02 February 2006

On biblical literacy, bigotry, the price of grain, real estate in Tbilisi, free market cheetahs, and the secret work of committees.

By Jeff Sharlet

Although he’s firmly opposed to both homosexuality and crude slurs such as “fruit,” Senator Sam Brownback won’t mind me saying he is one. That’s because the senator uses the word in the biblical sense — as in the results by which you shall know the merit of an idea or the character of a person. Brownback, the most ambitious — and maybe most powerful — religious conservative in U.S. politics, is one of the fruits by which we can evaluate the health of democracy in America.

Last week, I published in Rolling Stone a feature about Brownback and his involvements with a variety of Christian Right activist groups that usually fly below the radar. The story was 7,100 words long, and in it Brownback offered a thoughtful statement of his convictions and discussed his vision for God-ruled nation. He also discussed his involvement with a self-declared “invisible” organization that invokes Hitler as a leadership model (albeit sans genocide).

But the one word from the story that made it out of Rolling Stone and into the broader media was “fruits.” Brownback was talking about his belief that same-sex marriage is a threat to national wellbeing. As evidence, he cited Sweden. “You’ll know ’em by their fruits,” he said.

Some progressive readers interpreted this as crude humor on Brownback’s part. Some conservative readers took it as evidence of my alleged biblical illiteracy, despite the fact that I cited Brownback’s scriptural allusion. At last count, there were a few hundred blogs, papers, and activists groups debating the matter. Not a major media storm, but a squall.

The truth is that Brownback did not mean to make a joke, nor did he mean to use “fruits” as a slur. I didn’t think he did, nor did I mean to imply that. But I was laughing at the senator. Just once, in a 7,100 word, rather earnest story. The moment was classic “Beavis and Butthead: “Dude. Did he just say fruits?” At the same time, it revealed what I believe to be a basic truth about the belief that homosexuality is a biblically-forbidden abomination that threatens families, and that therefore should be outlawed: Expressed politely or with slurs, that belief is bigotry, plain and simple. Brownback was making it even worse by trying to back it up with social science (with a study that has been thoroughly debunked).

One needn’t be a leftist to recognize how ugly such a maneuver is. I’ll settle for the words of Randall Terry, with whom I spoke about Brownback’s presidential ambition. Terry is the founder of Operation Rescue, one of the most militant pro-life groups in American history. He wants Sam Brownback to be president. He’s every bit as opposed to homosexuality. But he bases his opposition on his particular reading of scripture. He may be a religious paleocon, but he’s no fool. Without religious conviction, he points out, “There is no reason to oppose homosexual marriage, none. Social science arguments all collapse, just like with racism, segregation.”

The irony of the accusations, coming from some conservative corners, that I “mistook” Brownback’s use of “fruits” for a slur due to my own biblical illiteracy is that our conversation had devolved to the level of “Beavis and Butthead” because it turned out that Brownback was unaware of the very biblical passages he might have cited as justification for his opposition to homosexuality.

Here’s what I wrote in my original draft – a little clunkier than the final, but it sheds some light on the question of “biblical illiteracy”:

One afternoon, I meet the senator in his corner office to talk the Bible. He sits with legs crossed in a straight-backed chair. I’m across from him on a sofa, beneath an eerie portrait of Mother Teresa on a field of black. Brownback’s office is high-ceilinged, with tall windows filled by wooden Venetian blinds. In late afternoon, the setting sun gives the room a noir lighting.

I ask the senator whether he’s aware of the contested interpretations of the Hebrew and Greek passages on which Christian conservatives base their opposition to homosexuality. I’m particularly interested in Leviticus 20:13, which some ultraconservatives believe mandates the death penalty for gay men, and Romans 1, both of which, I tell him, I’ve been discussing with some Bible scholars. He frowns. It turns out he’s not aware of the passages. This does not bother him. “It’s pretty clear,” he says, his fingers folded into a temple beneath his chin, “what we know in our hearts.”

Brownback calls this knowledge “natural law,” but the “evidence” produced by a heart that hates homosexuality is a far cry from the “natural law” St. Paul spoke of in Romans 1:19-20, which simply holds that gentiles as well as Jews could infer God from the world around them. Rather, Brownback has embraced a circular logic of self-observation: Homosexuality is wrong based on the evidence that he believes it is wrong. To legislate against it or any other practice his heart tells him is sin is not theocratic, it’s “natural.”

“There’s a sacredness to it,” he tells me. What’s the “it”? Marriage, family, hetero sex. “And,” he adds, “you look at the social impact of it, the countries that have engaged in homosexual marriage.” He shakes his head in sorrow, thinking of Sweden. “You’ll know ’em by their fruits.” Conversation stalls – he’s citing scripture but we both know he just said “fruits,” about gay Swedes. Oops. Better keep moving.

Indeed. When the Human Rights Campaign, an organization I support, issued a letter demanding an apology from Brownback for his use of “fruits” as a slur, I called them up and explained the context of the conversation. HRC spokesman Brad Luna subsequently got to the heart of the matter when he told the Associated Press “’It’s nice to know that Senator Brownback doesn’t resort to name-calling from the 1970s, but unfortunately his anti-gay agenda continues to speak for itself.’”

Some lefties continue to maintain that Brownback secretly meant the word. I was there; he did not. In essence, they may be correct, but it’s important to recognize, as HRC did, that what matters most here is the substance of Brownback’s legislative assault on gay and lesbian Americans, not its expression.

But since discussion of the article has stalled on the word fruits, I want to jumpstart it. I always write more than I use, and what gets cut usually never sees the light of day, for good reason. But for religion writers, some of the outtakes may be more interesting than the story itself. Following is some rough draft material.

Once, Parker, Kansas was a town. Gene Prentice remembers the days when you could do business there. There were three groceries and two millinery shops and a hardware store. Most importantly, there was a grain elevator. “Gone to pieces now,” says Gene. He doesn’t know why. He was born eighty-three years ago in the one-story house in which he and his wife and I talking. He grew up sitting out tornadoes by candlelight in the mossy stone cellar that rises like a tomb from the front yard. He married his wife, Marjorie, in 1941, and moved her onto this land. “Two hundred forty acres was all we had,” he says, but even fifty years ago big business farmers were buying up acreage, forcing prices down. Gene became an electrician, and Marjorie taught Sunday School, in a little white clapboard Methodist church that still stands in town, paint peeling. And they farmed. Life was working. Sundays were singing. And Parker kept dying on the vine.

There is no chance of Parker coming back now, says Gene. Some day soon, the whole town — a cluster of houses half of which are collapsing; an abandoned bank; an abandoned school; a single café that doesn’t get enough business to even qualify as sad — and everything around it will be one big farm, owned by men in suits who sit far away, in skyscrapers, men who farm by winning meetings with boys like Sam, who understand the need for more deregulation, for an invisible hand. “We’re just coasting on the last end of ours,” Gene says of his farm. None of their three sons is a farmer. His oldest boy, David works in Washington with Sam, as a bio-ethicist for the Christian Right’s Family Research Council. Gene and Marjorie think their boy is some kind of Baptist now, but they can’t be sure. He spends an awful lot of time traveling, not much time in Parker.

“I am,” says Gene, “inclined to think the country is declining.”

“What are the symptoms?” I ask, expecting the litany of moral decay on which Brownback campaigns.

Gene thinks. “Price of grain.” He laughs.

“Do you still teach Sunday School?” I ask Marjorie.

“No, we don’t have much Sunday School.” All the kids are gone. She worries she did a bad job – else why would have Sam converted? “Tell him to write to his adopted mom and tell her why. I just wondered what I did wrong to steer him — I don’t think I did anything wrong to steer him. What I think is that somebody back there with the same politics got a hold of him and twisted his arm and said ‘You better believe this way and you better do this way.’ That’s what I think happened to him.”

[A few miles from the Prentice home, I visited with a woman who used to “go driving” with Brownback when they were in high school. That’s not a euphemism -- Brownback, she recalls, was a perfect gentleman back then, a friend to everyone.]

In 1973, Cheri Dunlop recalls, her friend Sam wore his hair in a giant red afro and he was elected “Mr. Spirit.” He was “pretty good looking,” she says, by which she means very. She was cute then, too, a cheerleader, and she’s cute now, albeit in a more matronly fashion. She has a nimbus of brown hair and plump cheeks and there’s a slight wobble to her head when she weighs a question back and forth, considering how her answer will affect Sam. She volunteers for Sam at election time and she appreciates the fact that he always returns for their high school reunions. She hopes he will lead a sort of national return to the Parker she remembers. The last good time was in the early 1980s, before most of the farms folded like bad card players. The mothers Cheri Dunlop knew had to find work. “They made you feel bad for not doing so,” she says. She blames feminism. Meanwhile, her husband acquired parcels other farmers could no longer make profitable.

Now the Dunlops own 4,500 acres, one of the biggest — and only — successful family farms in Linn County. But despite their prosperity, Cheri Dunlop takes a dark view of the world. “Because mothers are not staying at home and I think that breaks the family down, when the mother is not at home to teach moral values in kids today.”

The answer to the working-mother problem, she thinks, is stricter morality laws and lower taxes, a combination she refers to simply as “less government.” She says that you can spot the children of working mothers because they are “rebellious,” or they “don’t care,” or they might be too sexual. Cheri’s husband says he doesn’t think they even had sex education when they were young, but Cheri thinks there was some. It didn’t make a big impression. Now, though, schools teach “intense” sex and evolution. They taught evolution when she and Sam were in school, too, but somehow it’s different now. Maybe it’s the working mothers. Maybe it was because they had prayer in school in those days. Actually, I say, they didn’t; prayer in school ended during the early 1960s. She allows that this may be so, but still. What she remembers now is Mother, prayer, and a better return on a bushel of grain. Those are her traditional values, whether or not they are tradition, and she is determined to vote them.

[In Washington, I sat in as Brownback met with a different kind of constituent.]

Brownback’s days are now filled with faith as represented by men in expensive suits. Conservative lobbyists who ferry in liberal nonprofit execs to plead common ground, businessmen who’ve been called by God to apply free market principles to charity drop by to see about government money for their laissez-faire schemes.

One day, it’s two men who run an outfit that digs wells in poor countries. Clean water, an undeniable for the world. The chief well-digger is a big, red Texan popping out of his pinstripes and oozing a Southern accent so hammy some of Brownback’s staffers roll their eyes. The Texan explains that God gave an associate of his a vision for a new invention with which to dig better wells. Then God gave the Texan a heart for government-private sector partnerships, which are an antidote to something the Texan calls “the utopian nightmare.” By this he means “socialism.” Socialism causes atheism, promiscuous sexuality, and dirty water, the number one killer on the globe.

The Texan hands out copies of the “The Eagle Christian Newspaper,” published in Nairobi. It features a two-page spread on “Living Water,” the Texan’s group, and its “boreholes,” around which Living Water screens movies about Jesus and about what happens to white, suburban teenagers who have sex before marriage.

One of Brownback’s staffers thinks there may be serious money for this project in an appropriations bill. “If we could do an Africa hearing,” Brownback suggests, “we could bring you guys in to talk about getting the basics right.”

The Texan says Fleet Bank wants to help. Fleet Bank doesn’t exist anymore. Still, Brownback thinks it’s a good idea. “Require a private match for federal dollars?” he asks. “Exactly,” says the Texan. “Bang for your buck!” They both speak in half-sentences.

Once, says the Texan, somewhere in Africa, after his people dug a well the natives jumped up and down, shouting with joy: “USA! USA!”

This elicits smiles in Sam Brownback’s office in Washington, too. Good for the War on Terror, all agree.

Yes, sense is breaking down here, but that’s what it was like in the senator’s office. One day, the man who came up with Bill Frist’s plan for a “nuclear option” with which to blast away Democratic resistance to right-wing judges stops by. He’s there on behalf of the NFL. I’m invited into the meeting, but I can’t tell you what the NFL wants, because it’s a secret. Then there’s an archbishop from the Sudan, a reasonable and wise man, but the conversation turns strange when Brownback’s staff starts sifting language, talking about planes that fly by night, if you know what I mean, which would be something, because I don’t. Well, I eventually found out, actually, but again, I can’t tell you — it’s a secret.

Just like most of what’s said by the ambassador to the Vatican from a certain foreign nation who has been brought around by a Christian conservative lobbyist to talk about “religious liberty.” Isn’t the new pope just great, Brownback asks. Well, yes, says the lobbyist, but. He and his man are worried about “Dominus lesus,” the document Benedict released as a cardinal in 2000, which declared Protestantism a faith of “defects.”

“Don’t know that one,” Brownback says, causing momentary silence in the room. Dominus lesus had been international news, a sharp reminder that doctrine still dictates the shape of faith in the world. Jesus may be nothing but love, but Christianity is, by definition, a political religion.

Another afternoon, I sit in on a meeting between Brownback and the prime minister of the Republic of Georgia, a country in which Christianity and crude mix to bad effect. The 1,000 mile Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan line, or BTC, runs through Georgia. Unprecedented U.S. support for the nation flows along the line. Since an American-educated reformer named Mikhail Saakashvili stormed to power in 2003, the Georgian government has grown increasingly autocratic instead of more democratic, stacking up human rights abuses in the interest of firm control and foreign investments.

But without religious persecution as a battle cry — Georgia is already a deeply Christian country; even its most famous son, Stalin, once studied for the priesthood — human rights have been a secondary concern for Republicans. Last May, George W. Bush paid a visit to Tbilisi – the first American president to do so. And this past fall, the prime minister of Georgia, along with a posse of silent Georgians in bad suits, and one quiet American –- unidentified by request, a cherub-faced fellow wearing a beautiful pinstripe and pink tie — spent a chummy half hour with Brownback in his corner office.

The details of the conversation were off the record, but in the handshaking and arm gripping that brought it to a close, the senator and the prime minister reminisced about the Tbilisi’s wild days, right after the break-up of the Soviet Union. Back then, Tbilisi was the frontier of the East, an anything-goes, laissez-faire kind of town. Brownback remembered the bullet holes in the hotel he stayed at the first time he visited. The prime minister joked about real estate — through the roof! The senator shook his head. “I think sometimes I oughtta buy property in Tbilisi.”

Or how about Baku, the capital of Azerbaijan, another oil-rich Central Asian nation with an even more abysmal human rights record and the worst pollution in the world? Brownback sits on the board of trustees of the U.S. Azerbaijan Chamber of Commerce, an organization created by the Azeri government with funds from eight oil companies, including Exxon, Mobil, and Chevron. Current and former members include Kissinger, Cheney, Iraq war architect Richard Perle – and Brownback’s fellow “Values Action Team” leader from the House, humble Joe Pitts from Pennsylvania’s Amish country. Azerbaijan’s well-being, in fact, appears to be one of the VAT’s values — both Brownback and Pitts have been chief backers of the Silk Road Act, a trade normalization bill with the region. One of the bill’s provisions — which Brownback has fought John Kerry to maintain — would lift U.S. sanctions on Azerbaijan, imposed in response to the Azeri blockade against neighboring Armenia. Azerbaijan is 94% Muslim; Armenia is predominantly Christian. Brownback has told me that when it comes to Central Asia, his chief concern is preventing it from “falling into Islamic hands.” Apparently, he issues indulgences where oil is concerned.

Only one visitor to Brownback’s office is fully-on the record: A one hundred and twenty-five pound cheetah, brought to Brownback’s office to illustrate a principle. Any problem, even wildlife extinction, can be solved by the invisible hand — the free market, that is, which, as the new Senate conservation caucus co-chair, Brownback intends to apply to environmentalism. “Creation care,” as it’s called in Christian circles.

The cheetah is wheeled into Brownback’s office in a cage and released on a leash while Hill police mill in the hall, ready to fire if the need arises. The cheetah’s handlers, a pair of men in shorts who drive the cheetah around the country and share a hotel room with him — they do not sleep with him, they insist, not anymore — lay an oriental carpet across Brownback’s coffee table. The cheetah hops up, fur bristling like that of a Rhodesian Ridgeback, which is apparently a sign of happiness in the world’s fastest mammal.

Brownback tries to pet it. The cheetah purrs, a deep vibration in a cat so large. But his handlers, jealous perhaps, caution the senator. Only they can touch the cheetah. Brownback hovers, his hand raised in the manner of a child approaching a strange dog. The tip of the cheetah’s tongue peeks out of his mouth, pink on orange, as if he has eaten a flower and forgotten to swallow a petal. The cheetah yawns, drools drips off a yellow fang, Brownback arches an eyebrow. I think he very badly wants to pet the cheetah. It would be soft.

It has been a day filled with temptations. Harriet Miers has withdrawn her name from consideration for the Supreme Court. Since he was the first to criticize her, this is seen by many as a victory for him: proof of Brownback’s power. Joe Lieberman and Evan Bayh, once and future presidential contenders, have stopped by to court his support for an energy bill: proof of Brownback’s gravity.

Pride tempts him. It always has. He is a fighter. “I play it pretty hard,” he tells me one day, as if he is ashamed. He wants to take pleasure in the defeat of his enemies, but he believes that if he calls his victories as his own, he will lose them. Everything is God’s.

He must not claim anything.

He will get down on his knees. He does so often, in his office, doors wide open.

He will pray to know his weakness, and thus his strength will grow.

“Let me be your humble servant,” he will pray. It is the prayer of the powerful, an incantation of the elite.

A crowd of staffers has packed into his office, which is slightly awkward, since he’s had no time to neaten. He likes to be a tidy man. His desk is buried — newspaper clippings, an agenda for the VAT, children’s drawings, a tiny t-shirt he is to sign as some kind of fetal symbol — but the drifts melt around a leather Bible, big and supine and two-columned, in the traditional fashion It is open to the Gospel of John. Study the scriptures. Wait for a sign. Maybe God has sent the cheetah. An animal that could eat him. Brownback stays with it for a very long time, dismissing appointments, ignoring his staff.

The men in shorts throw a greasy chunk of bright red beef into the cheetah’s cage, and the cheetah leaves Brownback to his Bible. The cheetah’s assistant, a man in a suit who follows behind the animal, speaking softly of dollars, presses into the senator’s hands a book on lions and lambs and God bringing them together. It’s a bait-and-switch story, because, of course, the lion will not lie down with the lamb, the lion will eat the lamb. That’s a “natural law,” but it’s not one Brownback likes to ponder. Only the weak enjoy such stories. Those who are strong prefer happier fare.

“I’m reading a book right now called When Jesus Sleeps,” Brownback offers. The cheetah’s assistant smiles.

***

[Following is some of the wonkery I cut from the story.]

Despite Browback’s disdain for “legalisms” that get between him and his God, the senator is a law and order man: longer sentences, shorter appeals. During my visits with the senator, he ducked out on one occasion to help nudge through the judiciary committee a nasty little bill called the Streamlined Procedures Act. The procedure being streamlined is that of putting people to death, whether or not they’ve received a fair trial. The bill, sponsored by Brownback ally and fellow Prayer Breakfaster Senator John Kyl of Arizona, would bar prisoners sentenced to death by state courts from appealing to the federal level through the right of habeas corpus. Since the death penalty was reintroduced in 1976, such appeals have provided the only major check on state courts run amok. Imagine, for instance, if Judge Roy Moore, the Ten Commandments crusader of Alabama who considers homosexuality a crime against humanity, were allowed to sentence men and women to death with confidence that his would always be the last word. That’s the kind of power Brownback dreams of when he invokes “states’ rights” as the most moral standard of governance available to the nation.

Of course, states rights have limits. Last March, in fact, Brownback joined the Senate’s ultra-right squad (an unofficial grouping that includes Brownback, his godfather Rick Santorum, and the double trouble team from Oklahoma, James Inhofe and Tom Coburn) to actually extend the rights of habeas corpus so as to trounce state court rulings. The occasion was the fight for Terri Schiavo; the justification was that “incapicitated” persons deserve the right of habeas corpus. And yet, according to Brownback and his allies, a black man convicted by an all-white Texas jury on faulty evidence would not.

Senator Kyl introduced the Streamlined Procedures Act last year only to discover that it wouldn’t get far so long as the public was watching. Even some conservative Republicans balked at stripping the Bill of Rights of one of its most essential principles, habeas corpus. So the bill languished, until along came Harriet Miers. On October 26 – at the height of the Miers controversy created in large part by Brownback – the senator greased the bill through committee while nobody was watching.

It was, by the standards of the last 200 years, un-American; and by the tenets of Brownback’s Catholic faith, un-Christian. That didn’t matter. The real work of the right often takes place in unnoticed committee work, muscling along bills nobody understands, such as “Streamlined Procedure,” and quietly gutting the kind of basic decency efforts nobody wants to be seen opposing, such as expanding patient’s rights when dealing with HMOs (no, voted Brownback), limiting “soft money” in campaigns (no, voted Brownback, who rode into the Senate on a surge of “soft money” from one of the country’s biggest polluters), and providing money for the prosecution of hate crimes (no, voted Brownback).

It’s tempting to read such contradictions as hypocrisy, to interpret the conservative case for the sanctity of life as limited only to those lives deemed valuable according to the sentimental narrative by which conservatives depict themselves as in the midst of a great battle between good and evil. But in the legislative mind of Sam Brownback, no life is worth more than another. Every life is equally sacred. How can this be? It’s as simple as the senator’s support for Wal-Mart, a major financial backer whose market censorship of hip hop lyrics Brownback genuinely endorses. Just as Brownback has achieved a Buddha-like serenity by gliding past the concerns of his own staff when they interfere with his plans, he has learned to look into the blinding light of his God’s love when confronted with facts that don’t fit his theology of personal re-invention.

He has for several sessions of Congress now sponsored a proposed U.S. apology to Native Americans and a museum for African American history, but he has also voted to end funding for helping women and minorities start small business. He thinks marriage demands an addition to the Bill of Rights, and has been a leader in the pursuit of an amendment that would ban same-sex marriage and civil unions, a “defense” of marriage he deems essential for the very safety of the nation. Meanwhile, he voted to defund community policing programs by 1.15 billion. He’s for school vouchers but against federal programs that would provide for smaller classes. He believes in requiring photo id of voters, a requirement many believe is designed to tamp down minority voters.

He leads the fight against stem cells and cloning research, but he’s a staunch opponent of messing with tobacco. Nor does he believe citizens should be allowed to buy drugs from Canada, which would cut into drug company profits. He is in favor of chemical and nuclear weapons. He thinks the minimum wage is just fine as it is. He’d like to censor violent videos and spike fines for naughty broadcasters, but he firmly opposes attempts to reign in media monopoly.

For his commitment to unfettered corporate expansion even as he cracks down on individual expression, he has earned a perfect rating from the ostensibly libertarian Cato Institute. Of course, much of Cato’s money comes from Koch Industries, the same oil and natural gas giant that has financed Brownback’s career from the very beginning.

Is that all there is to Sam Brownback? Cash in an envelope? No — there is not even that. A Kansas businessman who calls Brownback his friend and has known him for years told me that the de facto price of doing business with the senator – the cost of admission for a single meeting – was, last he checked, $2,000. In that, Brownback is unexceptional. Most of the Kansas Congressional delegation expects just as much from those who want face time. It’s not illegal, just slimy. The difference with Brownback, said the businessman, is that he never touches the money. The businessman is used to putting a check directly into the hands of the politician whose help he needs. But when he’s visited Brownback’s offices in the past, a staffer always quietly intervened, relieving the businessman of the check beyond the senator’s sightlines. “Sam,” the businessman told me, “doesn’t talk money.”

No; he speaks of spiritual matters. Brownback’s fundamentalism is almost tender. He’s no less intolerant than the angry pulpit pounders of the old Christian Right, but he never sounds like a hater. His is a sentimental religion. One night he calls me around 10:30, for a literal heart-to-heart. It’s been a long day for the senator, what with the Alito hearings, but there are some thoughts he wants to share. About hearts. He never has to wonder what God wants for the nation, because God has already written the answer on Brownback’s central organ. Mine, too, and yours also. “Everybody has a good heart,” he says, by which he means that everybody has an inner fundamentalist, waiting to come out and embrace “moral values.” This sounds like a reference to Romans 2:15, but Brownback’s mind is elsewhere. “It’s a Native American concept,” he says. “Everything is one.”