07.26.09

Secrets of C Street

The Washington prayer group known as the Family may be in the news after several of its members had affairs, but it has been setting the agenda—and propping up foreign dictators—for years.

In this article, Jeff Sharlet, who has tracked the C Street House since 2002, discloses:

• That the group espouses a religious philosophy that holds God-anointed leaders are necessary for Christ’s second coming.
• A list of American politicians associated with the Family, most of whom are right-wing Republicans but also some Democrats, including, at one time, Hillary Clinton.
• How the group does not register as a lobby even as it behaves like one, offering foreign leaders access to its politicians at events like the National Prayer Breakfast.
• American politicians who travel on the Family’s dime and carry out its agenda abroad in countries like Serbia, Croatia, Kosovo, Albania, Bulgaria, Belarus, Sudan, and Israel.
• C Street’s support for foreign dictators like Yoweri Museveni in Uganda, Papa Doc Duvalier of Haiti, and Suharto in Indonesia.

The C Street House, a former convent on Capitol Hill, complete with stained glass, used to be known as the “Prayer House,” a place for congressmen to practice piety behind closed doors under the protection of a secretive religious group known to outsiders as the Fellowship and spoken of by members as “the Family.” But, although the $1.8 million red-brick townhouse is registered as a church (and thus tax-exempt), it has won a new reputation this summer in the wake of sex scandals centered around Family members John Ensign, Mark Sanford, and former representative Chip Pickering as something just shy of a brothel.

Such obvious religion-and-sex hypocrisy, however, obscures the fact that C Street House is a whole lot more than a love shack. I’ve chronicled the Family over the past seven years, but it’s only in the past few weeks that I’ve seen how it acts like a lobby, even as it does not register as one. It reaches out to congressmen, providing below-market housing at the C Street House for half a dozen at a time and hosting many more for prayer and policy sessions. It also funds their travel around the world, makes matches with businessmen backers (a few women are involved, but this is a boy’s club; serious prayer is gender-segregated), loans them money when they’re down, and introduces them to foreign leaders when they’re ready to rise from provincial politics and into the stratosphere of foreign affairs.

“The more invisible you can make your organization,” explains leader Doug Coe, “the more influence it will have.”

The Family uses its Arlington, Virginia, headquarters—a lavish mansion known as the Cedars—to host foreign dignitaries and ambassadors at weekly meetings led by former Attorney General Ed Meese; John Ashcroft has been known to entertain with song. It’s “the most powerful group in Washington that nobody knows,” according to David Kuo, a former special assistant to George W. Bush who helped run his faith-based initiatives push. “[Its] reach into governments around the world is impossible to overstate or even grasp.” That’s in part because the Family doesn’t want you to. “The more you can make your organization invisible,” explains leader Doug Coe, “the more influence it will have.”

Consider the National Prayer Breakfast, an annual ritual of public piety created by the Family in 1953 to consecrate the United States to Christ. Ostensibly ecumenical and attended by most of Congress, the president, and delegations from around the world, that emphasis remains today even as invitations go out on congressional letterhead and reporters RSVP through the White House, an official veneer that has led more than one guest to mistake the event for government-sanctioned civil religion.

But what you see, says Coe, “is only one-tenth of 1 percent of the iceberg.” Foreign leaders seem to see the breakfast—and the week of private meetings and dinners, many of them organized around industries such as defense, banking, and oil, that surround it—as an opportunity for access to American politicians. Taiwan, for instance, considered its donation of $10,000 one of the best bargains in what George H.W. Bush, who used the Cedars to meet with Iraqi officials in the 1980s, called “quiet diplomacy”—an opportunity to rub shoulders with politicians and corporate chieftains, despite the fact that such efforts by unauthorized citizens could be illegal under the Logan Act, one of the oldest laws on the books.

The Family also offers a select group of foreign leaders—usually from smaller countries looking to trade U.N. votes or troops for foreign aid—private meetings with the president in the hour before the breakfast. That’s a carrot the Family then uses to build its influence overseas. “If Doug Coe can get you some face time with the president of the United States, then you will take his call and seek his friendship,” an anonymous government informant told a sociologist sympathetic to the Family’s cause. “That’s power.”

Coe, a lanky, charismatic Oregonian dubbed the “Stealth Persuader” by Time magazine, sometimes seems like he can barely understand it himself. “If I told you who has participated and who participates until this day,” he said in a 2001 interview with the St. Paul Pioneer Press, one of the handful he’s given since he assumed leadership of the Family in 1969, “you would not believe it. You’d say, ‘You mean that scoundrel? That despot?’” Indeed, the Family maintains that men such as Papa Doc Duvalier of Haiti, Suharto of Indonesia, Yoweri Museveni of Uganda, and the new strongmen of Eastern Europe were anointed as God’s chosen leaders for their nations, a reflection of its core belief (revealed to founder Abraham Vereide in a direct communication from God in 1935) that God prefers the mighty to the meek, the powerful to the powerless, the “up and out,” as Vereide called them, to the rabble.

The list of Family-affiliated politicians here at home is less surprising: Republican senators Tom Coburn and James Inhofe of Oklahoma, Jim DeMint and Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, Chuck Grassley of Iowa, John Thune of South Dakota, and Sam Brownback of Kansas, as well as his likely replacement, Rep. Todd Tiahrt (I once heard Tihart at the C Street House talk about ways “for the Christian to win the race with the Muslim.” The problem, he said, was that Muslims were having too many babies, while “Americans”—a category that, in  Tiahrt’s thinking, apparently does not include any Muslims—are aborting too many of their own). One need not necessarily be Republican—the Family claims the support of a number of conservative “faith-based Democrats,” such as Senator Bill Nelson of Florida and Representative Mike McIntyre of North Carolina. The Family even maintained relations with the Democrat most despised by many Republicans: Hillary Clinton, who once described leader Doug Coe as a “genuinely loving spiritual mentor and guide.” (When NBC Nightly News broadcast videotape I supplied of Coe comparing his Fellowship to that of “Hitler, Goebbels, and Himmler,” Clinton immediately distanced herself from the group, declaring that she’d never given it any money.)

The Family’s political focus is, unsurprisingly, in the most authoritative of arenas: foreign policy. A recent review of travel records, undertaken with Chris Rodda of the Military Religious Freedom Foundation, reveals that Family members Ensign and Coburn, along with representatives John R. Carter (R-TX), Pete Hoekstra (R-MI), Robert Aderholt (R-AL), Joseph Pitts (R-PA), Frank Wolf (R-VA), and Mike Doyle, a Pennsylvania Democrat who lives in the C Street House, traveled extensively overseas on the dime of the International Foundation, one of the network of nonprofits created by the Family that ostensibly represents U.S. policy interests.” Destinations included Serbia, Croatia, Kosovo, Albania, Bulgaria, Belarus, Italy, Israel, Sudan, Montenegro, and Macedonia, whose prime minister spoke openly this spring of using the Prayer Breakfast to lobby American politicians, including Clinton.

Further back, Sen. Grassley made Somalia a focus of Family diplomacy in the 1980s, championing its then-dictator Siad Barre, who used U.S. aid to wage war on his own country. The Family has a heart for Africa, as Coe puts it; far-right Senator Jim Inhofe revealed this week that he uses the C Street House for quarterly foreign-policy meetings with African diplomats. And preaching from the pulpit of his church in Topeka, Brownback has boasted of recruiting Jordan’s King Abdullah into a Family-led Bible study about Jesus, just one example of how Family members use their official status as representatives of the U.S. government to win lip service for their God from non-Christian leaders.

Coburn, known for his candor (except about his counsel to Ensign, which he says is protected by medical and religious confidentiality), declares on one form that he traveled to Lebanon, where he met with then-president Emile Lahoud, to organize confidential prayer groups like the ones that meet at the house on C Street. In a country such as Lebanon, long torn by Christian-Islamic conflict, that’s not just tacky; it’s a matter of American national security. It’s not hard for Islamic militants to propagandize against America as a Christian nation when high officials are traveling overseas to promote it as such.

Coburn’s mission dates back to the Family’s early days, when Senator Frank Carlson, a Kansas Republican who led it during the 1950s, coined the motto “Worldwide Spiritual Offensive.” Back then, the Family was a vehicle for waging the Cold War, but its ambitions have always been longer-term than the fight at hand. The Family grows out of a once-progressive strain of Christian theology, post-millennialism. Unlike more mainstream fundamentalists who await Christ’s imminent return—after which we’ll enjoy a millennium of godly rule—the Family’s leaders believe Jesus won’t come back until we’ve proven ourselves with 1,000 years of God-led governance around the globe. In 1945, founder Vereide, anticipating the fever dreams of today’s conspiracy theorists, called the family of God-anointed leaders for which he hoped a “new world order.”

But the Family’s new world order has long looked much like the old. When I asked a Family staffer about the group’s support for Ugandan strongman Yoweri Museveni, the answer was simply that through the Family, Museveni would become a better dictator. Better at what? While under the Family’s guidance, Museveni, whom they describe as a “key man” for Africa, has drifted away from his early democratic promise, cracking down on the press and imprisoning political opponents. Working through Prayer Breakfast connections, he granted a $500 million, no-bid contract for an ill-fated hydroelectric project to energy giant AES, which dispatched the son of a Prayer Breakfast organizer with the Bunyanesque name of Christian Wright to quiet the opposition. Critics allege he dispensed $400,000 of bribes. Wright says his signature was forged.

The Family’s frequent Prayer Breakfast invitations to the defense ministers of the Balkans have done little to build peace in that region. Coburn, it seems, is fanning the flames of conflict in Lebanon. And while Brownback’s hope that Jordan’s King Abdullah will someday bow before Christ may seem absurd, his overseas conflation of American interests and fundamentalist religion is far more dangerous than amusing—an off-the-books, Family-style foreign policy as at odds with American interests as the C Street men’s sexual adventures are with the small-f family values they preach to the rest of us, the little people not chosen by their private god.

Jeff Sharlet, the author of The Family: The Secret Fundamentalism at the Heart of American Power, is a contributing editor for Harper’s and Rolling Stone and a visiting research scholar at the New York University Center for Religion and Media.