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God’s Senator

Who would Jesus vote for? Meet Sam Brown­back

Sam Brownback Photo

At the Vet­er­ans Day parade in Empo­ria, Kansas

Nobody in this lit­tle church just off Times Square in Man­hat­tan thinks of them­selves as polit­i­cal. They’re spir­i­tu­al — actors and ath­letes and pret­ty young things who believe that every word of the Bible is inerrant dic­ta­tion from God. They look down from the bal­cony of the Morn­ing Star, sway­ing and smil­ing at the screen that tells them how to sing along. Nail-pierced hands, a wound­ed side. This is love, this is love! But on this evening in Jan­u­ary, pol­i­tics and all its world­ly machi­na­tions have entered their church. Sit­ting in the dark­ness of the front row is Sam Brown­back, the Repub­li­can sen­a­tor from Kansas. And hunched over on the stage in a red leather chair is an old man named Har­ald Bre­desen, who has come to anoint Brown­back as the Chris­t­ian right’s next can­di­date for pres­i­dent.

Over the last six decades, Bre­desen has prayed with so many pres­i­dents and prime min­is­ters and kings that he can bare­ly remem­ber their names. He’s the spir­i­tu­al father of Pat Robert­son, the man behind the preacher’s vast media empire. He was one of three pas­tors who laid hands on Ronald Rea­gan in 1970 and heard the Pasade­na Prophe­cy: the moment when God told Rea­gan that he would one day occu­py the White House. And he recent­ly dis­patched one of his pro­teges to remind George W. Bush of the divine will — and evan­gel­i­cal pow­er — behind his pres­i­den­cy.

Tonight, Bre­desen has come to breathe that pow­er into Brown­back­’s pres­i­den­tial cam­paign. After lit­tle more than a decade in Wash­ing­ton, Brown­back has man­aged to posi­tion him­self at the very cen­ter of the Chris­t­ian con­ser­v­a­tive upris­ing that is trans­form­ing Amer­i­can pol­i­tics. Just six years ago, win­ning the evan­gel­i­cal vote required only a veneer of bland nor­mal­cy, noth­ing more than George Bush’s vague assur­ance that Jesus was his favorite philoso­pher. Now, Brown­back seeks some­thing far more rad­i­cal: not faith-based pol­i­tics but faith in place of pol­i­tics. In his dream Amer­i­ca, the one he believes both the Bible and the Con­sti­tu­tion promise, the state will sim­ply with­er away. In its place will be a coun­try so suf­fused with God and the free mar­ket that the social fab­ric of the last hun­dred years — schools, Social Secu­ri­ty, wel­fare — will be pri­va­tized or sim­ply done away with. There will be no abor­tions; sex will be con­fined to het­ero­sex­u­al mar­riage. Men will lead fam­i­lies, moth­ers will tend chil­dren, and big busi­ness and the church will take care of all.

Bre­desen squints through the stage lights at Brown­back, sit­ting straight-backed and atten­tive. At forty-nine, the sen­a­tor looks taller than he is. His face is wide and flat, his skin thick like leather, etched by wind­burn and sun from years of work­ing on his father’s farm just out­side Park­er, Kansas, pop­u­la­tion 281. You can hear it in his voice: slow, dis­tant but warm; a bari­tone, spo­ken out of the left side of his mouth in half-sen­tences with few hard con­so­nants. It sounds like the voice of some­one who has learned how to wait for rain.

“He wants to be pres­i­dent,” Bre­desen tells the con­gre­ga­tion. “He is mar­velous­ly qual­i­fied to be pres­i­dent.” But, he adds, there is some­thing Brown­back wants even more: “And that is, on the last day of your earth­ly life, to be able to say, ‘Father, the work you gave me to do, I have accom­plished!’ ” Bre­desen, shrunk­en with age, leans for­ward and glares at Brown­back.

“Is that true?” he demands.

“Yes,” Brown­back says soft­ly.

“Friends!” The old man’s voice is sud­den­ly a trum­pet. “Sam . . . says . . . yes!”

The crowd roars. Those occu­py­ing the front rows lay hands on the con­tender.

Brown­back takes the stage. He begins to pace. In front of sec­u­lar audi­ences he’s a politi­cian, stiff and wonky. Here, he’s a preach­er, not sweaty but smooth, work­ing a call-and-response with the back rows. “I used to run on Sam pow­er,” he says.

“Uh-uh,” some­one shouts.

To qui­et his ambi­tion, Brown­back con­tin­ues, he used to take sleep­ing pills.

“Oh, Lord!”

Now he runs on God pow­er.

“Hal­lelu­jah!”

He tells a sto­ry about a chap­lain who chal­lenged a group of sen­a­tors to recon­sid­er their con­cep­tion of democ­ra­cy. “How many con­stituents do you have?” the chap­lain asked. The sen­a­tors answered: 4 mil­lion, 9 mil­lion, 12 mil­lion. “May I sug­gest,” the chap­lain replied, “that you have only one con­stituent?”

Brown­back paus­es. That moment, he declares, changed his life. “This” — being sen­a­tor, run­ning for pres­i­dent, wav­ing the flag of a Chris­t­ian nation — “is about serv­ing one con­stituent.” He rais­es a hand and points above him.

From the bal­cony a hal­lelu­jah, an amen, a yelp. From Bre­desen’s great white head, now peer­ing up from the front row, Brown­back wins an appre­cia­tive nod.

This boy, Bre­desen thinks, may be the cho­sen one.

* * *

Back in 1994, when Brown­back came to Con­gress as a fresh­man, he was so con­temp­tu­ous of fed­er­al author­i­ty that he refused at first to sign the Con­tract With Amer­i­ca, Newt Gin­grich’s right-wing man­i­festo — not because it was too rad­i­cal but because it was too tame. Repub­li­cans should­n’t just reform big gov­ern­ment, Brown­back insist­ed — they should elim­i­nate it. He imme­di­ate­ly pro­posed abol­ish­ing the depart­ments of edu­ca­tion, ener­gy and com­merce. His pro­pos­als failed — but they quick­ly made him one of the right’s ris­ing stars. Two years lat­er, run­ning to the right of Bob Dole’s cho­sen suc­ces­sor, he was elect­ed to the Sen­ate.

“I am a seek­er,” he says. Brown­back believes that every spir­i­tu­al path has its own unique scent, and he wants to inhale them all. When he ran for the House he was a Methodist. By the time he ran for the Sen­ate he was an evan­gel­i­cal. Now he has become a Catholic. He was bap­tized not in a church but in a chapel tucked between lob­by­ists’ offices on K Street that is run by Opus Dei, the secre­tive lay order found­ed by a Catholic priest who advo­cat­ed “holy coer­cion” and con­sid­ered Span­ish dic­ta­tor Fran­cis­co Fran­co an ide­al of world­ly pow­er. Brown­back also stud­ies Torah with an ortho­dox rab­bi from Brook­lyn. “Deep,” says the rab­bi, Nos­son Scher­man. Late­ly, Brown­back has been read­ing the Koran, but he does­n’t like what he’s find­ing. “There’s some dif­fi­cult mate­r­i­al in it with regard to the Chris­t­ian and the Jew,” he tells a Chris­t­ian radio pro­gram, voice husky with regret.

Brown­back is not part of the GOP lead­er­ship, and he does­n’t want to be. He once told a group of busi­ness­men he want­ed to be the next Jesse Helms — “Sen­a­tor No,” who oper­at­ed as a one-man demo­li­tion unit against god­less­ness, inde­pen­dent of his par­ty. Sen­ate Major­i­ty Leader Bill Frist, a man with pres­i­den­tial ambi­tions of his own, gave Brown­back a plum posi­tion on the Judi­cia­ry Com­mit­tee, per­haps hop­ing that Brown­back would pro­vide a coun­ter­bal­ance to Arlen Specter, a mod­er­ate Repub­li­can who threat­ened to make trou­ble for Bush’s appointees. Instead, tak­ing a page from Helms, Brown­back turned the posi­tion into a plat­form for a high-pro­file war against gay mar­riage, porn and abor­tion. Cast­ing Bush and the Repub­li­can lead­er­ship as soft and mud­dled, he reg­u­lar­ly turns sleepy hear­ings into plat­forms for his vision of Amer­i­ca, invit­ing a parade of angry wit­ness­es to denounce the “homo­sex­u­al agen­da,” “bes­tial­i­ty” and “mur­der.”

He is run­ning for pres­i­dent because mur­der is always on his mind: the abor­tion of what he con­sid­ers fetal cit­i­zens. He speaks often and admir­ing­ly of John Brown, the abo­li­tion­ist who mas­sa­cred five pro-slav­ery set­tlers just north of the farm where Brown­back grew up. Brown want­ed to free the slaves; Brown­back wants to free fetus­es. He loves each and every one of them. “Just . .
. sacred,” he says. In Jan­u­ary, dur­ing the con­fir­ma­tion of Samuel Ali­to for a seat on the Supreme Court, Brown­back com­pared Roe v. Wade to the now dis­graced rul­ings that once upheld seg­re­ga­tion.

Ali­to was in the Sen­ate hear­ing room that day large­ly because of Brown­back­’s efforts. Last Octo­ber, after Bush named his per­son­al lawyer, Har­ri­et Miers, to the Supreme Court, Brown­back polite­ly but thor­ough­ly demol­ished her nom­i­na­tion — on the grounds that she was insuf­fi­cient­ly opposed to abor­tion. The day Miers with­drew her name, Sen. John McCain sur­prised the mob of reporters clam­or­ing around Brown­back out­side the Sen­ate cham­ber by grab­bing his col­league’s shoul­ders. “Here’s the man who did it!” McCain shout­ed in admi­ra­tion, a big smile on his face.

Brown­back is unlike­ly to receive the Repub­li­can pres­i­den­tial nom­i­na­tion — but as the can­di­date of the Chris­t­ian right, he may well be in a posi­tion to deter­mine who does, and what they include in their plat­form. “What Sam could do very effec­tive­ly,” says the Rev. Rob Schenck, an evan­gel­i­cal activist, is hold the nom­i­na­tion hostage until the Chris­t­ian right “exacts the last pledge out of the more pop­u­lar can­di­date.”

The nation’s lead­ing evan­gel­i­cals have already lined up behind Brown­back, a feat in itself. A decade ago, evan­gel­i­cal sup­port for a Catholic would have been unthink­able. Many evan­gel­i­cals viewed the Pope as the Antichrist and the Roman Catholic Church as the Whore of Baby­lon. But Brown­back is the ben­e­fi­cia­ry of a strat­e­gy known as co-bel­ligeren­cy — a unit­ed front between con­ser­v­a­tive Catholics and evan­gel­i­cals in the cul­ture war. Pat Robert­son has tapped the “out­stand­ing sen­a­tor from Kansas” as his man for pres­i­dent. David Bar­ton, the Chris­t­ian right’s all-but-offi­cial pres­i­den­tial his­to­ri­an, calls Brown­back “uncom­pro­mis­ing” — the high­est praise in a move­ment that con­sid­ers intran­si­gence next to god­li­ness. And James Dob­son, the move­men­t’s strongest chief­tain, can find no fault in Brown­back. “He has ful­filled every expec­ta­tion,” Dob­son says. Even Jesse Helms, now in retire­ment in North Car­oli­na, rec­og­nizes a kin­dred spir­it. “The most effec­tive sen­a­tors are those who are truest to them­selves,” Helms says. “Sen­a­tor Brown­back is becom­ing known as that sort of indi­vid­ual.”

* * *

As he gath­ers the forces of the Chris­t­ian right around him, how­ev­er, Brown­back has bro­ken with the move­men­t’s tra­di­tion of fire and brim­stone. His fun­da­men­tal­ism is almost ten­der. He’s no less intol­er­ant than the angry pul­pit-pounders, but he nev­er sounds like a hater. His style is both gen­tler and cold­er, a mix­ture of Mr. Rogers and monk­ish detach­ment.

Brown­back does­n’t thump the Bible. He reads obses­sive­ly, study­ing biogra­phies of Chris­t­ian cru­saders from cen­turies past. His learn­ing does­n’t lend him grav­i­tas so much as it seems to free him from grav­i­ty, to set him adrift across space and time. Ask him why he con­sid­ers abor­tion a “holo­caust,” and he’ll answer by way of a sto­ry about an eigh­teenth-cen­tu­ry British par­lia­men­tar­i­an who broke down in tears over the sin of slav­ery. Brown­back believes Amer­i­ca is enter­ing a peri­od of reli­gious revival on the scale of the Great Awak­en­ing that pre­ced­ed the nation’s cre­ation, an epi­dem­ic of mass con­ver­sions, signs and won­ders, book burn­ings. But this time, he says, the upheaval will give way to a “cul­tur­al spring­time,” a theo­crat­ic order that is pleas­ant and balmy. It’s a vision shared by the mega-church­es that sprawl across the sur­bur­ban land­scape, the 24–7 spir­i­tu­al-enter­tain­ment com­plex­es where mil­lions of Amer­i­cans embrace a feel-good fun­da­men­tal­ism.

When Brown­back trav­els, he tries to avoid spend­ing time alone in his hotel room, where inde­cent tele­vi­sion pro­gram­ming might tempt him. In Wash­ing­ton, though, he goes to bed ear­ly. He does­n’t like to eat out. Indeed, it some­times seems he does­n’t like to eat at all — his staff wor­ries when the only thing he has for lunch is a com­mu­nion wafer and a drop of wine at the noon­time Mass he tries to attend dai­ly. He lives in a spar­tan apart­ment across from his office that he shares with Sen. Jim Tal­ent, a Repub­li­can from Mis­souri, and he flies home to Tope­ka almost every Thurs­day. On the wall of his office, there’s a fam­i­ly por­trait of all sev­en Brown­backs gath­ered around two tree stumps, each Brown­back in black shoes, blue jeans and a black pullover. The old­est, Abby, is nine­teen; the youngest, Jen­na, aban­doned on the doorstep of a Chi­nese orphan­age when she was two days old, is sev­en.

Brown­back­’s house in Tope­ka perch­es atop a hill, shield­ed from the road behind a great arc of dri­ve­way in a name­less sub­urb so new that the grass has yet to sprout on near­by lawns. On a recent Sun­day, Brown­back sits in the kitchen, look­ing relaxed in jeans and an orange sweat­shirt that says HOODWINKED, the name of his old­est son’s band. Hood­winked mem­bers drift in and out, chat­ting with the sen­a­tor. When the band starts prac­tice in the base­ment, Brown­back walks down­stairs, opens the door, jerks his right knee in the air and half wind­mills his arm. Hood­winked shout at him to leave them alone.

When he was a boy, Brown­back did­n’t belong to any rock bands. He grew up in a white, one-sto­ry farm­house in Park­er, where his par­ents still live. Brown­back likes to say that he is fight­ing for tra­di­tion­al fam­i­ly val­ues, but his father, Bob, was more con­cerned about the price of grain, and his moth­er, Nan­cy, had no qualms about hav­ing a gay friend. Back then, moral val­ues were sim­ple. “Your word was your word. Don’t cheat,” his moth­er recalls. “I can’t think of any­thing else.”

Her son played foot­ball (“quar­ter­back” she says, “nev­er very good”) and was elect­ed class pres­i­dent and “Mr. Spir­it.” “He was talk­a­tive,” she adds, as if this were an alien qual­i­ty. Like most kids in Park­er, Sam just want­ed to be a farmer. But that life is gone now, destroyed by what the old farm­ers who sit around the town’s sin­gle gas sta­tion sum up in one word — “Rea­gan­ism.” They mean the voodoo eco­nom­ics by which the gov­ern­ment favored cor­po­rate inter­ests over fam­i­ly farms, a “what’s good for big busi­ness is good for Amer­i­ca” phi­los­o­phy that Brown­back him­self now cham­pi­ons.

In 1986, just a few years after fin­ish­ing law school, Brown­back land­ed one of the state’s plum offices: agri­cul­ture sec­re­tary, a posi­tion of no small influ­ence in Kansas. But in 1993, he was forced out when a fed­er­al court ruled his tenure uncon­sti­tu­tion­al. Not only had he not been elect­ed, he’d been appoint­ed by peo­ple who weren’t elect­ed — the very same agribusi­ness giants he was in charge of reg­u­lat­ing.

The fol­low­ing year, he squeaked into Con­gress, run­ning as a mod­er­ate. But in Wash­ing­ton, in the midst of the Gin­grich Rev­o­lu­tion, Brown­back did­n’t just tack right — he unzipped his qui­et Kansan cos­tume and stepped out as the leader of the New Fed­er­al­ists, the small but potent fac­tion of fresh­men deter­mined to get rid of gov­ern­ment almost entire­ly. When he dis­cov­ered that the Repub­li­can lead­er­ship was­n’t real­ly inter­est­ed in derail­ing its own gravy train, Brown­back began spend­ing more time with his Bible. He began to sus­pect that the prob­lem with gov­ern­ment was­n’t just too many tax­es; it was not enough God.

Brown­back­’s wife, Mary, heiress to a Mid­west news­pa­per for­tune, mar­ried Sam dur­ing her final year of law school and boasts that she has nev­er worked out­side the home. “Basi­cal­ly,” she says, “I live in the kitchen.” From her spot by the stove, Mary mon­i­tors all media con­sumed by her kids. The Brown­backs block sev­er­al chan­nels, but even so, innu­en­dos slip by, she says, and the night­ly news is often “too sex­u­al.” The chil­dren, Mary says, “exude their faith.” The old­est kids “opt out” of sex edu­ca­tion at school.

Sex, in all its var­i­ous forms, is at the cen­ter of Brown­back­’s agen­da. Amer­i­ca, he believes, has divorced sex­u­al­i­ty from what is sacred. “It’s not that we think too much about sex,” he says, “it’s that we don’t think enough of it.” The sen­a­tor would glad­ly roll back the sex­u­al rev­o­lu­tion alto­geth­er if he could, but he knows he can’t, so instead he dreams of some­thing bet­ter: a cul­ture of “faith-ba
sed” eroti­cism in which pre­mar­i­tal pas­sion plays out not in flesh but in prayer. After Janet Jack­son’s nip­ple made its sur­prise appear­ance at the 2004 Super Bowl, Brown­back intro­duced the Broad­cast Decen­cy Enforce­ment Act, rais­ing the fines for such on-air abom­i­na­tions to $325,000.

On Sun­days, Brown­back ris­es at dawn so he can catch a Catholic Mass before meet­ing Mary and the kids at Tope­ka Bible Church. With the excep­tion of one brown-skinned man, the con­gre­ga­tion is entire­ly white. The stage looks like a rec room in a sub­ur­ban base­ment: wall-to-wall car­pet, wood pan­el­ing, a few hap­haz­ard ferns and a cou­ple of elec­tric gui­tars lying around. This morn­ing, the church wel­comes a guest preach­er from Promise Keep­ers, a men’s group, by per­form­ing a skit about golf and father­hood. From his pre­ferred seat in the bal­cony, Brown­back chuck­les when he’s sup­posed to, sings every song, nods seri­ous­ly when the preach­er warns against “Judaiz­ers” who would “poi­son” the New Tes­ta­ment.

After the ser­vice, Brown­back intro­duces me to a white-haired man with a yel­low Viking mus­tache. “This is the man who wrote ‘Dust in the Wind,’ ” the sen­a­tor announces proud­ly. It’s Ker­ry Liv­gren of the band Kansas. Liv­gren has found Jesus and now wor­ships with the sen­a­tor at Tope­ka Bible. Brown­back, one of the Sen­ate’s fiercest hawks on Israel, tells Liv­gren he wants to take him to the Holy Land. When­ev­er the sen­a­tor met with Prime Min­is­ter Ariel Sharon to talk pol­i­cy, he insist­ed that they first study Scrip­ture togeth­er. The two men would study their Bibles, music play­ing soft­ly in the back­ground. Maybe, if Liv­gren goes to Israel with Brown­back, he could strum “Dust in the Wind.” “Car­ry on my . . .” the sen­a­tor war­bles, try­ing to remem­ber anoth­er song by his friend.

* * *

One of the lit­tle-known strengths of the Chris­t­ian right lies in its adop­tion of the “cell” — the build­ing block his­tor­i­cal­ly used by small but deter­mined groups to impose their will on the major­i­ty. Sev­en­ty years ago, an evan­ge­list named Abra­ham Verei­de found­ed a net­work of “God-led” cells com­pris­ing sen­a­tors and gen­er­als, cor­po­rate exec­u­tives and preach­ers. Verei­de believed that the cells — God’s cho­sen, appoint­ed to pow­er — could con­struct a King­dom of God on earth with Wash­ing­ton as its cap­i­tal. They would do so “behind the scenes,” lest they be accused of pride or a hunger for pow­er, and “beyond the din of vox pop­uli,” which is to say, out­side the bounds of democ­ra­cy. To insid­ers, the cells were known as the Fam­i­ly, or the Fel­low­ship. To most out­siders, they were not known at all.

“Com­mu­nists use cells as their basic struc­ture,” declares a con­fi­den­tial Fel­low­ship doc­u­ment titled “Thoughts on a Core Group.” “The mafia oper­ates like this, and the basic unit of the Marine Corps is the four-man squad. Hitler, Lenin and many oth­ers under­stood the pow­er of a small group of peo­ple.” Under Rea­gan, Fel­low­ship cells qui­et­ly arranged meet­ings between admin­is­tra­tion offi­cials and lead­ers of Sal­vado­ran death squads, and helped fun­nel mil­i­tary sup­port to Siad Barre, the bru­tal dic­ta­tor of Soma­lia, who belonged to a prayer cell of Amer­i­can sen­a­tors and gen­er­als.

Brown­back got involved in the Fel­low­ship in 1979, as a sum­mer intern for Bob Dole, when he lived in a res­i­dence the group had orga­nized in a soror­i­ty house at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Mary­land. Four years lat­er, fresh out of law school and look­ing for a polit­i­cal role mod­el, Brown­back sought out Frank Carl­son, a for­mer Repub­li­can sen­a­tor from Kansas. It was Carl­son who, at a 1955 meet­ing of the Fel­low­ship, had declared the group’s mis­sion to be “World­wide Spir­i­tu­al Offen­sive,” a vision of man­ly Chris­tian­i­ty ded­i­cat­ed to the expan­sion of Amer­i­can pow­er as a means of spread­ing the gospel.

Over the years, Brown­back became increas­ing­ly active in the Fel­low­ship. But he was­n’t invit­ed to join a cell until 1994, when he went to Wash­ing­ton. “I had been work­ing with them for a num­ber of years, so when I went into Con­gress I knew I want­ed to get back into that,” he says. “Wash­ing­ton — pow­er — is very dif­fi­cult to han­dle. I knew I need­ed peo­ple to keep me account­able in that sys­tem.”

Brown­back was placed in a week­ly prayer cell by “the shad­ow Bil­ly Gra­ham” — Doug Coe, Verei­de’s suc­ces­sor as head of the Fel­low­ship. The group was all male and all Repub­li­can. It was a “safe rela­tion­ship,” Brown­back says. Con­ver­sa­tion tend­ed toward the per­son­al. Brown­back and the oth­er men revealed the most inti­mate details of their desires, fail­ings, ambi­tions. They talked about lust, anger and infi­deli­ties, the more shame­ful the bet­ter — since the goal was to break one’s own will. The abo­li­tion of self; to become noth­ing but a ves­sel so that one could be used by God.

They were striv­ing, ulti­mate­ly, for what Coe calls “Jesus plus noth­ing” — a gov­ern­ment led by Christ’s will alone. In the future envi­sioned by Coe, every­thing — sex and tax­es, war and the price of oil — will be decid­ed upon not accord­ing to democ­ra­cy or the church or even Scrip­ture. The Bible itself is for the mass­es; in the Fel­low­ship, Christ reveals a high­er set of com­mands to the anoint­ed few. It’s a good old boy’s club blessed by God. Brown­back even lived with oth­er cell mem­bers in a mil­lion-dol­lar, red-brick for­mer con­vent at 133 C Street that was sub­si­dized and oper­at­ed by the Fel­low­ship. Month­ly rent was $600 per man — enough of a deal by Hill stan­dards that some said it bor­dered on an eth­i­cal vio­la­tion, but no charges were ever brought.

Brown­back still meets with the prayer cell every Tues­day evening. He and his “broth­ers,” he says, are “bond­ed togeth­er, faith and souls.” The rules for­bid Brown­back from reveal­ing the names of his fel­low mem­bers, but those in the cell like­ly include such con­ser­v­a­tive stal­warts as Rep. Zach Wamp of Ten­nessee, for­mer Rep. Steve Largent of Okla­homa and Sen. Tom Coburn, an Okla­homa doc­tor who has advo­cat­ed the death penal­ty for abor­tion providers. Fel­low­ship doc­u­ments sug­gest that some 30 sen­a­tors and 200 con­gress­men occa­sion­al­ly attend the group’s activ­i­ties, but no more than a dozen are involved at Brown­back­’s lev­el.

The men in Brown­back­’s cell talk about pol­i­tics, but the sen­a­tor insists it’s not polit­i­cal. “It’s about faith and action,” he says. Accord­ing to “Thoughts on a Core Group,” the pri­ma­ry pur­pose of the cell is to become an “invis­i­ble ‘believ­ing’ group.” Any action the cell takes is an out­growth of belief, a nat­ur­al exten­sion of “agree­ments reached in faith and in prayer.” Deals emerge not from a smoke-filled room but from a prayer-filled room. “Typ­i­cal­ly,” says Brown­back, “one per­son grows desirous of pur­su­ing an action” — a piece of leg­is­la­tion, a diplo­mat­ic strat­e­gy — “and the oth­ers pull in behind.”

In 1999, Brown­back worked with Rep. Joe Pitts, a Fel­low­ship broth­er, to pass the Silk Road Strat­e­gy Act, designed to block the growth of Islam in Cen­tral Asian nations by brib­ing them with lucra­tive trade deals. That same year, he teamed up with two Fel­low­ship asso­ciates — for­mer Sen. Don Nick­les and the late Sen. Strom Thur­mond — to demand a crim­i­nal inves­ti­ga­tion of a lib­er­al group called Amer­i­cans Unit­ed for Sep­a­ra­tion of Church and State. Last year, sev­er­al Fel­low­ship broth­ers, includ­ing Sen. John Ensign, anoth­er res­i­dent of the C Street house, sup­port­ed Brown­back­’s broad­cast decen­cy bill. And Pitts and Coburn joined Brown­back in stump­ing for the Hous­es of Wor­ship Act to allow tax-free church­es to endorse can­di­dates.

The most blunt­ly theo­crat­ic effort, how­ev­er, is the Con­sti­tu­tion Restora­tion Act, which Brown­back co-spon­sored with Jim DeMint, anoth­er for­mer C Streeter who was then a con­gress­man from South Car­oli­na. If passed, it will strip the Supreme Court of the abil­i­ty to even hear cas­es in which cit­i­zens protest faith-based abus­es of pow­er. Say the may­or of your town decides to declare Jesus lord and fire any­one who refus­es to do so; or the prin­ci­pal of your local high school decides to read a fun­da­men­tal­ist prayer over the PA every morn­ing; or the pres­i­dent declares the Unit­ed States a Chris­t­ian nation. Under the Con­sti­tu­tion Restora­tion Act, that’ll all be just fine. /p>

Brown­back points to his friend Ed Meese, who served as attor­ney gen­er­al under Rea­gan, as an exam­ple of a man who wields pow­er through back­room Fel­low­ship con­nec­tions. Meese has not held a gov­ern­ment job for near­ly two decades, but through the Fel­low­ship he’s more influ­en­tial than ever, cred­it­ed with bro­ker­ing the recent nom­i­na­tion of John Roberts to head the Supreme Court. “As a behind-the-scenes net­work­er,” Brown­back says, “he’s impor­tant.” In the sen­a­tor’s view, such hid­den pow­er is sanc­tioned by the Bible. “Every­body knows Moses,” Brown­back says. “But who were the lead­ers of the Jew­ish peo­ple once they got to the promised land? It’s a lot of peo­ple who are unknown.”

* * *

Every Tues­day, before his evening meet­ing with his prayer broth­ers, Brown­back chairs anoth­er small cell — one explic­it­ly ded­i­cat­ed to alter­ing pub­lic pol­i­cy. It is called the Val­ues Action Team, and it is com­posed of rep­re­sen­ta­tives from lead­ing orga­ni­za­tions on the reli­gious right. James Dob­son’s Focus on the Fam­i­ly sends an emis­sary, as does the Fam­i­ly Research Coun­cil, the Eagle Forum, the Chris­t­ian Coali­tion, the Tra­di­tion­al Val­ues Coali­tion, Con­cerned Women for Amer­i­ca and many more. Like the Fel­low­ship prayer cell, every­thing that is said is strict­ly off the record, and even the groups them­selves are for­bid­den from dis­cussing the pro­ceed­ings. It’s a lit­tle “cloak-and-dag­ger,” says a Brown­back press sec­re­tary. The VAT is a war coun­cil, and the ene­my, says one par­tic­i­pant, is “sec­u­lar­ism.”

The VAT coor­di­nates the efforts of fun­da­men­tal­ist pres­sure groups, uni­fy­ing their mes­sage and arm­ing con­gres­sion­al staffers with the data and lan­guage they need to pass leg­is­la­tion. Work­ing almost entire­ly in secret, the group has direct­ed the fights against gay mar­riage and for school vouch­ers, against hate-crime leg­is­la­tion and for “absti­nence only” edu­ca­tion. The VAT helped win pas­sage of Brown­back­’s broad­cast decen­cy bill and made the pres­i­den­t’s tax cuts a top pri­or­i­ty. When it comes to “impact­ing pol­i­cy,” says Tony Perkins of the Fam­i­ly Research Coun­cil, “day to day, the VAT is instru­men­tal.”

As chair­man of the Helsin­ki Com­mis­sion, the most impor­tant U.S. human rights agency, Brown­back has also stamped much of U.S. for­eign pol­i­cy with VAT’s agen­da. One vic­to­ry for the group was Brown­back­’s North Korea Human Rights Act, which estab­lish­es a con­fronta­tion­al stance toward the dic­ta­to­r­i­al regime and shifts funds for human­i­tar­i­an aid from the Unit­ed Nations to Chris­t­ian orga­ni­za­tions. Sean Woo — Brown­back­’s for­mer gen­er­al coun­sel and now the chief of staff of the Helsin­ki Com­mis­sion — calls this a process of “pri­va­tiz­ing democ­ra­cy.” A dap­per man with a sooth­ing voice, Woo is per­haps the bright­est thinker in Brown­back­’s cir­cle, a savvy inter­na­tion­al­ist with a deep knowl­edge of Cold War his­to­ry. Yet when I ask him for an exam­ple of the kind of project the human-rights act might fund, he tells me about a Ger­man doc­tor who releas­es bal­loons over North Korea with bub­ble-wrapped radios tied to them. North Kore­ans are sup­posed to find the bal­loons when they run out of heli­um and use the radios to tune into Voice of Amer­i­ca or a South Kore­an Chris­t­ian sta­tion.

Since Brown­back took over lead­er­ship of the VAT in 2002, he has used it to con­sol­i­date his posi­tion in the Chris­t­ian right — and his influ­ence in the Sen­ate. If sen­a­tors — even lead­ers like Bill Frist or Rick San­to­rum — want to ask for back­ing from the group, they must talk to Brown­back­’s chief of staff, Robert Wasinger, who clears atten­dees with his boss. Wasinger is from Hays, Kansas, but he speaks with a Har­vard drawl, and he is still remem­bered in Cam­bridge twelve years after grad­u­a­tion for a fight he led to get gay fac­ul­ty boot­ed. He was par­tic­u­lar­ly con­cerned about the wel­fare of gay men; or rather, as he wrote in a cam­pus mag­a­zine fund­ed by the Her­itage Foun­da­tion, that of their inno­cent sperm, forced to “swim into feces.” As gate­keep­er of the VAT, he’s a key strate­gist in the con­ser­v­a­tive move­ment. He makes sure the reli­gious lead­ers who attend VAT under­stand that Brown­back is the boss — and that oth­er sen­a­tors real­ize that every time Brown­back speaks, he has the mon­ey and mem­ber­ship of the VAT behind him.

VAT is like a closed com­mu­ni­ca­tion cir­cuit with Brown­back at the switch: The pow­er flows through him. Every Wednes­day at noon, he trots upstairs from his office to a radio stu­dio main­tained by the Repub­li­can lead­er­ship to ral­ly sup­port from Chris­t­ian Amer­i­ca for VAT’s agen­da. One par­tic­i­pant in the broad­cast, Salem Radio Net­work News, reach­es more than 1,500 Chris­t­ian sta­tions nation­wide, and Focus on the Fam­i­ly offers access to an audi­ence of 1.5 mil­lion. Dur­ing a recent broad­cast Brown­back explains that with the help of the VAT, he’s work­ing to defeat a mea­sure that would stiff­en penal­ties for vio­lent attacks on gays and les­bians. Mem­bers of VAT help by mobi­liz­ing their flocks: An e‑mail sent out by the Fam­i­ly Research Coun­cil warned that the hate-crime bill would lead, inex­orably, to the crim­i­nal­iza­tion of Chris­tian­i­ty.

Brown­back recent­ly mus­cled through the Judi­cia­ry Com­mit­tee a pro­posed amend­ment to the Con­sti­tu­tion to make not just gay mar­riage but even civ­il unions near­ly impos­si­ble. “I don’t see where the com­pro­mise point would be on mar­riage,” he says. The amend­ment has no chance of pass­ing, but it’s not designed to. It’s a time bomb, sched­uled to det­o­nate some­time dur­ing the 2006 elec­toral cycle. The intend­ed vic­tims aren’t Democ­rats but oth­er Repub­li­cans. GOP mod­er­ates will be forced to vote for or against “mar­riage,” which — in the lan­guage of the VAT com­mu­ni­ca­tions net­work — is anoth­er way of say­ing for or against the “homo­sex­u­al agen­da.” It’s a typ­i­cal VAT strat­e­gy: a tool with which to puri­fy the ranks of the Repub­li­can Par­ty.

* * *

Eleven years ago, Brown­back him­self under­went a sim­i­lar process of purifi­ca­tion. It start­ed, he says, with a strange bump on his right side: a melanoma, diag­nosed in 1995.

Brown­back is sit­ting in the Sen­ate din­ing room sur­round­ed by back-slap­ping sen­a­tors and staffers, yet he seems serene. His press sec­re­tary tries to stop him from talk­ing — he con­sid­ers Brown­back­’s can­cer epiphany suit­able only for reli­gious audi­ences — but Brown­back can’t be dis­tract­ed. His eyes open wide and his shoul­ders slump as he set­tles into the mem­o­ry. He starts using words like “med­i­ta­tion” and “soli­tude.” The press sec­re­tary winces.

The doc­tors scooped out a piece of his flesh, Brown­back says, as if mur­mur­ing to him­self. A minor pro­ce­dure, but it scared him. In his mind, he lost hold of every­thing. He asked him­self, “What have I done with my life?” The answer seemed to be “Noth­ing.”

One night, while his fam­i­ly was sleep­ing, Brown­back got up and pulled out a copy of his resume. Sit­ting in his silent house, in the mid­dle of the night, a scar over his ribs where can­cer had been carved out of his body, he looked down at the piece of paper. His work, the laws he had passed. “This must be who I am,” he thought. Then he real­ized: Noth­ing he had done would last. All his accom­plish­ments were hum­drum con­ser­v­a­tive mea­sures, bureau­crat­ic wran­gling, leg­is­la­tion that had noth­ing to do with God. They were worth noth­ing.

Brown­back turns, holds my gaze. “So,” he says, “I burned it.”

He smiles. He paus­es. He’s wait­ing to see if I under­stand. He had cleansed him­self with fire. He had made him­self pure.

“I’m a child of the liv­ing God,” he explains.

I nod.

“You are, too,” he says. He purs­es his lips as he search­es the oth­er tables. Look, he says, point­ing to a man across the room. “Mark Day­ton, over there?” The Demo­c­ra­t­ic sen­a­tor from Min­neso­ta. “He’s a lib­er­al.” But you know what else he is? “A beau­ti­ful child of the liv­ing God.” Brown­back con­tin­ues. Ted Kennedy? “A beau­ti­ful child of the liv­ing God.” Hillary Clin­ton? Yes. Even Hillary. Espe­cial­ly Hillary.

Once, Brown­back says, he hat­ed Hillary Clin­ton. Hat­ed her so much it hurt him. But he reached in and scooped that hatred out like a can­cer. Now, he loves her. She, too, is a beau­ti­ful child of the liv­ing God.

* * *

After his spir­i­tu­al trans­for­ma­tion, Brown­back began trav­el­ing to some of the most blight­ed regions in the world. At times his moti­va­tion appeared strict­ly eco­nom­ic. He toured the dic­ta­tor­ships of Cen­tral Asia, trad­ing U.S. sup­port for access to oil — but he insists that he want­ed to pre­vent their wealth from falling into “Islam­ic hands.” Oil may have spurred his inter­est in Africa, too — the U.S. com­petes with Chi­na for access to African oil fields — but the wel­fare of the world’s most afflict­ed con­ti­nent has since become a gen­uine obses­sion for Brown­back. He has trav­eled to Dar­fur, in Sudan, and he has just returned from the Con­go, where the starv­ing die at a rate of 1,000 a day. Recall­ing the child sol­diers he’s met in Ugan­da, his voice chokes and his eyes fill with hor­ror.

When Brown­back talks about Africa, he sounds like JFK, or even Bono. “We’re only five per­cent of the pop­u­la­tion,” he says, “but we’re respon­si­ble for thir­ty per­cent of the world’s econ­o­my, thir­ty-three per­cent of mil­i­tary spend­ing. We’re going to be held account­able for the assets we’ve been giv­en.” His def­i­n­i­tion of moral deca­dence includes Amer­i­ca’s fail­ure to stop geno­cide in the Sudan and tor­ture in North Korea. He wants drug com­pa­nies to spend as much on med­i­cine for malar­ia as they do on feel-good drugs for Amer­i­cans, like Via­gra and Prozac. Ask him what dri­ves him and he’ll answer, with­out irony, “wid­ows and orphans.” It’s a ref­er­ence to the New Tes­ta­ment Epis­tle of James: “Reli­gion that God our father accepts as pure and fault­less is this: to look after orphans and wid­ows in their dis­tress and to keep one­self from being pol­lut­ed by the world.”

Brown­back is less con­cerned about the world being pol­lut­ed by peo­ple. His biggest finan­cial backer is Koch Indus­tries, an oil com­pa­ny that ranks among Amer­i­ca’s largest pri­vate­ly held com­pa­nies. “The Koch folks,” as they’re known around the sen­a­tor’s office, are among the nation’s worst pol­luters. In 2000, the com­pa­ny was slapped with the largest envi­ron­men­tal civ­il penal­ty in U.S. his­to­ry for ille­gal­ly dis­charg­ing 3 mil­lion gal­lons of crude oil in six states. That same year Koch was indict­ed for lying about its emis­sions of ben­zene, a chem­i­cal linked to leukemia, and dodged crim­i­nal charges in return for a $20 mil­lion set­tle­ment. Brown­back has received near­ly $100,000 from Koch and its employ­ees, and dur­ing his neck-and-neck race in 1996, a mys­te­ri­ous shell com­pa­ny called Tri­ad Man­age­ment pro­vid­ed $410,000 for last-minute adver­tis­ing on Brown­back­’s behalf. A Sen­ate inves­tiga­tive com­mit­tee lat­er deter­mined that the mon­ey came from the two broth­ers who run Koch Indus­tries.

Brown­back has been a staunch oppo­nent of envi­ron­men­tal reg­u­la­tions that Koch finds annoy­ing, fight­ing fuel-effi­cien­cy stan­dards and the Kyoto Pro­to­col on glob­al warm­ing. But for the sen­a­tor, there’s no real divide between the preda­to­ry eco­nom­ic inter­ests of his cor­po­rate back­ers and his own moral pas­sions. He received more mon­ey fun­neled through Jack Abramoff, the GOP lob­by­ist under inves­ti­ga­tion for bilk­ing Indi­an tribes of more than $80 mil­lion, than all but four oth­er sen­a­tors — and he blocked a casi­no that Abramof­f’s clients viewed as a com­peti­tor. But get­ting Brown­back to vote against gam­bling does­n’t take bribes; he would have done so regard­less of the mon­ey.

Brown­back finds the issue of finances dis­taste­ful. He refus­es to dis­cuss his back­ers, smooth­ly turn­ing the issue to mat­ters of faith. “Pat got me elect­ed,” he says, refer­ring to Robert­son’s net­work of Chris­t­ian-right orga­ni­za­tions. Sit­ting in his cor­ner office in the Sen­ate, Brown­back returns to one of his favorite sub­jects: the scourge of homo­sex­u­al­i­ty. The office has just been remod­eled and the high-ceilinged room is almost bar­ren. On Brown­back­’s desk, adrift at the far end of the room, there’s a Bible open to the Gospel of John.

It does­n’t both­er Brown­back that most Bible schol­ars chal­lenge the idea that Scrip­ture oppos­es homo­sex­u­al­i­ty. “It’s pret­ty clear,” he says, “what we know in our hearts.” This, he says, is “nat­ur­al law,” derived from obser­va­tion of the world, but the log­ic is cir­cu­lar: It’s wrong because he observes him­self believ­ing it’s wrong.

He has world­ly proof, too. “You look at the social impact of the coun­tries that have engaged in homo­sex­u­al mar­riage.” He shakes his head in sor­row, think­ing of Swe­den, which Chris­t­ian con­ser­v­a­tives believe has been made by “social engi­neer­ing” into an out­er ring of hell. “You’ll know ’em by their fruits,” Brown­back says. He paus­es, and an awk­ward silence fills the room. He was cit­ing scrip­ture — Matthew 7:16 — but he just called gay Swedes “fruits.”

Homo­sex­u­al­i­ty may not be sanc­tioned by the Bible, but slav­ery is — by Old and New Tes­ta­ments alike. Brown­back thinks slav­ery is wrong, of course, but the Bible nev­er is. How does he square the two? “I’ve won­dered on that very issue,” he says. He ten­ta­tive­ly sug­gests that the Bible views slav­ery as a “per­son-to-per­son rela­tion­ship,” some­thing to be worked out beyond the intru­sion of gov­ern­ment. But he quick­ly aban­dons the argu­ment; call­ing slav­ery a per­son­al choice, after all, is awk­ward for a man who often com­pares slav­ery to abor­tion.

* * *

Although Brown­back con­vert­ed to Catholi­cism in 2002 through Opus Dei, an ultra­ortho­dox order that, like the Fel­low­ship, spe­cial­izes in cul­ti­vat­ing the rich and pow­er­ful, the source of much of his reli­gious and polit­i­cal think­ing is Charles Col­son, the for­mer Nixon aide who served sev­en months in prison for his attempt to cov­er up Water­gate. A “key fig­ure,” says Brown­back, in the pow­er struc­ture of Chris­t­ian Wash­ing­ton, Col­son is wide­ly acknowl­edged as the Chris­t­ian right’s lead­ing intel­lec­tu­al. He is the archi­tect behind faith-based ini­tia­tives, the nego­tia­tor who forged the Catholic-evan­gel­i­cal uni­ty known as co-bel­ligeren­cy, and the man who drove sex­u­al moral­i­ty to the top of the move­men­t’s agen­da.

“When I came to the Sen­ate,” says Brown­back, “I sought him out. I had been lis­ten­ing to his thoughts for years, and want­ed to get to know him some.”

The admi­ra­tion is mutu­al. Col­son, a pow­er­ful mem­ber of the Fel­low­ship, spot­ted Brown­back as promis­ing mate­r­i­al not long after he joined the group’s cell for fresh­man Repub­li­cans. At the time, Col­son was hold­ing class­es on “bib­li­cal world­view” for lead­ers on Capi­tol Hill, and Brown­back became a prize pupil. Col­son taught that abor­tion is only a “thresh­old” issue, a wedge with which to intro­duce fun­da­men­tal­ism into every ques­tion. The two men soon grew close, and began coor­di­nat­ing their efforts: Col­son pro­vides the strat­e­gy, and Brown­back trans­lates it into pol­i­cy. “Sam has been at the meet­ings I called, and I’ve been at the meet­ings he called,” Col­son says.

Col­son’s most admirable work is Prison Fel­low­ship, a min­istry that offers coun­sel­ing and “world­view train­ing” to pris­on­ers around the world. Many of his pro­grams receive fed­er­al fund­ing, and Brown­back is spon­sor­ing a bill that would make it eas­i­er for more gov­ern­ment dol­lars to go to faith-based pro­grams such as Col­son’s. Social sci­en­tists debate whether such pro­grams work, but politi­cians con­sid­er them unde­ni­able evi­dence of the exis­tence of com­pas­sion­ate con­ser­vatism.

And yet com­pas­sion­ate con­ser­vatism, as Col­son con­ceives it and Brown­back imple­ments it, is strik­ing­ly sim­i­lar to plain old author­i­tar­i­an con­ser­vatism. In place of lib­er­a­tion, it offers as an ide­al what Col­son calls “bib­li­cal obe­di­ence” and what Brown­back terms “sub­mis­sion.” The con­cept is derived from Romans 13, the scrip­ture by which Brown­back and Col­son under­stand their pow­er as God-giv­en: “Whoso­ev­er there­fore resisteth the pow­er, resisteth the ordi­nance of God: and they that resist shall receive to them­selves damna­tion.”

To Brown­back, the verse is not dic­ta­to­r­i­al — it’s sim­ply one of the demands of spir­i­tu­al war, the “world­wide spir­i­tu­al offen­sive” that the Fel­low­ship declared a half-cen­tu­ry ago. “There’s prob­a­bly a high­er lev­el of Chris­tians being per­se­cut­ed dur­ing the last ten, twen­ty years than . . . through­out human his­to­ry,” Brown­back once declared on Col­son’s radio show. Give
n to fram­ing his own faith in terms of bat­tles, he believes that sec­u­lar­ists and Mus­lims are fight­ing a world­wide war against Chris­tians — some­times in con­cert. “Reli­gious free­dom” is one of his top pri­or­i­ties, and secur­ing it may require force. He’s spon­sored leg­is­la­tion that could lead to “regime change” in Iran, and has pro­posed send­ing com­bat troops to the Philip­pines, where Islam­ic rebels killed a Kansas mis­sion­ary.

Brown­back does­n’t demand that every­one believe in his God — only that they bow down before Him. Part holy war­rior, part holy fool, he preach­es an odd mix of the­o­log­i­cal naivete and diplo­mat­ic savvy. The faith he wields in the pub­lic square is blunt, heavy, unsub­tle; brass knuck­les of the spir­it. But the reli­gion of his heart is that of the woman whose exam­ple led him deep into ortho­doxy: Moth­er Tere­sa — it is a kiss for the dying. He sees no ten­sion between his intol­er­ance and his ten­der­ness. Indeed, their suc­cess­ful rec­on­cil­i­a­tion in his polit­i­cal self is the mir­a­cle at the heart of the new fun­da­men­tal­ism, the fusion of hell­fire and Hall­mark.

“I have seen him weep,” growls Col­son, anoint­ing Brown­back with his high­est praise. Such are the new Amer­i­can cru­saders: tear-streaked strong men hud­dling togeth­er to talk about their feel­ings before they march forth, their sen­ti­men­tal faith sharp­ened and their man-feel­ings hard­ened into “nat­ur­al law.” They are God’s promise keep­ers, His defend­ers of mar­riage, His knights of the fetal cit­i­zen. They are the select few who embody the para­dox­i­cal love promised by Christ when he declares — in Matthew 10:34 — “I did not come to bring peace, but a sword.”

Stand­ing on his back porch in Tope­ka, Brown­back looks down into a dark patch of hedge trees, a gnarled hard­wood that’s near­ly unsplit­table. The same trees grow on the 1,400 acres that sur­round Brown­back­’s child­hood home in Park­er; not much else remains. When the sen­a­tor was a boy, there were eleven fam­i­lies liv­ing on the land. Now there are only the Brown­backs and a friend from high school who lives rent-free in one of the emp­ty hous­es. When the friend moves on, Brown­back­’s father plans to tear the house down. The rest of the homes are already tak­ing care of them­selves, slow­ly crum­bling into the prairie. The world Brown­back grew up in has van­ished.

In its place, Brown­back imag­ines anoth­er one. Stand­ing on his porch, he thinks back to the days before the Civ­il War, when his home state was known as Bloody Kansas and John Brown fought for free­dom with an ax. “A ter­ror­ist,” con­cedes Brown­back, care­ful not to offend his South­ern sup­port­ers, but also a wise man. When Brown was in jail await­ing exe­cu­tion, a vis­i­tor told the abo­li­tion­ist that he was crazy.

“I’m not the one who has 4 mil­lion peo­ple in bondage,” Brown­back intones, recall­ing Brown’s response. “I, sir, think you are crazy.”

This is anoth­er of Brown­back­’s para­bles. In place of 4 mil­lion slaves, he thinks of uncount­able unborn babies, of all the per­se­cut­ed Chris­tians — a nation with­in a nation, await­ing Brown­back­’s lib­er­a­tion. Brown­back, sir, thinks that sec­u­lar Amer­i­ca is crazy.

The sen­a­tor stares, his face gen­tle but unsmil­ing.

He isn’t jok­ing.

JEFF SHARLET