In recent weeks, the secretive Christian fellowship group, whose red-brick townhouse on Capitol Hill has for years served as an in-session dorm for religious lawmakers, has been getting some unwanted publicity. Thanks to its ties to three recent Republican sex scandals -- those of Nevada senator John Ensign, South Carolina governor Mark Sanford, and former congressman Chip Pickering -- C Street has started to get a reputation as somewhere between a halfway house and frat house for conservative politicians looking to cheat on their wives while convincing themselves they're still upstanding guys.
Hence the need for some re-branding. It's likely no coincidence that both Politico and Roll Call have stories out today about C Street, in which a bevvy of current and former lawmakers portray the house -- as well as The Fellowship, the shadowy religious movement, also known as The Family, with which C Street is affiliated -- as a benevolent prayer group that offers "crucial counseling" to its powerful members, helping keep them on the straight and narrow.
The list of current or former members of Congress who have spoken on the record for recent news stories on C Street includes Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.), Sen. James Inhofe (R-OK), Rep. Marsha Blackburn (R-TN), Rep. Joanne Emerson (R-MO), Rep. Randy Forbes (R-VA), Rep. Joe Pitts (R-PA), former Ohio GOP congresswoman Deborah Pryce, former Oklahoma GOP congressman Steve Largent, and former Pennsylvania Democratic congressman Tony Hall.
Here's one typical explanation of the group's value to its mostly Republican members, given by Forbes, to Politico:
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. And one member can tell another member, 'I don't think that's the right thing for you to do.'
But it's worth noting that the re-branding seems only to add to the evidence that C Street and the Fellowship serve first and foremost as a way for Republican family values politicians to discreetly deal with their extra-marital affairs.
Politico reports that the Fellowship focuses on what its leaders call the "'up and out,' or powerful politicians struggling to confront their personal demons." And Hall, the former Democratic congressman, explained to Roll Call what he sees C Street as being for: "These men [Ensign, Sanford, and Pickering] are good men. They made mistakes and they're paying for it. And that's what these ministries are about."
That explanation, which jibes with Forbes's, makes clear that dealing with extra-marital affairs is absolutely central to C Street's purpose.
It's also worth noting that the recent re-banding -- like many such efforts -- offers what you might call a skewed perspective.
Referring to Ensign's affair, which was discussed at C Street, ex-Oklahoma GOPer Largent told a local newspaper last week: "Our feeling is that if anybody does that and does it willfully that we are asking them not to live at C Street anymore."
We hate to point this out, but....Ensign still lives at C Street. Guess he must not have had the affair willfully.
More broadly, here's the major problem that's elided by the image of the benevolent prayer group: it's one thing for lawmakers to have a group of trusted friends and peers with whom they can talk about their personal lives. But, for a range of pretty obvious reasons, when prominent elected officials cheat on their spouses (OK, wives), they often commit other, non-sexual transgressions -- which go to their official responsibilities -- in trying to cover it up. That puts their religious confidants in the compromising position of knowing about non-personal wrongdoing that the public has a right to be aware of, but being obligated by the bonds of the group to keep it secret. Indeed, that seems to have been exactly what happened in the Ensign case, in particular with Sen. Tom Coburn, who has refused to speak publicly about what he told Ensign, citing his role as a "physician and as an ordained deacon."
Perhaps not surprising, then, that a source close to C Street told Politico: "If there isn't a discussion at some point about how they do their ministry, there needs to be."