Democratic candidates for president try to appeal to an ideological audience that pays attention to early campaigns, but will that hurt the candidates in the longer term?
WASHINGTON, D.C.-The national press for the past two months has roasted "hypocritical" Christians who live in or meet in a ministry-owned house on C Street two blocks from the U.S. Capitol. Nevada Sen. John Ensign and South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford, both talked about this spring as potential GOP presidential candidates in 2012, have acknowledged adulterous relationships. Last month a lawsuit in Jackson, Miss., served notice that former Rep. Chip Pickering, also a Republican, may have carried on in the C Street house an illicit affair with a former college love interest (see "Alienation of affection").
Sustained media attention has focused on whether the C Street house conclaves had contributed to or condoned the breaking of marital vows: Just what was in the water at C Street to prompt the three-all GOP political and social conservatives who a decade ago called for former President Bill Clinton's resignation-to fall into similar scandals of their own?
But adultery is not new in Congress or in the church, and aside from three men shattering their families' lives, a larger story emerged of the group behind the C Street row house: a 60-year-old, globally reaching organization that has muddy theology and a disdain for the established church.
The C Street house is one of many properties in the greater Washington area owned by the Fellowship Foundation, which sponsors the annual National Prayer Breakfast, Bible studies, social gatherings, and private retreats, and funds international development.
"Associates" (employees) of the Fellowship say its mission is to show the love of Jesus to the world's leaders. But it has no website to publicize that work, and those affiliated are extremely reluctant-if not prohibited, say some-to talk about it.
Former U.S. Senate chaplain Richard Halverson was one of the first to join the Fellowship under founder Abraham Vereide in the 1950s. Halverson, before joining the organization, had prayer groups of his own with movie stars in Hollywood.
Vereide, looking for someone to partner with in a similar mission in Washington, chose Halverson. Privacy became a trademark of the Fellowship's prayer groups, something that grew into an obsessive culture of secrecy in the organization itself, Halverson's son Chris told WORLD. "If you talked about it, you would destroy that fellowship," he said.
Washingtonians who know about it think of C Street as a kind of "Christian frat house," according to Michael Cromartie, vice president of the Ethics and Public Policy Center, who has been close with members of the Fellowship for over 20 years. But Cromartie also noted, "It is a virtue to try to be anonymous in a town where self-promotion is so often the modus operandi of many who come to work among the powerful."
At the center of the group is Doug Coe, who joined in 1959 at the age of 30 after working with The Navigators, and a decade later was heading the organization. Now 80, those who know him describe him as warm and charismatic with a dominating personality. He has no obvious successor.
Coe declined to be interviewed by WORLD for this article.
House members Zach Wamp, R-Tenn.; Bart Stupak, D-Mich.; Mike Doyle, D-Pa.; and Heath Shuler, D-N.C., are reportedly current C Street residents. Senators Tom Coburn, R-Okla.; Jim DeMint, R-S.C.; and John Ensign, R-Nev. reportedly also live there. All have been repeatedly contacted by WORLD in the wake of the scandals and have declined personally or through spokespersons to be interviewed on the record about the group.
Others who regularly attend C Street house gatherings or other Fellowship studies reportedly include Reps. Jerry Moran, R-Kan.; and Joe Pitts, R-Pa.; along with Sens. Sam Brownback, R-Kan.; Bill Nelson, D-Fla.; and Mark Pryor, D-Ark. They too were contacted by WORLD. Moran, Nelson, and Pryor did not return repeated phone calls; others refused to speak on the record about C Street house activities and the Fellowship.
"I've often said that if they would simply get a website, that would answer a lot of questions," said D. Michael Lindsay, a Rice University sociologist who spent three years studying the Fellowship. "Since so little is known about it, that tends to inspire conspiracy theories. They don't respond to criticisms, so people think the worst."
Another lawmaker with long ties to the group, Oklahoma Republican Sen. James Inhofe, told WORLD he wanted to talk about the group because he is tired of the conspiracy theories.
Inhofe, 74, attends a weekly Fellowship study that does not meet at C Street: "We talk about our families, we talk about our backgrounds, we talk about our faith. We get together and support each other and pray together. There is nothing new and sinister about this."
Inhofe insists the groups are private-not secretive: "We talk about things we don't talk about in public."
Other regulars say associates reprimand them for using the term "the Fellowship," and tell them to call the group "the Family."
In fact, said Halverson, "they used to call themselves the Christian mafia-and they would laugh. Meaning one family is in strong power and then other families around that family have some power. . . . I would have been considered one of the families that have power."
In the early days, the core families included Vereide, the Coes, and the Halversons. Coe "became the godfather . . . but for good, not for bad," said Halverson.
Today members emphasize that there is no overriding organization, only brothers and sisters with the Holy Spirit guiding them. Others say the nonprofit organization is like a starfish, with no head, where an arm can be cut off, but another sprouts in its place. The "starfish" principle places emphasis on decentralization, but according to current tax documents, the organization does have a board of directors and had $19 million in revenue in 2007 (see sidebar below).
Eric Fellman, a Fellowship employee for 11 years who remains on the board, said a budget committee (on which he serves) reviews all the organization's funding activities.
When Fellman first joined the organization in 1997, he said Coe had discretion over about $2 million of a $10 million budget. Now he said each "relationship building" project of the Fellowship has a "core" group that oversees it without Coe's direct supervision. But Coe's blessing is vital to some ministry opportunities-he has access to donors, and sometimes people come to him seeking funds for, say, a relationship-building trip to India with lawmakers.
"He would think about it and pray about it, and he might say no," said Fellman. "They might get upset about it. He may have made a mistake. [But] he made that judgment out of his prayer and relationship with the Lord."
In addition to the house on C Street and other properties, relationship building takes place at the Cedars, the organization's $7.8 million headquarters. A mansion tucked away in Arlington, Va., it once belonged to U.S. statesman and founding father George Mason.
Silver tea sets, pink Italian marble, and overstuffed divans set the scene for elite gatherings. A banquet table serves weekly ambassadorial lunches, and another smaller sitting room allows for private, intimate meetings. Outside are tennis courts under tall oaks and a swimming pool that blends smoothly into the landscape.
Fellowship associates call the Cedars "a house for the poor," by which they mean a place where political leaders can meet on behalf of the poor.
A sunlight-filled salon has words painted on the border: "Alpha, Omega . . . Christ in you." The word "Christ" is striking because members of the Fellowship usually only talk about "Jesus"-someone with whom Muslims, Hindus, and anyone else can be comfortable.
Well-knowns ranging from Michael Jackson to Hillary Clinton have escaped to the Cedars for refuge. Couples rotate as hosts at the mansion for two-week stints and welcome any visitors as "part of the Family."
Young women who live at a boarding house called Potomac Point down the street work dusting shelves, scrubbing dishes, and making meals at the Cedars. Young men who live down the street at a separate house called Ivanwald tend the grounds carrying leaf blowers. The mansion's carriage house holds administrative offices.
The Fellowship also owns a house in the high-crime northeast Washington neighborhood of Trinidad, where students come for afterschool programs that sometimes include a field trip out to swim at the Cedars. The group began Jonathan House, a home for young Christian men named after Coe's deceased son and now operated by Washington Community Fellowship. And in Annapolis it owns homes for young people to live in and receive mentoring under the Wilberforce Foundation.
The house on C Street is listed under the ownership of the Fellowship's C Street Center, an IRS-registered church, though the house doesn't fit the traditional definition of a church. Residents pay about $950 in rent, and the lawmakers who live there aren't performing sacraments or affirming any sort of church creed or authority. That, critics say, is part of the problem. Fellman said the house was zoned as a church when the Fellowship purchased it, and there was "something like a 12-year wait" to change the zoning designation because it is a historic property.
But the lack of church discipline and structure is "a serious missing element in this whole thing, both in the lives of the individuals involved, and in the Fellowship organization as a whole," said Rob Schenck, who heads D.C.-based Faith & Action and hosts a Bible study with lawmakers on Capitol Hill. The church offers unique structures for accountability, said Schenck, "because that's what it's designed to do." Though lawmakers may spend weekdays in Washington and fly home to their districts to attend to constituents and see their families, Schenck contends that the pace is not an insurmountable obstacle to maintaining church relationships.
"Does this provide an enabling environment? Or does this provide an environment of discipline? I've seen it do both," said Halverson about the Fellowship.
With his father's influence, Halverson, 65, became involved in Fellowship activities at age 18 but left the group a little over 10 years ago. He said he felt marginalized after his father's 1995 death, could no longer afford to live in the Cedars neighborhood, and was increasingly bothered by what he described as the group's "pathologies"-its obsession with privacy and problems in the areas of discipline, accountability, and theology. The gospel of the cross, he said, looked more like "the gospel of the kingdom of God triumphant."
Halverson can recite the organization's "catechism" by heart: "What is the purpose of life? To love God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength. What is the gospel? The gospel is the person of Jesus Christ. What is the work of God? The work is to believe in Him who He has sent."
And among the Fellowship's three leaders, his father was the only one to have obtained a seminary degree. Richard Halverson was a full-time pastor (serving at Fourth Presbyterian Church in Bethesda, Md., for 23 years before he became the Senate chaplain). He worked behind the scenes and deferred to the leadership of Vereide or Coe-neither of whom had theological training. Some said theological rigor drained away from the organization after Halverson's death.
Beyond that, the Fellowship distances itself from the institutional church through its informal policy of refusing to call any ordained pastor working with them by his title, like "reverend." Coe has said one must take Jesus out of His "religious wrapping."
The word "Christian," also, is taboo. Fellman explained, "You would have to understand Doug's definition of a Muslim or Hindu. Was Jesus a Christian? Did Jesus ever utter the word Christian?. . . They are not becoming Christians, they are following Jesus."
Fellman said that Coe believes in "the inerrancy of Scripture" but that it should be interpreted on one's own, outside of "denominations." And he contends that "denominations break [Jesus'] heart."
Regarding Fellowship participants, Sen. Inhofe explained, "Some of them are Muslims. Some of them are Christians. But they meet in the spirit of Jesus, so it's not a denomination thing, it's not even a Christian thing, it's a Jesus thing."
Those sentiments have led to controversial Fellowship-sponsored interfaith dialogues with Islamic strongmen. And over the years Coe has raised eyebrows meeting with world leaders like Indonesian dictator Suharto, Nicaraguan Anastasio Somoza, and Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi.
That, said Cromartie, "is a form of Christian innocence and naïvete." The Fellowship approaches world leaders, he said, as if disagreements are misunderstandings that can simply be solved through reconciliation.
Rice University's Lindsay sums up the group as "sort of a free-floating spiritual formation group" that "is very indifferent to local churches."
In addition to "a number of issues raised about their theology," Lindsay said, "there are elements of the Fellowship which indeed are not in line with what we would consider mainstream evangelical theology."
Lindsay decided to delve into understanding the Fellowship after interviewing more than 360 of the nation's top political leaders for a book on faith and power. He discovered that lawmakers mentioned the Fellowship more than any other organization when asked to name a ministry with the most influence on their faith: "It has relationships with pretty much every world leader-good and bad-and there are not many organizations in the world that can claim that."
One of the most publicized relationships is with Chuck Colson, a former Nixon adviser convicted in the Watergate scandal and founder of Prison Fellowship Ministries. Colson has described the key role the Fellowship and Doug Coe played in his conversion in his 1975 memoir Born Again, and he is quick to praise the group's work in his life as a young Christian. But Colson told WORLD he now has concerns about politicians using the C Street group, for example, as a replacement for church. "It's a mistake," he said. "A leading figure ought to belong to a church."
Richard Halverson preached a sermon in 1987 saying, "God created people to master their environment, to subdue it, to replenish it-but under God's authority. If people will not be under God's authority then they become victims rather than masters of their environment."
(Editor's note: This article has been edited to reflect that Sen. James Inhofe is 74 years old.)
Following the money
The Fellowship reported a $2.5 million surplus on $19 million in revenues, according to its most recent tax filing in 2007. The organization operates as a grant-making entity, sending checks annually to more than 50 nonprofits in the United States and around the world. It is best known for its Washington, D.C., activities like the annual National Prayer Breakfast, on which the Fellowship spends about $1 million. It also funds a variety of properties, events, and traveling abroad.
It draws its fundraising revenue mainly as missionary-type support; individuals in the organization raise money for, say, a trip to Brazil, and donors make their checks out to the Fellowship or its alternate name, the International Foundation. Nonprofit 501(c)3s like the Fellowship aren't supposed to funnel donations to non-501(c)3s, but in 2007 the Fellowship granted $1.2 million to a Ugandan charity called Cornerstone Development. Granting funds to foreign charities is legal, though the IRS has imposed more restrictions on those transactions since 9/11. Cornerstone on its website directs its donors to give to the International Foundation, with a note that it is for Cornerstone. "This is a US registered nonprofit that passes on to us 100% of the donation. And you will receive a tax-deductible receipt from them," the site explains.
Because the Fellowship is so diffuse, people all over the world oversee different grants. Charles McLeod, for example, lives in Rochester, Mich., and he receives a number of checks for grants to various organizations at his home.
"I like to send a personal note with a check," he said. "We're all trying to do it through relationships."
On a dead end road in Annapolis, Md., reside the leaders of another public charity affiliated with the Fellowship, an even lower-profile group called the Wilberforce Foundation.
"Just about everything about the Wilberforce Foundation is odd," said Rod Pitzer, managing director of research at the nonprofit watchdog Wall Watchers. Pitzer noted that Wilberforce has no employees, it transacts thousands of dollars back and forth with the Fellowship, and its president Jerry Jonker lives in Michigan while the three other organization officers live in the Washington area, including David and Tim Coe, Fellowship head Doug Coe's sons. In 2007, Tim sold his house to Wilberforce, though tax records say he abstained from the decision to buy the house and the process for determining the price. The organization has no conflict-of-interest policy. The Fellowship does, but employs 11 of Doug Coe's family members-his sons, a daughter, daughters-in-law, and five grandchildren, as of the 2007 return.
The Wilberforce mission is to "aid, train, educate, and encourage young people in the principles of faith and relationship skills [and] provide food and shelter if needed." But Eric Fellman, a board member who helps oversee the budget, said the Maryland-based organization was set up "to hold properties," because under D.C. liability law, all of the Fellowship's assets could be accessed to cover a lawsuit. So if someone were injured at one of the Wilberforce properties and sued, only the Wilberforce assets would be fair game.
The C Street Center has no publicly accessible financial records because it is registered as a church with the IRS. Fellman said the Fellowship is audited every year by an independent firm.
The Cedars (Arlington, VA)
The $7.8 million mansion, formerly property of George Mason, offers a meeting place and retreat for public figures. On the same street sit two group homes, one for young women, Potomac Point, and one for young men, Ivanwald.
The Wilberforce Foundation (Annapolis, MD)
This is the listed address for the foundation, though David Coe, a Fellowship employee and son of Doug Coe, is the owner. Several Fellowship employees and associates have homes on the same street.
The Wilberforce Foundation (Annapolis, MD)
Tim Coe, a Fellowship employee, Wilberforce board member, and son of Doug Coe, sold this house to the Wilberforce Foundation in 2007, though documents say that he abstained from any involvement in the decision to buy the house or determine the price.
The Jonathan House (Washington, DC)
The Fellowship raised the money to start this house for young Christian men in the 1980s, but it now belongs to a church, Washington Community Fellowship, which provides administrative oversight. The house is named for Doug Coe's son, Jonathan, who died of lymphoma at the age of 27.
The 19th Street House (Washington, DC)
The Fellowship runs a home in Trinidad, one of Washington's most crime-ridden neighborhoods, to give students and single moms a safe place to come after school.
The C Street Center (Washington, DC)
The $1.8 million historic home hosts Bible studies, prayer meetings, and serves as a home to a number of male lawmakers who pay $950 a month. The house, a registered church, is owned by the C Street Center, an organization under the umbrella of the Fellowship.