Who would Jesus vote for? Meet Sam Brownback
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.
Now he runs on God power.
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.”
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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.
“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.