Inaugural Freak Show
On January 7, second-term Republican Rep. Paul Broun of Georgia and two friends prayed over a door. It was not just any door, but the entranceway beneath the Capitol that President-elect Barack Obama will pass through as he walks onto the inaugural stage to take the oath of office. “I hope and pray that as God stirs the heart of our new president that President Obama will listen and will heed God’s direction,” Broun proclaimed.
Standing beside Broun, Rev. Patrick Mahoney launched into a prayer originally delivered by Billy Graham at Richard Nixon’s inauguration in 1969. “For too long we have neglected thy word and ignored thy laws,” Mahoney preached. “…We have sowed to the wind and are now reaping a whirlwind of crime, division, and rebellion. And now with the wages of sin staring us in the face, we remember thy words.”
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While Mahoney prayed, Rev. Rob Schenck turned his palms to the sky and muttered, “Yes” and “Have mercy” over and over. Then, he dipped his fingers in a jar of oil and painted several crosses on the door’s brass framing “as they did the furnishings of the tabernacle in the temple to the use of God and his word,” he prayed.
An officer from the Capitol Police Department stood immediately on the other side of the door, keeping watch over the inaugural stage, a top security concern for both his department and the Secret Service. With his back turned to the door, the officer appeared unaware of the secret ceremony Broun, Mahoney, and Schenck were performing just feet away. Whether security officials gave authorization for the ceremony is unclear; neither the Capitol Police nor Secret Service returned my calls. Broun’s office also refused to respond to my requests for a comment about the anointing.
While the Capitol prayer partners appeared earnest in the prayers for the president elect’s success, they have each distinguished themselves from their Christian right comrades by leveling some of the most paranoid imprecations Obama has faced since he arrived in the Senate. On November 10, 2008, a week after Obama’s election victory, Broun took umbrage at the President-elect’s call for a national civilian security force, a proposal also backed by George W. Bush. According to Broun, who acknowledged the possibility that he might be “crazy,” Obama had revealed himself as a radical Marxist Nazi socialist comparable to Adolf Hitler and Joseph Stalin.
"It may sound a bit crazy and off base,” Broun told an AP reporter, “but the thing is, he’s the one who proposed this national security force. I’m just trying to bring attention to the fact that we may—may not, I hope not—but we may have a problem with that type of philosophy of radical socialism or Marxism. That’s exactly what Hitler did in Nazi Germany and it’s exactly what the Soviet Union did. When he’s proposing to have a national security force that’s answering to him, that is as strong as the U.S. military, he’s showing me signs of being Marxist.”
After seeming to back away from his comments when he was heavily criticized, Broun announced that he was “not taking back anything [he] said.” “I firmly believe that we must not fall victim to the ‘it can't happen here’ mentality,” he declared in a press release. “I adhere to the adage ‘eternal vigilance is the price of liberty.’”
The son of a Democratic state senator from the liberal college town of Athens, Georgia, Broun attributes his conservative transformation to the wonder working power of Jesus. Broun’s born-again moment arrived in 1986, during the height of the Reagan Revolution, while he toiled as a doctor in rural Georgia, struggling to keep afloat during the first year of his marriage. He had suffered through several “broken marriages and episodes of broken relationships and financial problems,” Broun recalled during a November 2007 speech on the House floor. While watching an NFL game, Broun became entranced by a “gentleman with this big type hair wig on” holding a “John 3:16” sign. “As I sat there in my office that fall trying to figure out life, I picked up the Bible and read John 3:16,” Broun said. He suddenly transformed into a true believer, a cadre of the Christian right.
(The wigged “gentleman” was Rollen Stewart, an evangelical fanatic and fixture at sports events who is currently serving three consecutive sentences in jail on kidnapping charges as well as several minor sentences for stink bomb attacks).
While Mahoney prayed, Rev. Rob Schenck turned his palms to the sky and muttered, “Yes” and “Have mercy” over and over. Then, he dipped his fingers in a jar of oil and painted several crosses on the door’s brass framing.
“Mr. Speaker,” Broun announced from the House floor in 2007, “if we take our dishes and try to wash ‘em in our clothes washers we’re going to have problems, and that’s what we’re doing in our society, Mr. Speaker. We’re trying to do things against God’s inerrant word… So I rise today to support the Bible as the basis of our nation.”
Though he campaigned for reelection in 2008 as “The #1 Congressman on Immigration,” Broun has introduced only one bill since arriving in Washington: a measure banning pornography in the military. “Our troops should not see their honor sullied so that the moguls behind magazines like Playboy and Penthouse can profit,” Broun proclaimed. His spokesman testified to his expertise as an “addictionologist” who is “familiar with the negative consequences associated with long-term exposure to pornography.” Despite such scientific and personal authority, Broun’s bill to protect the troops from pictures of unclad women has gone nowhere.
Through his popularity among the Christian right, Broun became acquainted with Schenck and Mahoney, two Pentecostal preachers notorious for their flamboyant prayers over various monuments on Capitol Hill. When Mahoney helped anoint the inaugural stage door, he had just completed a 19-day period of fasting and prayer in front of the White House for the incoming president.
Schenck is the more significant figure of the two. A confidant of the evangelical former Attorney General John Ashcroft—the two used to pray together each week inside the Union Station movie theater—Schenck oversees a small political ministry in a townhouse across from the Supreme Court where various congressional aides conduct prayer sessions and Bible study classes.
I spoke with Schenck inside the townhouse for an hour in 2003. Relaxed and contemplative, Schenck did not seem like the pulpit banging preachers typically found at revivals. Indeed, he was raised in a liberal, secular household by Reform Jewish parents, and only converted to Christianity when he was 17. But Schenck’s laid-back manner concealed a propensity for confrontational stunts that twice landed him in the custody of Secret Service agents.
In the early 1990s, Schenck was arrested a dozen times during protests outside women's health clinics and abortion doctors' homes, and was momentarily detained by Secret Service after shoving an aborted fetus in front of Bill Clinton outside the 1992 Democratic National Convention. Four years later, Schenck grew so upset by President Clinton's veto of a bill banning partial abortion that he managed to creep behind him during a Christmas Eve service at the National Cathedral and whisper in his ear, "God will hold you to account, Mr. President.” He was immediately removed from the chapel and interrogated by Secret Service agents.
A founding member of the hardline anti-abortion group Operation Rescue, Schenck and his allies have engaged in what they call “direct action” to stop abortion by any means necessary. "There's going to be people wounded,” Mahoney, a fellow Operation Rescue leader, declared at a 1993 rally. “It's about whose will shall rule on this planet, God's or man's.”
Schenck spent several months in 1992 picketing the Buffalo, New York, home of Dr. Barnett Slepian, an obscure area abortion doctor that he personally targeted for scorn. Six years later, while cooking dinner for his wife and four children, Slepian was shot to death through his kitchen window by James Kopp, a volunteer at Operation Rescue's Binghamton, N.Y., office. Though Schenck denied knowing Kopp, the two had been arrested together at several clinic blockades.
When Schenck placed flowers at the doorstep of Slepian's office, his infuriated wife returned them with a letter that read, “It's your ‘passive’ following that incited the violence that killed Bart [Slepian] and took away both my and my children's future.”
Schenck attained a new prominence during the George W. Bush era, forging friendly ties with culture warriors like House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, Sen. Rick Santorum, and Sen. Joseph Lieberman, who allowed Schenck to hang a Ten Commandments plaque in his office. He even became a golfing buddy of Sen. Orrin Hatch. But DeLay and Santorum are gone from the Congress, victims of their own excesses, while Lieberman and Hatch have become marginalized by the Democratic majority.
Sensing his influence on the wane, Schenck targeted Obama. In January 2007, Schenck described the newly sworn-in senator’s Christian faith as “woefully deficient.” In a March 2008 videoblog, he accused Obama of crypto-Muslim religious sympathies.
Mahoney appeared at Obama’s Capitol Hill office in June 2008 to present his aides with a poster depicting the senator as Uncle Sam, declaring, “I Want YOU To Pay For Abortions.” Mahoney plans to hold an anti-abortion vigil along Obama’s parade route this January 20. “Sadly, President-elect Obama is on the wrong side of history and human rights by embracing the most radical abortion policies of any President in American history,” Mahoney said in announcing the vigil.
Broun, meanwhile, has issued a warning to the incoming president. “I will be the first to oppose [Obama] if he chooses to actually pursue a radical, left-wing socialist agenda,” Broun said in a statement posted on his personal website. “My deep concern is that he has a vision that is fundamentally different from the system of limited federal government that our Founders established, and that he will attempt to destroy the free enterprise, free market economic system which has made us the wealthiest nation in the history of the world.”
While many Republican lawmakers strike a conciliatory tone towards Obama, continuing a longstanding tradition of bipartisan goodwill for new presidents, the crosses freshly painted on the inaugural stage walkway by Broun, Schenck, and Mahoney reflect an ominous glow.
Max Blumenthal is a senior writer for The Daily Beast and writing fellow at The Nation Institute, whose book, Republican Gomorrah (Basic/Nation Books), is forthcoming in Spring 2009. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.