also participate in outside prayer groups and Bible study sessions. Rep. Marsha Blackburn (R-Tenn.) said she attends a weekly Wednesday morning breakfast with several other congresswomen from both sides of the aisle. She said the meeting is off campus, but that’s all she would say.
“You know,” she said, “we don’t talk the specifics.”
Because of the secrecy, it’s hard to know exactly how frank the various prayer sessions are — although it’s clear that Ensign’s affair was a topic of conversation at C Street. Coburn and others confronted Ensign about the affair there last year, and Wamp said that Ensign recently apologized to fellow C Streeters for his indiscretion.
Cromartie said the sessions at C Street may be more secular than they seem from the outside.
“I don’t know how much they really ever get around to the Bible,” he said. “There’s a lot of sharing. It’s kind of like an AA group where people get together.”
Indeed, says Rice University professor Michael Lindsey, the author of “Faith in the Halls of Power,” what happens in most Washington-based faith sessions is “personally, pastorally related.”
“[Politicians] usually don’t get that level of pastoral support from their local churches because they don’t feel like they’re among peers, or that they could be vulnerable,” he said. “Most of what’s been written about The Fellowship is very conspiratorial. I studied it for three years, and I just don’t find much support for the conspiracy theories. To the extent that it’s conspiratorial, I would say it’s a private