Zach Wamp caught up in national controversy

The Chattanooga Times/July 15, 2009

For a dozen years, a three-story, brick rowhouse near the U.S. Capitol has served as the Washington home and spiritual sanctuary for the likes of U.S. Rep. Zach Wamp, R-Tenn., along with a number of other Christian conservative politicians.

But the sex scandals of U.S. Sen. John Ensign, R-Nev., and Republican South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford have thrust the home known as the C Street Center, its residents and the secretive Fellowship Foundation, a conservative Christian group with ties to the center, into the national limelight.

Sen. Ensign, who lives at the 133 C St. SE residence, has publicly admitted to cheating on his wife with a campaign aide whose husband worked on his Senate staff. Gov. Sanford did not live at the C Street home but has publicly stated he sought counseling from "C Street" in relation to his affair with an Argentine woman.

"It's controversial all of a sudden and even more secretive because Ensign is associated with it, and because Mark Sanford ran there when he was hurting," Rep. Wamp said during an interview on Saturday. "He (Sanford) never lived there, he wasn't involved there."

The center is not "a bad thing," said Rep. Wamp, who's running for Tennessee governor. "I see it as a good thing ... To us, it's just Tuesday-night dinner, talk about your life, a place to live with people who are like-minded in a bipartisan way."

But Rep. Wamp is coming under fire from MSNBC show host Rachel Maddow regarding remarks he made to the Knoxville News Sentinel. The newspaper quoted him as saying that C Street residents won't talk about their private living arrangements and that he intends to honor that with the article paraphrasing the congressman as saying there was a "pact" not to talk.

On her show last week, Ms. Maddow called Rep. Wamp on the carpet for having sworn himself to secrecy. Rep. Wamp's office complained, but Ms. Maddow said on her Monday program that she checked with the newspaper and no demands were made by Rep. Wamp's congressional office for a correction.

Rep Wamp said that, historically, the C Street Center "should have shared more about what they do, but they didn't want to violate people's private decisions to come there. And you know what happens when you share and the media writes about it? Nobody comes, and the whole thing evaporates."

On Saturday, Rep. Wamp declined to go into details about Sen. Ensign and said he knew little about Gov. Sanford. Attempts to reach Rep. Wamp Tuesday for follow-up questions were unsuccessful.

The Fellowship Foundation also has come under scrutiny and criticism after author Jeff Sharlot wrote about it in his 2008 book, "The Family: The Secret Foundation at the Heart of American Power," describing the group as "anti-Democratic" and with a fetish for power.

According to federal tax filings and news accounts, the C Street Center is tied to the Fellowship Foundation. The group organizes the national prayer breakfast, an annual event since 1953 which has been attended by American political leaders — including presidents — religious figures and world leaders. Rep. Wamp served as the event's chairman in 2001.

Mr. Sharlot said the group "began as an anti-New Deal organization in the 1930s when the founder believed that God gave him a revelation that government regulation was a tool of Satan's."

He said Fellowship Foundation founder Abram Vereide believed God "told him that Christianity had been misunderstood for 2,000 years. It's about helping the poor, but how do you do it? Do you help the poor directly? ... But his idea was no, you help the powerful, the already powerful. God has chosen who he wants to work with."

Mr. Sharlot said the foundation is a kind of "trickle-down fundamentalism." He also said Doug Coe, who runs the Fellowship Foundation, often presents Hitler, Stalin and Mao as leadership models even as he acknowledges they are "evil men. Coe's not a neo-Nazi."

"But he says they understood what the New Testament is about is not justice, mercy, love, forgiveness ... it's the power. That's the bottom line."

On Saturday, Rep. Wamp declined to address questions about the Fellowship Foundation's beliefs, but he said the foundation is "just a loose, totally non-denominational ecumenical piece of faith on the Hill which has been a real good thing."

"It's not secretive," Rep. Wamp maintained. "It's that that's the only way something like this can exist. That's why it happens that way, man. So, it's not like anybody's trying to hide anything. It's so that people can feel like they can (confide)."

Stan Holmes, a Fellowship Foundation associate, said Tuesday night there is "false information" being put out about the group.

"Certainly, there is an effort to deal with people in leadership, but there's also great concern for the poor and a lot of effort put into that from what I've seen and experienced," he said.

"There's certainly no praise for Hitler or any of these people who have done terrible evil," he said. "I think they will be used badly as an illustration of being able to inspire people, encourage people toward a real commitment. But certainly no one is praising the horrors of what was done by Hitler or Stalin."

The Fellowship Foundation's primary purpose is "trying to follow the teachings of Jesus, and we're trying to encourage other people to do the same," said Mr. Holmes, who worked with Rep. Wamp on the prayer breakfast but said he knew little about the C Street Center.

Mr. Sharlot has his own beef with the congressman, noting that he was also quoted saying that, in Tennessee, if "you are involved in a Christian fellowship, it ain't going to hurt you."

"There's plenty of Christian fellowship (in Washington)," Mr. Sharlot said. "So if you decide I'm going to choose the one that is secretive, that denies it exists, that has a leader who says things like ‘the more invisible you can make the organization the more influence you'll have' ... I'm guessing (Tennessee Christians) will say, ‘You know, I haven't heard that kind of thing at my church. Tell me more about this Christian fellowship.

"So, yes," Mr. Sharlot said. "Zach Wamp has some explaining to do."

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