“So the bottom line is this: I’ve been unfaithful to my wife.”
This is what South Carolina Governor Mark Sanford said at a hastily organized press conference in June 2009 after he’d gone missing for the six previous days. He wasn’t, as his staff had claimed, walking the 2,100-mile Appalachian Trail. He was, in fact, in Argentina with his mistress.
“We’ve been working through this thing for about the last five months. I was a part of this group called C Street when I was in Washington,” Sanford said, head hanging heavy as cameras clicked. “It was, believe it or not, a Christian Bible study group … I’ve been working with them to try to get my heart right because I disappointed them.”
When Sanford referenced his “Christian Bible study group,” he’d unwittingly exposed a decades-old religious network which had, until then, operated in the shadows of political power. “C Street” was a three-story, brick row house in the Capitol Hill neighborhood of D.C., where a group referred to as The Family, or sometimes The Fellowship, convened.
“The first rule of C Street is that you don’t talk about C Street,” journalist and one-time Family member Jeff Sharlet says. “[Sanford] broke that rule.”
A new Netflix docu-series called The Family, which is inspired by Sharlet’s 2009 book of the same name and the 2010 follow-up, C Street, examines the mysterious group Sanford was affiliated with, along with many other politicians from both sides of the aisle. It’s hard to list off Family members, because there’s no official Family membership. “The Family” isn’t even really the group’s name—it doesn’t have one. According to Sharlet’s reporting, The Family has operated under several guises over the years, including the National Leadership Council, the Fellowship Foundation, and the International Foundation.
The town house on C Street was one of the The Family’s properties, and served as a point of contact with politicians. Prayer groups and events were held at the home. Some politicians lived there while in D.C., according to a 2010 New Yorker story which dubbed it a “Frat House for Jesus.” This included Senator Tom Coburn and Representative Zach Wamp, both Republicans, as well as Representatives Mike Doyle and Bart Stupak, who are Democrats.
Thanks to its unprecedented access, the Netflix series looks at the ways in which the organization remained largely unknown through a web of nonprofits, and how the group has, for decades, used its proximity to power to influence policy-making around the world—without the public’s knowledge. The series connects the group to anti-LGBT legislation in Romania and Uganda.
“Here’s an organization that says we want to make decisions beyond the din of the vox populi. That’s their pretentious little Latin phrase [which means] beyond the voice of the people,” Sharlet says. “That’s not how we do it in democracy. You want to run for office? Don’t tell me that you are not interested in public input.”
Sanford didn’t participate in the series. The Family producer and director Jesse Moss says Sanford declined, and Sanford tells me he wasn’t approached. But it comes at a significant time for the former governor and congressman, as he decides whether or not to run for president, challenging fellow Republican Donald Trump.
“I think that there are questions that Mark should probably address about the organization and his involvement in it,” Moss says. “Especially if he’s going to run for president.”
Sanford says he’s ready to answer those questions.
The Family goes back decades. It’s hard to describe—and that’s by design. But in broad strokes, it’s a faith-based group with headquarters near Washington, D.C., where it seeks to share the teachings of Jesus. Members say it’s not about spreading Christianity, but about the word of Jesus, specifically. One way it does this is by forming relationships with powerful politicians: it hosts small, bipartisan prayer groups in the Capitol and has put on the National Prayer Breakfast since 1953.
“In no way is it some kind of agenda or some kind of conspiracy move,” former Tennessee representative and Family member Zach Wamp says in the Netflix series. “It’s more like how can we walk through this difficult job doing the Lord’s work in the devil’s playground?”
The group was founded in the 1930s, but in the late 1960s, a little-known man from Oregon named Doug Coe took over. Coe was interested in working with political leaders. Privacy was paramount.
“The more you can make your organization invisible, the more influence it will have,” Coe says in old video footage that appears in the Netflix series.
In Time magazine’s 2005 list of “The 25 Most Influential Evangelicals in America,” Coe was dubbed a “stealth Billy Graham” who “specializes in the spiritual struggles of the powerful.” Without going into detail, the blurb mentions Coe “also befriends dictators.”
Sharlet’s reporting—and the Netflix series—reveal Coe went with former Congressman Mark Siljander to Sudan to meet with president Omar al-Bashir, who was charged with three counts of genocide. In the 1960s, Coe forged relationships with some of the most oppressive regimes in the world, like General Suharto, the dictator of Indonesia who ordered the murder of hundreds of thousands.
Sharlet spent time at the Arlington, Virginia headquarters of The Family, and he came away from the experience with the understanding that they believe people in power are more “chosen” than the rest of us—and deserve unwavering support. Sharlet wrote a book about the experience that came out in June 2009 and, he says, made “a brief splash.” But that summer, a pair of salacious sex scandals seemed to encapsulate the group’s ethos of defending power at any cost.
That got the public’s attention.
The week before Sanford blew C Street’s cover, one of the town house’s most powerful residents admitted he’d had an affair, as well.
“I violated the vows of my marriage,” Nevada Senator John Ensign said solemnly at a press conference on June 16, 2009. “It’s absolutely the worst thing I’ve ever done in my life. If there was ever anything I could take back in my life, this would be it.”
The year before, Ensign had an affair with his campaign aide, Cynthia Hampton. Cynthia was married to Doug Hampton, Ensign’s best friend and chief of staff.
The Hamptons had known the Ensigns for years. Ensign’s wife, Darlene, and Cynthia grew up together in Southern California, and the couples were so close they each bought property in the same Las Vegas neighborhood. When Ensign left veterinary work to pursue politics, he brought his best friend Hampton along with him to D.C., despite his lack of political experience.
Hampton was at the golf tournament in which Ensign first met members of the Coe family, who later invited him to join the group. Ensign was a born-again Evangelical and rising star in the Republican party, and a possible presidential contender—a significant recruit for The Family. When Ensign joined the group, he brought Hampton.
After learning about the affair between his wife and best friend, Hampton in 2008 turned to Tim and David Coe, sons of leader Doug Coe. The men acted quickly, calling a meeting at C Street with members Wamp, then-Oklahoma Senator Tom Coburn, and former Republican congressman and NFL star Steve Largent to confront Ensign about the affair.
“Within minutes, we were saying, You don’t have any choice here,” Wamp says in the Netflix series. “You gotta confess, you gotta repent, you gotta tell 100 percent of the truth, you gotta go to your wife, you gotta reconcile, you gotta keep your family together. That’s what this fellowship—this accountability—is all about.”
Ensign agreed to write a letter to Cynthia to end the relationship. But, soon after, Hampton says he discovered the affair continued.
After that, The Family banded behind Ensign. Hampton says he was brushed aside, with The Family choosing Ensign because he was closer to power.
“Coburn and the Coes took over the news and how to handle it. And Doug was ushered out,” Doug Hampton tells me, referring to himself in the third person. “The power really came into play. Obviously, you stand behind the Senator, and Doug Hampton’s expendable.
“I was bewildered that they would let this behavior and conduct go and let someone like me get so crushed and hurt by it.”
Hampton went back to Nevada, where Ensign helped connect him with lobbying contracts, according to documents obtained by the New York Times. Hampton told the paper Ensign’s job help was an effort to mitigate the damage from the affair. In June 2012, Hampton pleaded guilty to violating federal lobbying rules. He did one year of probation. Even though he helped establish Hampton as a lobbyist in Nevada, Ensign was never charged with wrongdoing.
In the aftermath of the affair, Ensign remained in power until he resigned from the Senate in 2011, quietly returning to his career as a veterinarian in Nevada. He didn’t respond to a request to comment for this story, and Moss says he declined to participate in the documentary. Ensign and his wife Darlene just finalized their divorce last month.
The day after news of the Ensign affair broke, Sanford admitted to his own infidelity, mentioning “working with” the group at C Street. When I spoke to Sanford this week, he said he regularly attended Tuesday night dinners and prayer groups at C Street when he was a Congressman from 1995 to 2001.
“I did go during the first six years I was Congress, and it was a good group of folks,” he says. “The intent was to ask of each other the questions that don’t get asked enough as member of Congress, which is, how are you treating your kids? Are you spending enough time on things that matter? I mean, those sorts of things were the focus.”
Here’s the strange part about Sanford mentioning The Family during his infamous press conference: He tells me he wasn’t involved with the group at the time. Starting in 2003, he was governor of South Carolina and living in the state instead of D.C. The story of the affair broke in 2009. So, when I asked him why he mentioned C Street at the press conference, he was dubious.
“Do you have a tape? I said that?” he says. “I apologize for being rusty but, we’re talking a pretty good while ago. I don’t know exactly what I said in the conference. I find it hard to believe I would have said that.”
When I read back the quote in its entirety, he says, “Well, then if you got tapes, then that’s accurate.”
Sanford does remember, however, turning to his friends Largent and Coburn, who were living at C Street around that time and incredibly instrumental in the aftermath of the Ensign affair a year earlier.
What Sanford portrays as a forgettable aside about a previous relationship with C Street set in motion an IRS investigation into the tax-exempt status of C Street, as well as a slew of news hits about Sanford’s connection to C Street, and the group’s connection to Ensign. (The house’s tax exempt status was later partially revoked.)
Sanford denies The Family encouraged him to stay in office. And he says the group did not play a role in damage control after the affair. With or without help of The Family, Sanford remained governor until his term ended in 2011 despite pressure to step down. In 2013, he returned to Congress.
“I am not going to be railroaded out of this office by political opponents or folks that were never fans of mine in the first place,” Sanford told reporters in 2009.
Today, as Trump leads the most fundamentalist administration in U.S. history and another election looms, the Netflix series begs the question: What is the state of The Family now?
It’s unclear who lives at the house on C Street where The Family had taken up residence. “One of the big questions for us is what is the current status of C Street? And I can tell you that the Fellowship denies currently any relationship with C Street,” Moss says. “We’re not able to determine who actually resides there now, whether any members of Congress live at C Street. I think there’s still a mystery as to what that relationship is.”
For his part, Sanford said he hasn’t consulted The Family about his possible run for the presidency—a decision he says he’s “still struggling through”—reiterating that he hasn’t been involved with it since 2001.
“The reason I called you back is just to say, I have no idea what the series is saying about this group of guys, and I’m sure it could be twisted and made to be something it wasn’t. All I wanted to say is my experiences with these folks was positive,” Sanford says. “And the idea of members of Congress getting together and trying to hold each other accountable—not withstanding subsequent failures, mine or John Ensign’s—is a good thing.”