An otherwise non-descript house at 133 C St. S.E., in Washington, D.C., is getting a lot of attention lately. Last week I swung by to take a look at it myself.
What did I see? Not much. It's a red brick house with an American flag unfurled above the door and well-maintained shrubbery in the yard. So why all the fuss?
Turns out the house is the Capitol Hill beachhead of a shadowy conservative Christian organization known as the Fellowship Foundation (or sometimes just "The Family"). The group rents residential space to members of Congress and conducts outreach programs aimed at those in positions of power.
Recently, three political leaders tied to the three-story bachelor pad have been embroiled in sex scandals.
U.S. Sen. John Ensign (R-Nevada) has admitted having an affair with the wife of a top aide. Ensign, a former resident of the house, had been confronted about his behavior by U.S. Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.), a current boarder. (Coburn won't divulge the specifics – even to investigators – arguing that he's a doctor and a church deacon so the conversations were confidential. Please!)
South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford, who has admitted to an extra-marital relationship with a woman in Argentina, told reporters he had sought counseling from "C Street." Sanford served in Congress from 1994-2000 and reportedly hung out with the C Street boys during his time there.
Most recently, the wife of former U.S. Rep. Charles "Chip" Pickering Jr. (R-Miss.) filed an alienation-of-affection lawsuit against a woman she claims had an affair with Pickering during the time he lived on C Street. Pickering's estranged wife claims that some of the hanky-panky went on in the house!
It took a round of sex scandals to bring The Family operation to light, and that's unfortunate. For years, people have had their suspicions about the C Street structure and its owners. Just what is this organization called The Family? Why is it so secretive? What does it want?
The Family has had a longtime presence in Washington. It was formed during the administration of Franklin D. Roosevelt – yet few people have heard of it. The group's only public event is an annual National Prayer Breakfast in Washington. It also holds weekly prayer breakfasts for members of Congress that are closed to outsiders. Reportedly, about 40 members of Congress attend.
The Family appears to be targeting members of both parties. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton speaks well of Doug Coe, who runs The Family, calling him a "spiritual guide" and "a mentor."
Public records show that the Fellowship Foundation has an annual budget of $19 million a year. That's a nice chunk of change. What does the group do with it? In documents filed with the Internal Revenue Service, the organization is very vague about its agenda.
This understandably has made some people suspicious.
As Americans United Executive Director Barry W. Lynn told Politico, "When you operate in secret in Washington you raise an immediate red flag and then it gets redder when it gets mixed with any ideological agenda."
Investigative reporter Jeff Sharlet doesn't think this is all benign. In his book The Family: The Secret Fundamentalism at the Heart of American Power, Sharlet accuses the religious organization of meddling in foreign affairs by pressing the government to support right-wing dictators.
Sharlet says the group reflects standard fundamentalist politics and that its leaders laud figures like Joseph Stalin, Adolf Hitler and Pol Pot for the way they commanded absolute loyalty. (Sharlet recently discussed The Family on Rachel Maddow's show on MSNBC. Watch it here.)
Religious groups have the right to try to minister to members of Congress, of course. But I have to admit that there's something about all of this secrecy that's unsettling.
Add it up: A well-funded fundamentalist organization is working in secret to reach out to powerful politicians in both parties. The leaders of this group have held up ruthless dictators as models of leadership. They champion far-right politics.
Do you feel comfortable about this?
I don't, and I think it deserves a closer look. Stay tuned. I'll have more on The Family in the September issue of Church & State.