The Secret Bible Group Accruing Washington Power

There is a secret organization of powerful Christians in Washington. Only don't call it "secret," its defenders say. Call it "private." Or "below the radar." And it's not an organization, more like a global informal network of friends, or, as one of its leaders described it, "a group of people brought together by a common love." And please don't use the word "Christian." The common love that binds this group is the love of Jesus—the historical figure, the rabbi, the prophet, the shining example, the Son of God. All approaches to loving Jesus are fine. The Fellowship, as this group is called, has the slimmest scrap of a Web site. Nothing about its organizational structure is visible to the public: not its board of directors, nor its executive team, nor its mission statement, nor its 200 subsidiary ministries, nor its national or global membership. (For, as its surrogates tell me, there are no "members.") Outsiders and the press can be forgiven, I think, for regarding this group with suspicion.

The Fellowship became a national news story earlier this summer, when it was discovered that the philandering South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford and the philandering Nevada Sen. John Ensign had stayed or prayed—or both—at the "C Street House," a Christian dormitory in the capital owned and administered by a group connected to the Fellowship. It didn't even seem like a story: that politicians cheat on their wives is not new or surprising; that those politicians are sometimes believing Christians likewise hardly merits a headline. The fact that a Christian group provides cheap housing for lawmakers away from home can even be seen as a good thing—a respite from the hubbub and the politicking, a bipartisan safe house.

But the Fellowship had a problem in the person of a journalist named Jeff Sharlet, who, six years earlier, had spent some time undercover as an acolyte at one of its conference centers in suburban Virginia and in 2008 published a book about his experience there. His book—The Family: The Secret Fundamentalism at the Heart of American Power—argues that what the Fellowship really wants to do is consolidate power among global leaders in the name of Jesus. It paints a creepy, even cultish picture of clean-cut young men and women who enlist to serve (that is, cook, clean, mow, mop) at the facilities where powerful lawmakers meet with each other and foreign leaders to talk about Jesus. Though Sharlet raises real questions about the Fellowship's methods and mission, his book's tone, overall, is alarmist: it confirms all the darkest fears of the secular left. See, Sharlet seemed to be saying, there reallyis a Christian conspiracy to take over the world. Sharlet became a regular guest on The Rachel Maddow Show and made appearances on Real Time With Bill Maher and The Daily Show With Jon Stewart.

What is the Fellowship? In the early 1940s, a Methodist minister named Abraham Vereide started a series of prayer groups among lawmakers in Washington in an effort to beat back what he saw as the Communist threat. In 1953, President Dwight D. Eisenhower attended one of these groups and thus inaugurated the tradition of the National Prayer Breakfast—an event organized to this day by the Fellowship (though, even there, it prefers to remain in the background). An Oregonian layman named Doug Coe took over the leadership of the Fellowship in 1969 and has been in charge ever since. Friends of Coe describe him as a quirky, charismatic, sincere personality—the kind of guy who would mortgage his house to raise bail for a friend. Today, those in the Fellowship practice what they call "relational evangelism," a loving of Jesus through personal connections and self-sacrifice. (Indeed, conservative evangelicals criticize the Fellowship for this very reason: it doesn't stress doctrine or even put much emphasis on going to church. As such, it's hard to see it as a fundamentalist plot.) It organizes small prayer-meeting groups all over Capitol Hill—as well as the country and the world. Think of it as a viral network of Alcoholics Anonymous groups, where members meet regularly and literally bare their souls in an effort to become more loving to their neighbors. These prayer groups result not just in personal transformations and deep friendships, participants say, but also in a blizzard of good works: hospitals and rehab centers and schools for poor children all over the world.

Which is why my e-mail began to fill with missives from people in Washington, complaining about how one-sided the coverage of the Fellowship was. I picked up the phone and called Coe for some clarification. He declined to speak with me: I was able to reach some surrogates. "For all the hysteria about Christian organizations, the irony that the Fellowship is being targeted as a bad egg is jaw-dropping," said David Kuo, who worked for a while in George W. Bush's office of faith-based initiatives and has been affiliated with the Fellowship since college. "This is so not Focus on the Family, this is so not the Christian Coalition," he said, naming two outspoken conservative, Christian organizations. "There are other Christian groups that are truly insane. Who purport to follow Jesus Christ and who I would submit do not. The Fellowship is a loosely banded group of people who have an affinity for Jesus." Tony Hall, the former Democratic congressman from Ohio, was similarly laudatory. "If people in this country knew how many Democrats and Republicans pray together and actually like each other behind closed doors, they would be amazed." Hall has been in a Fellowship prayer group with Virginia Republican Frank Wolf for 25 years; he counts Wolf among his very closest friends. Hall describes the Fellowship as "men and women who are trying to get right with God. Trying to follow God, learn how to love him, and learn how to love each other." When he lost his teenage son to leukemia, Hall says, "This family helped me. This family was there for me. That's what they do."

Chuck Colson, who was special counsel to Richard M. Nixon and was imprisoned for seven months after Watergate, had a conversion experience in 1973 and credits the Fellowship—and Coe in particular—for seeing him through his darkest days. "He really ministered to me in a powerful way," says Colson, who now runs a prison ministry. "He had a wonderful personality; he loved the Lord." When Colson was serving time, Fellowship prayer partners visited him frequently and "Coe's daughter moved in and lived with my wife so she wouldn't be alone." The secrecy—or privacy—is necessary to protect the authenticity of the ministry, members say. "Confidentiality is vital to these groups," says Hall. "How are you going to get help if you are vulnerable in a public sense?"—that is, if your confessions to your prayer group might show up on the next day? Cal Thomas, the syndicated columnist, explains the emphasis on confidentiality another way: "Doug's whole thing is about causing people of different political, cultural, and religious backgrounds to see each other in a new dimension. Making a lot of this public or transparent would kill that work."

To be sure, the privacy of the confessional, as well as the AA group or the shrink's couch, is a well-respected and necessary boundary. But to the leadership of the Fellowship, I submit this argument: It's time to be more transparent. (Colson is one of those who agree. Doug Coe, he says, "is paranoid about the press and always has been, and I've tried to talk him out of it.") The house-of-mirrors rhetoric raises more questions than it answers, and the negative publicity is causing some to shy away. "Are there people who maybe wanted to know more about God in their life and are starting to back off? Yeah, that might be true," says Hall. The Fellowship is 75 years old. It organizes the National Prayer Breakfast, an annual event attended by 3,000 people from all over the world who pay hundreds of dollars per ticket to pray, ecumenically, with the president himself. Some of the world's most powerful people are included in its circles—as regulars or merely occasional participants. It flies business and political leaders abroad to meet with other "friends"— heads of state and local despots—in the name of Jesus. But it is in the midst of a PR crisis: Sharlet has leveled certain substantive charges that demand answers. Most important, though, we simply want to know that our public servants don't have a confused sense of personal and professional mission. They can love Jesus. But we need to know they are working for us.