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Opus Sam

Brownback's kooky code.


Coming Friday to a theater near you: Tom Hanks and a self-flagellating albino!

Adapted for the screen from the best seller by Dan Brown, The Da Vinci Code tells of an elaborate conspiracy by the Catholic Church to suppress dangerous information about its main man, Jesus. (Hint: The Carpenter wasn't celibate.)

Unable to get past page one of the book, this sacrilegious sirloin is excited to see the movie. Even though the Strip hasn't read the thing, it hasn't exactly been frozen in a meat locker for the past three years. This observant omnivore knows that the story's albino assassin is a member of Opus Dei, a real-life Catholic order of priests and laypeople founded in Spain in 1928. The Opus Dei of The Da Vinci Code is a caricature, but it's true that celibate Opus Dei members wear a spiked chain called a cilice around their thighs for two hours each day; once a week, they beat their backs with a cord while saying their prayers.

Opus Dei claims 87,000 members worldwide. Critics say it's a right-wing cult. Defenders say it helps its members turn their work and personal lives closer to God.

Whatever. All the new movie-opening hype has this ruminating riblet thinking about Sam Brownback, the Republican U.S. senator from Kansas and possible presidential candidate.

"Senator Brownback is not and never has been a member of Opus Dei. He is not affiliated in any way," the senator's spokesman, Brian Hart, tells the Strip.

Er, OK. Hart may be a bit exasperated by the fact that Opus Dei keeps coming up in articles about Brownback, in publications ranging from The Topeka Capital-Journal to The Nation. But "not affiliated in any way"?

We do know that Brownback converted to Catholicism in June 2002 under the guidance of a stern Opus Dei priest, the Rev. C. John McCloskey. According to The Washington Post, the senator traded in his Methodism at the Opus Dei-affiliated Catholic Information Center in the nation's capital.

McCloskey has baptized a number of high-profile conservatives, including intellectual Robert Bork and columnist Robert Novak. An unyielding sort, McCloskey has little use for Catholics who reject the church's positions on, say, birth control. "There's a name for Catholics who dissent from church teachings," he told the Boston Globe in 2003. "They're called Protestants."

The Strip finds Brownback's apparent flirtations with the elite, authoritarian movement interesting in light of the attention he gets for his periodic bouts of reasonableness. A recent Post story about Brownback's forgiving stance on immigration was headlined "A Conservative Crosses the Border." Last month, he joined Hollywood liberal George Clooney in calling for more assertive action in war-torn Darfur.

At the same time, Brownback remains one of the most reactionary members of Congress. In March, he fed the paranoia of the Christian right by speaking at a "War on Christmas" conference. And when Terri Schiavo's parents came to Washington on the anniversary of their daughter's death to denounce "the growing culture of euthanasia," Brownback was the only lawmaker on hand, according to the Associated Press.

Here's what the Strip finds really kooky: Brownback's connection to a second elitist group.

Brownback, you may remember, got in a little trouble in 2003 when reporters learned that he and five other members of Congress paid cheap rent to live in a stately townhouse near the Capitol. The house belonged to the Fellowship.

Sponsors of the National Prayer Breakfast, the Fellowship (also called the Family) was founded in the 1930s by a Norwegian immigrant who trembled at the influence of socialism in Seattle. The Fellowship eventually moved to Washington, D.C., providing a place for public officials, businessmen and foreign dignitaries to pray and keep world order.

When prying busybodies question its secrecy, the Fellowship's leader, Doug Coe, cites biblical warnings against doing good deeds in public view.

The public got a rare glimpse inside the Fellowship in 2002 when writer Jeff Sharlet was invited to stay at Ivanwald, an Arlington, Virginia, house for young recruits. Writing for Harper's magazine, Sharlet described the Fellowship as an invisible organization of mostly public men: senators, Pentagon and Defense Department officials, titans of oil and aerospace.

He detailed how Fellowship leaders invoked Mafia dons and Adolf Hitler as examples of effective leadership.

Sharlet also wrote Rolling Stone's profile of Brownback in January. Brownback, he reported, first came into contact with the Fellowship in 1979, while interning for Bob Dole. Brownback joined an all-male, all-Republican Fellowship prayer cell when he returned to Washington as a member of Congress in 1994. "It's about faith and action," the senator told Sharlet.

Really, the Strip shouldn't be surprised that Brownback runs around in two elitist cliques. Even though Brownback likes to present himself as just a humble Kansan, the senator leads a life of privilege.

Brownback was just 30 when farm groups made him the state secretary of agriculture, an unelected office at the time. He married a newspaper heiress. His campaigns are richly assisted by Wichita's Koch Industries, the largest and —according to the Wall Street Journal — most profitable private company in the United States. Yep, the self-proclaimed farm boy from Parker is about as authentic as a corporate suite at a NASCAR event.

Despite such advantages, Brownback's presidential hopes seem to be sagging. His Restore America political committee shows receipts of a meager $336,340. (Tennessee Sen. Bill Frist has raised $4.8 million.)

In fact, Brownback is starting to resemble a different Tinseltown Tom from the one starring in The Da Vinci Code. Mission: Impossible III's disappointing box-office performance has been blamed on the annoying behavior of its star, a none-too-bright guy who practices a religion accused of being a cult.

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