September 2009 Church & State | Featured

From the outside, the house at 133 C St., SE, resembles many of the residences sprinkled throughout Washington, D.C.’s prestigious Capitol Hill neighborhood.


The red-brick, three-story building features an American flag jutting from its façade and windows graced with lace curtains. A potted evergreen plant rests on the small porch. Green-yellow shrubbery flanks the front. The property is well maintained and inviting.


But despite its outward appearance, this house isn’t like the others surrounding it. This house has attracted a lot of attention lately, and people are suddenly interested in finding out more about what goes on behind its closed doors.


The house popped up in the news three times recently, each time in connection with high-profile Republican politicians who confessed to or were accused of having extramarital affairs.


When U.S. Sen. John Ensign (R-Nev.) admitted that he had had an inappropriate relationship with the wife of an aide, several media outlets reported that Ensign, a resident of the house, had been confronted about his dalliance by U.S. Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.), a current resident.


Not long after that, South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford admitted to a relationship with a woman in Argentina. During a rambling confession to the media, Sanford, who served in Congress from 1994-2000, said he had sought counseling from “C Street.” The Associated Press reported that Sanford’s spiritual advisor, Warren Culbertson, said the C Street residents are “the guys Mark hung out with in Washington.”


Just a few weeks after that, 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 at C Street. It’s alleged that Pickering even carried on with the other woman in the house.


The media’s fixation on the marital hanky-panky of house residents had an interesting side effect: Suddenly everyone was talking about the C Street residence. The spotlight turned with full force on the group responsible for the house, a shadowy conservative Christian entity called the Fellowship Foundation and known informally as “The Family.”


House residents quickly circled the wagons and clammed up. When talk surfaced in Congress about a possible investigation of the Ensign matter because of cash payments Ensign made to his lover’s husband, Coburn raised eyebrows by insisting that his status as a church deacon and a physician guarantees him confidentiality.


As reporters started digging, it quickly became apparent that there was a lot more to this story than sex. It was obvious that the interests behind the C Street house had a knack for attracting the politically powerful. Reporters pointed out that over the years, former attorneys general John Ashcroft and Edwin Meese, U.S. Sens. James Inhofe, Charles Grassley and Sam Brownback, numerous members of the House of Representatives and even Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and former Vice President Al Gore have been affiliated with The Family.


But what is The Family? How has it managed to get connected to so many legislators and powerful D.C. insiders? What does the group want?


Publicly available documents filed with the Internal Revenue Service describe the Fellowship’s mission in benign terms. The group, the documents say, exists to “develop and maintain an informal association of people banded together to go out as ‘ambassadors of reconciliation,’ modeling the principles of Jesus….”


Based in Arlington, Va., a close-in D.C. suburb, the Fellowship says its aim is international. (Indeed, its original name was the International Foundation.) The group says it seeks to “work with the leaders of many nations” and provide mentoring and counseling to encourage people to “integrate the principles of Jesus in their work and their everyday relationships.”


To meet this goal, the Fellowship says it operates “various houses which serve to facilitate ministry activities among the many ministries which are a part of the international foundation.”


In 2007, according to IRS filings, the Fellowship had a budget of just over $19 million and spent nearly $16.5 million on its programs. Impressive figures like this mean that The Family is one of the largest Religious Right groups in the country – and, as it turns out, it is also one of the oldest.


So why isn’t it more high profile?


Part of the reason is that The Family shuns publicity. Its current director, Doug Coe, adopts a style far removed from the flashy television evangelists and inside-the-Beltway Religious Right leaders who love to hobnob with presidents, senators and members of Congress at press conferences and public events.


Coe, according to investigative reporter Jeff Sharlet, rarely gives interviews and has been described as a “stealth persuader.” Sharlet reports that Coe, who has led The Family since 1966, has talked about the need for the group to “submerge” and be “invisible.”


Despite the secrecy, some light was thrown on the organization in 2003, when the Associated Press reported that six members of Congress were living at C Street at what would be considered bargain rent for D.C. – $600 per month.


Over the years, many members of the House and Senate (from both parties) have lived there. The house, valued at nearly $2 million, is close to the Capitol and provides a convenient and affordable living space – along with regular Bible study and prayer. (The property is tax exempt, classified as a religious structure.)


The Washington Post and other media outlets have reported that the house’s current residents include Ensign, Coburn and U.S. Reps. Mike Doyle (D-Pa.), Bart Stupak (D-Mich.), Heath Shuler (D-N.C.), Jerry Moran (R-Kan.) and Zach Wamp (R-Tenn.).


C Street is only one of several residences The Family controls in the D.C. area. It also has a mansion in northern Virginia called The Cedars that overlooks the Potomac River. Another house in Virginia, Ivanwald, is home to about a dozen men who live communally.


Sharlet lived for a while at Ivanwald and wrote about his experiences in his 2008 book The Family: The Secret Fundamentalism at the Heart of American Power. He researched the organization’s history and as such is one of the few outside commentators who can explain what goes on at 133 C Street.


“The Family isn’t about conspiracy, a point I make in the introduction and throughout my book,” Sharlet told Church & State. “Conspiracy is a legal term. I’m talking instead about influence and ideology. And, unfortunately, activity that looks like lobbying.”


That influence began back in 1935, when The Family was founded by Norwegian immigrant and evangelical preacher Abraham Vereide. Vereide drifted through the difficult years of the Great Depression, eventually embracing the idea that the best way to help the down and out was to focus on the rich and powerful – hoping for a kind of “trickle down” effect 45 years before the era of Ronald Reagan.


Vereide had organized some relief efforts in Seattle in the 1920s and met with Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1932 when FDR was still governor of New York. But Vereide never became a New Dealer. In fact, he swung sharply to the right during the 1930s.


Religious revival was the key to pulling the country out of its economic doldrums, not social programs, Vereide believed. Roosevelt’s agenda, Vereide began to argue, was the vanguard of a communistic system.


Vereide’s fortunes improved along with the nation’s during the war years. Increasingly, his name was linked to the rich and the powerful, with an emphasis on members of Congress. President Dwight D. Eisenhower endorsed Vereide’s ministry in the mid 1950s.


In 1953, The Family launched the activity it is best known for today – the National Prayer Breakfast. The event is usually portrayed as generally ecumenical, but Sharlet and other critics assert that The Family uses it to draw lawmakers deeper into the organization.


Held on the first Thursday in February, the Prayer Breakfast has no equal. The event draws top congressional leaders, cabinet officials and foreign heads of state. Attendance routinely tops 3,000. The president’s presence is de rigueur. Past keynote speakers have included British Prime Minister Tony Blair, Mother Teresa and even Irish rock star Bono.


By 1966, the aging Vereide had effectively retired from the organization. A handful of his top lieutenants vied for leadership of the Fellowship, but Coe came out on top.


Coe, an Oregon native, embraced evangelical Christianity as a young man. He attended Willamette College, where he urged Mark Hatfield, then a political science professor, to explore running for public office. After stints in state office, Hatfield was elected to the U.S. Senate as a Republican in 1966, serving for 30 years. (Coe beat Hatfield to Washington, relocating there in 1959 to work for the Fellowship.)


Now 80 years old, Coe has been a behind-the-scenes presence in the nation’s capital for decades. His ministry cuts across party lines. Hillary Clinton, in her book Living History, called Coe a “genuinely loving spiritual mentor and guide to anyone, regardless of party or faith, who wants to deepen his or her relationship with God.”


Coe’s influence in Washington has been considerable. Yet, remarkably, few Americans have any idea who he is. Most people, if asked to name a religious leader close to presidents, would think of Billy Graham.


According to one scholar, Coe’s influence exceeds Graham’s.


“Coe, who avoids the limelight, has been closer to more U.S. presidents than any other religious leader, including Billy Graham,” wrote D. Michael Lindsay in his 2007 book Faith in the Halls of Power: How Evangelicals Joined the American Elite. “Indeed, he has been called a ‘stealth Billy Graham.’ Coe has befriended a succession of world leaders.”


Critics, however, see Coe in a less benign light. In his book, Sharlet reports that Coe has a disturbing habit of comparing submission to God to the kind of obedience and unquestioning loyalty demanded by dictators such as Adolf Hitler, Mao Zedong, Joseph Stalin and Pol Pot.


Sharlet quotes at length from a speech Coe delivered in Colorado to evangelical leaders in January of 1989.


“Jesus says, ‘You have to put me before other people, and you have to put me before yourself,’” Coe told the crowd. “Hitler – that was the demand of the Nazi Party. You have to put the Nazi Party and its objectives in front of your own life and ahead of other people.”


Continued Coe, “I’ve seen pictures of young men in the Red Guard in China. A table laid out like a butcher table, they would bring in this young man’s mother and father, lay her head on the table with a basket on the end, he would take an axe and cut her head off! They have to put the purposes of the Red Guard ahead of the mother-father-brother-sister – their own life. That was a covenant, a pledge. That was what Jesus said: ‘If you do not put me before your father, your mother, your brother, your sister, you cannot be my disciple.’”


In his book Tempting Faith, David Kuo, a former staffer in President George W. Bush’s “faith-based” office, writes about attending a speech by Coe before a student group in the 1980s.


Kuo reports that Coe spoke of a “model…of intimate relationships” practiced by men like Hitler, Stalin, Mao and Fidel Castro. Coe called the men “evil but wise” and told the crowd that Jesus will reward his special followers with great secrets.


Critics have also accused the Fellowship of seeking to influence American foreign policy by cozying up to notorious dictators. Over the years, the Fellowship has reached out to Gen. Suharto of Indonesia, Siad Barre of Somalia, Jonas Savimbi of Angola, Artur da Costa e Silva of Brazil, Papa Doc Duvalier of Haiti and other authoritarian leaders.


Sharlet charges that Coe pressured lawmakers to support right-wing dictators during the Cold War, usually portraying them as allies in the struggle against communism.


In 2007, Coe, speaking of the dictators, told an interviewer, “I never invite them. They come to me. And I do what Jesus did: I don’t turn my back to anyone. You know, the Bible is full of mass murderers.”


(Coe did not respond to Church & State’s request for an interview.)


What about domestic politics? Does The Family have an agenda here?


Several sources have described the group as socially conservative. It opposes legal abortion and gay rights and frets about spreading “secularism,” for example.


There may be an economic agenda as well – one that stretches back to Vereide’s distaste for the New Deal and the expanding rights of the working class.


Sharlet told Church & State that The Family is known for its policies opposing organized labor and its belief in unregulated capitalism.


“The Family was founded on the idea that there’s an interventionist God at work in every aspect of our lives,” Sharlet said. “Our job is to ‘let go and let God,’ as the saying has it. Now, apply that to the economy, and you get a laissez-faire approach hostile to market regulation and organized labor.”


Sharlet added that the group’s machinations in the 1960s helped lay the groundwork for what eventually became the “faith-based” initiative. According to Sharlet, The Family in the 1960s formed an offshoot aimed at African Americans that was never very successful. But out of that failed effort grew Charles Colson’s Prison Fellowship Ministries. (Colson, a Watergate-era confidant of President Richard M. Nixon, embraced evangelical Christianity while serving time in prison. He has since drifted far to the right politically and is a leading polemicist of the Religious Right.)


Colson and The Family, Sharlet charges, became instrumental in promoting the idea that government has a role to play in boosting evangelical-themed social programs.


“That, in turn, became the blueprint for the kind of faith-based projects that Bush brought to Washington with him from Texas,” Sharlet said. “The faith-based initiative also has roots in a series of discussions during the 1980s between Family leader Doug Coe, Ed Meese – a very involved Family man – and Gary Bauer, the Religious Right leader then at the Department of Education.


“They thought the best approach to poverty was to privatize government resources through faith-based organizations,” Sharlet continued. “They didn’t succeed, but those ideas popped up again in the late ’90s, through the charitable-choice option championed by two long-time Family associates, Sen. John Ashcroft and Sen. Dan Coats.”


The organization, Sharlet said, is sincere in its beliefs.


“The bottom line is that they believe the invisible hand of the market belongs to God,” he said. “At home and overseas, they seek to extend the reach of that invisible hand. It’s important to remember that they don’t do so cynically – that they genuinely believe that their free-market fundamentalism is the best way to help the poor.


“Who knows?,” he continued. “Maybe it would be, if they actually practiced it. But deals made behind closed doors aren’t the basis for any kind of free market.”


Couple all of this with the group’s well-known penchant for secrecy, and you have the makings of a great conspiracy theory. The Family doesn’t seek media attention, and it strives to keep its activities under wraps.


Many evangelical groups belong to the Evangelical Council for Financial Accountability (ECFA). The Council is a voluntary oversight group that helps donors learn more about the ministries seeking their support. ECFA members must meet certain standards. The Fellowship Foundation is not a member.


The group’s IRS filings shed little light on its activities. The Foundation is governed by a 15-member board of directors. None of them is a prominent Religious Right leader. The organization claims it spent no money on lobbying, and its 2007 IRS form – the most recent one available – lists a number of grants the Fellowship made to ministries around the world. The grants range in size from $500 to a Colorado-based ministry to nearly $800,000 to a Detroit-based group that does work in Uganda.


The form also shows that the Foundation, in keeping with its informal name, is something of a family enterprise. Coe’s two sons, Timothy and David, both work for the organization, each earning nearly $108,000 annually. Smaller salaries are paid to Coe’s wife, his daughter, his son-in-law, his daughter-in-law, his grandson and three of his granddaughters.


The insular nature of the group and its love of secrecy have led critics to question The Family’s method of operation.


“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,” Barry Lynn, executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, told Politico recently.


Sharlet agrees. If Bible studies and prayer meetings were the only activities under way, there would be little cause for concern, he said. But there is much more going on at C Street.


“Here’s an organization that has organized powerful men into coalitions to oppose organized labor and support a foreign policy of allegiances with killers, often at the cost of American principles and American interests,” Sharlet said. “They’re entitled to argue for these views, of course, but they ought to do so like other right-wing groups – in the public square.


“It’s a transparency issue,” he continued. “It’s an accountability issue. If politicians want to accept gifts from The Family and subscribe to their version of Christianity, fine. If you think Coe’s reading of the New Testament as a book about power is correct, fine. If you like his sermons on the leadership lessons of Hitler, Stalin, and Mao, fine. But put that out there.”


Concluded Sharlet, “Doug Coe has said, ‘The more invisible you can make your organization, the more influence it will have.’ That’s true. That’s why we have laws requiring groups that seek to influence politics, especially with financial support for politicians, to register as lobbies.”