Senate Republicans, it’s becoming clear, aren’t exactly lining up to defend John Ensign.
Of course, that’s not so surprising, given the damage that sex scandals have inflicted on the GOP in recent years. But could it be that the Ensign imbroglio poses a particularly thorny problem for some Republicans because, aside from the sex and jobs angle, the story threatens to shine an unflattering light on the role of the shadowy religious group to which the Nevada senator belongs?
Here’s what we mean:
In his bizarre letter to Fox News, Doug Hampton, the husband of Ensign’s girlfriend, wrote that in February 2008 at the senator’s Washington DC home, Ensign was confronted about the affair by “a group of his peers.” Hampton added: “One of the attendee’s (sic) was Senator Tom Coburn from Oklahoma as well as several other men who are close to the Senator.”
In fact, Ensign and Coburn are roommates. Last week, Roll Call reported (sub. req.) in passing that Coburn “rooms with Ensign in a Christian-oriented group house in Washington, D.C.”
What might that “Christian-oriented group house” be all about?
Via Marcy Wheeler: In The Family: The Secret Fundamentalism at the Heart of American Power, published last year, the journalist Jeff Sharlet reported that both Ensign and Coburn — as well as several other members of Congress of both parties, but predominantly Republicans — are members of a secretive and publicity-shy religious organization founded in 1935 that aims, broadly speaking, to forge ties with decision-makers around the world in order to put Christian teachings at the center of public policy. Elsewhere in the book, Sharlet added that Ensign and Coburn each at times lived at the Family’s group home for members of Congress, described as a “four-story red-brick Washington townhouse, a former convent at 133 C St SE, run by a Family affiliate called the C Street Foundation.” (The Atlantic’s Josh Green wrote about Hillary Clinton’s ties to the group, in the context of a larger profile of the then-senator, in 2006.)
To be clear, the senators may have moved since then. The “Christian-oriented group house” that Ensign and Coburn currently call home — and which the confrontation over the affair appears to have taken place at — may not be the same as the 133 C Street house.
But whether it is or not, Hampton’s letter indicates that Ensign was confronted by his fellow Family member Coburn. And Hampton’s phrasing — “a group of his peers,” “several other men who are close to the Senator” — suggests that others with ties to the group were likely present.
Of course, there’s nothing necessarily scandalous about that. Whatever you think about the Family’s broader goals, Christians are often encouraged to rely on their partners in faith to provide support in the struggle to remain true to God’s will. (As we reported, Ensign and Hampton became friends through their involvement in the Promise Keepers, which exhorts its members to do just that — though things sort of backfired in that case, it’s fair to say.)
But could the intensity and secrecy of the bonds between members conflict with the imperative to do the right thing that any public official faces? Hampton’s letter suggests Coburn and other lawmakers were aware of Ensign’s affair back in February. (Coburn’s comment (sub. req.) to Roll Call that Ensign has “worked hard to build his marriage back in the last six months, and he’s doing what he needs to do as a man” seems to all but admit that.) They may well also have been aware that Ensign, among other things, doubled his girlfriend’s pay from the NRSC and hired her nineteen-year old son while the affair was going on.
But the shared ties to the Family between Ensign and Coburn et al. would likely have had the effect of ensuring that it all remained secret — regardless of the consequences to the Hamptons, the GOP, and the Senate.
Those initial “no-comments” from Coburn’s office may have been about more than not wanting to pile on a friend.