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The Fellowship, which is also known to members as the Family, is a secretive worldwide confederation of mostly Republican politicians and their associates. Until three of its more highly placed denizens got busted for cheating on their wives last year, the Fellowship’s public profile consisted mainly of its sponsorship of the annual National Prayer Breakfast at which Hillary Clinton was this year’s keynote speaker.
Harper’s readers may remember the 81-year-old Fellowship leader, Doug Coe, encouraging followers—who aside from the scarlet trio Mark Sanford, John Ensign, and Chip Pickering, include Jim DeMint, Bart Stupak, John Thune, Sam Brownback, Steve Largent, Tom Coburn and gazillions more— to worship Jesus with the passion and commitment variously observed by devotees of Hitler, Himmler, Lenin, Mao, Bin Laden, Goebbels and others in a story by Fellowship infiltrator Jeff Sharlet that eventually became the bestselling book The Family. But the Jesus the Fellowship purports to serve is actually much more analogous to Santa Claus, it is clear from Sharlet’s new follow-up C Street: The Fundamentalist Threat To American Democracy, which was released Monday.
Perhaps that is why the beliefs and prophesies of such modern day megamall exponents of Coe’s philosophy as Rick Warren and Joel Osteen inspired such scant investigation from the media all those years—because they aren’t really so much beliefs or prophesies as they are something dumber and cruder and not worthy of investigation, but for the enormous actual power and influence wielded by the long line of men who consider themselves the organization’s Elves, toiling industriously all fiscal year to fill their master’s sack with lucrative government contracts, trust-friendly judiciary nominees, loopholes, clauses etc. As in the case of “Santa’s” dubious stated intention of rewarding his young “believers” commensurately with good behavior, the most elite Elves live collectively in a dormitory of sorts called C Street, where female Fellowship interns turn down their beds every night and Fellowship elders have reassured generations of Elf wives that their husbands would be “seen when they were sleeping, known when awake,” and that sort of thing. This turned out to be a bit of a put-on, and a few of the scorned spouses started telling America about the place. Mostly, America wanted to hear about illicit sex, and Sharlet’s book does not disappoint in the department of deconstructing politician affairs. (Pickering’s was decisively the most lame.)
As with Santa, the Jesus of the Fellowship operates globally and is open to the worship of those of any faith; as with Santa, he rarely withholds gifts from the children of murderous kleptocrats or treacherous oligarchs or well-connected Nazis or even the dictators/oligarchs/jihadis/Nazis themselves; as with Santa, the only operating algorithm He seems to apply in determining the distribution of spoils is to spoil most generously the already spoiled.
Once one understands these unifying aims of the Fellowship of this Santa-Jesus, it is much easier to explain its seventy-some year track record of funneling African aid grants to known terrorists; dispatching congressmen to pay respects to guys like Siad Barre and Sani Abacha; appropriating large spikes in military aid to autocratic (but Family-friendly!) regimes on the eve of genocidal killing sprees (essentially what happened after the Family, with the help of member Rep. Bob Aderholt, established an outpost in Sri Lanka in 2004) and cultivating a rich lower profile network of military men like Fellowship VP and DOD inspector general Claude Kicklighter, best known as the guy who quashed (among many other investigations) that into a widely publicized brutal gang rape suffered by an American KBR contractor working in Iraq at the hands of some “colleagues.”
As Samir Kreidie, a Lebanese Fellowship leader who used his connections to land a lucrative contract managing Iraq’s youth centers (where the computer password is “dougcoeleb”), explains in C Street, the Fellowship is “a Mafia of good deeds.” Many friendly foreigners have spoken similarly of the CIA, and connections to various official government intelligence agencies are sprinkled throughout C Street and the Family Rolodex; tellingly, the Fellowship got its first high-profile overseas assignment when the State Department dispatched founder Abram Vereide to Europe to interview Nazi prisoners for “conversion potential.” (Also worth mentioning: the group’s next big international expansion came in Indonesia in 1966, just as Suharto was finishing off Sukarno.)
There are 300 pages of this stuff in the book, including a multitude of familiar names and bizarre episodes of history and dubious taxpayer-funded junkets and contracts, each of which potentially leads down the path of another, more lucrative scandal, but the largest question of all is fairly satisfactorily answered. What the Fellowship seeks is power, for the sake of power, and the preservation of the status quo. It is obvious, predictable and boring; Sharlet’s most helpful source, an anonymous fellow “raised” in the Family, provided him internal documents—including a rich trove of PowerPoint presentations—not out of vengeance or malice towards followers but simply because he found the whole thing juvenile, a “conversion” he told Sharlet he had undergone in college, following “a few philosophy courses.” (Later Family member and Watergate felon Chuck Colson explains the group’s near-deification of the early 19th century abolitionist William Wilberforce thusly: “There were very few that stood against the Enlightenment.”)
But if the anti-philosophy promulgated by the Fellowship is shallow, its coffers are decidedly not, and if its philosophy is unenlightened, what can be said of the ostensibly enlightened observer who surveys it and, granted access to its simplistic elves, writes the 7,500-word equivalent of a “Yes Virginia” letter to its feebleminded followers in the nation’s preeminent serious magazine?
I am talking about the recent New Yorker story“Frat House For Jesus,” in which you will find almost none of the non-prurient aforementioned facts about the Fellowship or C Street—although you will learn that what Jim DeMint eats every morning when “in pajama bottoms and a T-shirt” he emerges from his modest room for breakfast. (Oreos and dried cranberries.)
In the depiction of staff writer Peter Boyer (pictured at right looking not at all sympathetic to the mores and machinations of deep-pocketed “boy’s club” type operations) the Fellowship is a fundamentally benign bipartisan network of God-fearing men who recently had the misfortune of having a bunch of members’ extramarital peccadilloes exposed all at once. This may be because they are so anachronistically committed to family values and the sanctity of marriage that the group stages “interventions” when a member is suspected of being unfaithful, instead of looking the other way and letting the thing pass like any normal congressional fraternity might be expected to do. Sure, Fellowship guys make mistakes—but for the most part that’s because they are so open to new friends and cultures, so admirably willing to make themselves vulnerable:
Members of the group concede that some people may seek their fellowship for reasons other than a wish to grow in Jesus. In the early nineteen-nineties, a Russian media entrepreneur named Vladimir Gusinsky, who’d had a falling-out with Vladimir Putin, was looking West for new opportunities. He hired the public-relations firm APCO, which specializes in crisis management, to help introduce him in the United States. One of the APCO executives handling Gusinsky was Don Bonker, the former Democratic congressman, and an established figure within the Fellowship. Bonker brought Gusinsky, a secular Jew, to the Cedars to meet Doug Coe. “We emerged from that meeting, and we were walking to the limo, and Gusinsky stopped me,” Bonker recalls. “He said, ‘That is an amazing man. I want to come back and see him again.'”
Gusinsky attended the Prayer Breakfast the next year, and has missed only one of the events in the years since. In 1998, when Coe and a group of his close associates made a whirlwind trip through the former republics of the Soviet Union, meeting with leaders introduced by friends in the international network, Gusinsky provided a 727 with a full crew to transport them. It is impossible, ultimately, to know the motivation of someone like Gusinsky, who comes from a political culture in which proximity to power is everything. The Fellowship meant entree to a rarefied circle, and the prospect of shaking hands with a President. “There’s this whole Washington phenomenon, related to access to power and the aphrodisiac of power,” Michael Cromartie, of the Ethics and Public Policy Center, says. “You bring an oligarch over to the Cedars and he says, ‘Ah, these are my kind of people. They have pictures on the wall of all these Presidents, they seem to be in touch with power, they know people with money, this will help my business.”
Now, what’s interesting about this is, I don’t have time to scrutinize this seriously, but Gusinsky could be a total Trojan horse. His “falling-out” with Putin (which came much later than the “early nineteen-nineties” when the country was in total chaos and Putin was an obscure university administrator, but that could just be what they call an “editing error”) has rendered the onetime oligarch something of a has-been. Whatever connections he helped Coe & Co. make in 1998, the year “chaos” turned to “freefall” when the central bank defaulted and the ruble was devalued and all that, they were probably otherwise preoccupied. But we aren’t told, and just as quickly as the shadowy, potentially ulterior-motivated(!) former media baron is introduced, he’s abandoned. This is a recurring theme in Boyers’ characterization of the Family’s international empire, deployed most recklessly in his section about their outpost in Uganda:
[Longtime Family leader and former Ford and Carter administration official Bob] Hunter had no particular interest in foreign affairs at the time, but he and his friends began to pray for Uganda, a place that came to mind, he told me, because Idi Amin was in the news at the time. Soon, they met an Anglican missionary from Uganda, and launched a fund-raising campaign for the Mengo Hospital, in Kampala. Hunter continued to pray, and one day, at an airport, he met a young woman who turned out to be the daughter of Andrew Young, then the U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations. She introduced him to Young, who helped open many doors in Africa, and eventually Hunter was so well connected that he became an intermediary in getting Nelson Mandela to preside over peace talks for Burundi in 2000.
Hunter brought Yoweri Kaguta Musaveni, the former African rebel who became Uganda’s president, and other key Ugandan leaders into prayer groups. When Uganda’s Parliament took up a bill last year that would have punished some homosexual acts with death, Hunter and his friends in the Fellowship felt they had the standing to urge the proposed measure’s defeat. Musaveni appointed a commission that studied the matter and then recommended that the bill be withdrawn.
Okay, what actually happened was: thanks to Bob Hunter’s special interest the Fellowship grew to be a formidable political force in Ugandan politics, turning the country into a popular petri dish for fundamentalist Christian social policies—an almost-ban on condoms, for instance—and a receptive audience for some of their more fervidly homophobic activists, who have trouble raking in the speaker fees stateside these days. When Sharlet asked the architect of the “death penalty for gays” legislation whether it had any connection to the Fellowship in Uganda, he said “I do not know what you mean, ‘connection.’ There is no ‘connection.’ They are the same thing. The bill is the Fellowship. It was our idea.”
So while the law was not drafted by a junior aide to Jim DeMint or anything like that, and the Fellowship in America certainly started distancing themselves when they realized how much bad press they might get for instigating gay death panels—especially with all those unfortunate things they’d said in the eighties about how HIV was a just plague on a perverted lifestyle and that sort of nonsense—the Fellowship’s involvement in this draconian bill is not exactly limited to “feeling like they have the standing” to recommend they call off the homo-cide for now. In their possible defense—and there is only one thing you can possibly say in possible defense of the Family on this one—the legislation is in limbo right now. It hasn’t been enacted, nor has it been repealed.
Now, while any moderately close follower of Ugandan politics could have surely read all this “between the lines” of Boyer’s two-sentence explanation…yeah, just kidding, it’s totally, bizarrely, unbelievably misleading and journalism like deserves to be electrocuted. The piece takes pains to mention Vereide’s nebulous connection to the formation of Goodwill Industries but elides his zealous anti-union sermonizing in the thirties and forties; consigns the Hitler and Mao rhetoric to a single parenthetical sentence; refers to Family guy Michael Timmis as having made a “fortune in high-risk business transactions” which doesn’t mean anything; and makes only one mention I found of anything—besides the obvious intimate relationship with Jesus Santa Christ—Family members have actually materially gained from club membership. And that is: cheap housing. (Boyer claims C Street residents pay $900 a month.) But probably Boyer would say I just don’t “get” it. After all…
One view of the Fellowship, with some popularity on the secular left, is of a sort of theocratic Blackwater, advancing a conservative agenda in the councils of power throughout the world. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, a friend of the Fellowship, might dispute that view—if she spoke about the group, which she does not.
As Sharlet’s book explains, many members of the military these days seem to have become seized by the belief that the Constitution makes no mention of the separation of church and state, and he quotes a promotion for a book called Under Orders: A Spiritual Handbook for Military Personnel as saying:
Under the rubric of free speech and the twisted idea of separation of church and state, there has evolved more and more an anti-Christian bias in this country.
The book is blurbed by Gen. David Petraeus, who writes it “should be in every rucksack for those moments when Soldiers need spiritual energy.” (And whose approval ratings, do not forget, are higher than those of his so-called “boss.”) But if we’ve actually gotten to the point in this country where the New Yorker is specifying that only the secular left finds any of this prayer breakfast pecadillo death squad stuff truly disturbing, we are going to need all the “spiritual energy” we can get.