NBC News Exclusive: Political ties to a secretive religious group

Posted on Thursday, April 03, 2008 7:10 PM PT
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By Andrea Mitchell and Jim Popkin, NBC News

For more than 50 years, the National Prayer Breakfast has been a Washington institution. Every president has attended the breakfast since Eisenhower, elbow-to-elbow with Democrats and Republicans alike. “I am really proud to carry on that tradition,” President Bush said at this year’s breakfast. “The people in this room come from many different walks of faith. Yet we share one clear conviction: We believe that the Almighty hears our prayers -- and answers those who seek Him.”

Besides the presidents and first ladies--Bill and Hillary Clinton attended in 1997--the one constant presence at the National Prayer Breakfast has been Douglas Coe. Although he’s not an ordained minister, the 79-year-old Coe is the most important religious leader you've never seen or heard.

But Doug Coe is well known to scores of senators in both parties--and many faiths--including Sam Brownback, Mike Enzi, Mark Pryor and Bill Nelson. They go to small weekly Senate prayer groups that Coe attends. Participants tell NBC News that so have senators John McCain, Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton, which those campaigns confirm.

Senator Clinton’s participation is surprising to observers who have investigated Coe’s group, called The Fellowship Foundation, which critics have described as a secretive organization populated mostly by conservative Republicans. “I think in part through her involvement with the Fellowship’s prayer group she was able to meet with some of these Republican senators and get to know them on a one-on-one basis,” said Joshua Green, a Senior Editor at The Atlantic magazine.

In her autobiography, “Living History,” Senator Clinton describes Coe as "a genuinely loving spiritual mentor and guide to anyone, regardless of party or faith, who wants to deepen his or her relationship with God.” She writes that “Doug became a source of strength and friendship" during her often-troubled White House years.

Their relationship began in February 1993 with a prayer lunch at The Cedars, the Fellowship’s Virginia estate on the Potomac River. NBC News reviewed the First Lady’s official daily calendar, recently made public by the National Archives, and found other gatherings including a “Private Meeting” with Coe in her West Wing office on December 19, 1997, and a “Meet & Greet with Business Leaders” on Feb. 4, 1998. “Doug Coe introduces business leaders to the First Lady,” the calendar states.

So who is Doug Coe? He shuns almost all interview requests, including ours. But in hours of audiotape and videotape recordings obtained exclusively by NBC News, he frequently preaches the gospel of Jesus to followers and supporters. In one videotaped sermon from 1989, Coe provides this account of the atrocities committed under Chairman Mao in Communist China: "I've seen pictures of the young men in the Red Guard…they would bring in this young man’s mother…he would take an axe and cut her head off. They have to put the purposes of the Red Guard ahead of father, mother, brother sister and their own life. That was a covenant, a pledge. That's what Jesus said."

In his preaching, Coe repeatedly urges a personal commitment to Jesus Christ. It’s a commitment Coe compares to the blind devotion that Adolph Hitler demanded from his followers -- a rhetorical technique that now is drawing sharp criticism.

"Hitler, Goebbels and Himmler were three men. Think of the immense power these three men had, these nobodies from nowhere,” Coe said.

Later in the sermon, Coe said: "Jesus said, ‘You have to put me before other people. And you have to put me before yourself.' Hitler, that was the demand to be in the Nazi party. You have to put the Nazi party and its objectives ahead of your own life and ahead of other people."

Coe also quoted Jesus and said: “One of the things [Jesus] said is 'If any man comes to me and does not hate his father, mother, brother, sister, his own life, he can't be a disciple.’ So I don't care what other qualifications you have, if you don't do that you can't be a disciple of Christ."

The sermons are little surprise to writer Jeff Sharlet. He lived among Coe's followers six years ago, and came out troubled by their secrecy and rhetoric.

“We were being taught the leadership lessons of Hitler, Lenin and Mao. And I would say, ‘Isn’t there a problem with that?’ And they seemed perplexed by the question. Hitler’s genocide wasn’t really an issue for them. It was the strength that he emulated,” said Sharlet, who is a Contributing Editor at Rolling Stone and is an Associate Research Scholar at the NYU Center for Religion and Media in New York.

Sharlet has now written about The Fellowship, also known to insiders as The Family, in a soon-to-be published book called “The Family: The Secret Fundamentalism at the Heart of American Power.”

“They’re notoriously secretive,” Sharlet said. “In fact, they jokingly call themselves the Christian Mafia. Which becomes less of a joke when you realize that they really are dedicated to being what they call an invisible organization.”

Federal tax records for Coe's non-profit group shows it funds charitable programs around the world -- but that it is also a family business.

The 990 tax forms for 2005, the last tax year available, show that both of Coe’s sons were on the payroll, at $110,000 a year each.  The organization also paid his wife, his daughter and his daughters-in-law. 

So how do Coe's admirers explain his unusual sermons? David Kuo, a former Bush Administration aide and religious-outreach official at the White House, says The Fellowship is a peaceful, faith-based group that does good works internationally. Kuo says Doug Coe wasn’t lauding Hitler's actions.

“What Doug is saying, it’s a metaphor. He is using Hitler as a metaphor. Jesus used that,” Kuo said. A metaphor for what? “Commitment,” Kuo answered.
Asked about Coe’s influence on Hillary Clinton, people close to her told NBC News that she does not consider him one of her leading spiritual advisors. They added that Senator Clinton has never contributed to Coe’s group, is not a member of The Fellowship and has never heard the sermons obtained by NBC News. And, they said, Doug Coe is not Hillary Clinton’s minister.

Coe declined repeated requests for an interview. But a close friend told NBC News that Doug Coe invokes Hitler only to show the power of small groups -- for good and bad. And, the friend said, Coe spends “99 percent” of his time during the sermons talking about the leadership model set by Jesus Christ.

Supporters also point to Coe’s charitable works around the world. Still, critics question his influence -- and secrecy -- in a year when the candidates' religious beliefs are part of the political debate.

--With editorial help from EJ Johnson, John Holland, Michelle Perry, Luke Mayo and Linda Fecteau


Mitchell and Popkin appear to be searching for some underlying diabolical reason for Coe's comments about Hitler and the Red Army. As journalists, surely you understand the power of a metaphor?  Yes, Jesus did indeed admonish his followers to put all others second to God. This is probably why so many people find it difficult to live the Christian life--they aren't willing to put Christ first.
Unfortunately, this article does not explain who donates money and how to Coe's group. Are these people deceived or forced into making these donations? What does Mr. Coe get out of the relationships with politicians? What programs does he support and how much? Why don't you add the job descriptions of the family employees? How many businesses in America have family members on the payroll?
Is Mr. Coe's personal politics influential in public policy?
I guess I just get tired of these news conjuring types of inquisitions and witchhunts against Christians by a media who refuses to examine all sides of an issue,or fairly report it.
After reviewing the article on the National Prayer Breakfast and Mr. Coe, I am only left wondering what the point is. Apparently national leadership in both parties have condoned this for quite some time without a new "Hitler" appearing on the world scene, courtesy of America. According to this article his name might be Jesus Christ.
I am glad our leaders have somewhere to go if they want to pray or talk about spiritual things.  Last I checked, that was their right.  Let's let them exercise it.

Seriously, couldn't you report on something more important?  How about something positive about the candidates or people in Washington?

Why don't you report on things like-

1)  If elected, how does Sen. Clinton plan on handling the her role as the first female US President in a world run by mostly men? What is her strategy-- when faced with men who do not hold women in high regard?  How does she plan on having sound influence when her gender could play apart on the world stage?

2) Why not ask and report on why Sen. Obama and his family are proud to be Americans?  How do they plan to represent America to the world?  What do they do to show that they care for all Americans?
How much influence will Oprah have in their time in office?

3) Why not find something Sen. McCain is passionate about other than the war in Iraq?  Let's hear about his life outside of what he thinks about our military past, present and future.  I want to hear about what he thinks about everyday stuff that we face here in America.

4) How many of our elected leaders have actually visited and helped out in areas hit by Katrina?  How many have visited the site of the World Trade Center and/or visited with families who lost a loved one there?  How many have visited with military families that lost a loved one in a war or anywhere serving our country?  

There's lots to talk about folks.  Let's stop picking on the Christians.
Thank you for this report!  Finally the main stream media is paying attention to The Family.  Unfortunately, from the segment it is far too easy to dismiss Coe and his organization (and they are highly organized and influential) as a group of well meaning Christians.  Jesus may be the figure at the center but he is used as code for power.  Metaphors are not benign.  Secrecy is not acceptible in a democracy, particularly a secrecy that hides the great influence that this organization has on foreign and international policy.  I agree with cmore:  now NBC needs to follow the money trail.  Who does contribute to the comfortable livelihood of the family?  What do they do?  How come we haven't heard a thing about them?  And what are their objectives?  Quality reporting that understands the language and workings of religion and power is what's needed.
I usually enjoy watching Nightly News with Brian Williams, but tonight's story about the DC prayer group was a real disappointment. It was not just an example of poor journalism (making news out of darkly hinted-at suspicions) but (frankly) anti-Christian. I'm thankful that our leaders are praying; I wish they'd do more of it! Sorry to say,I won't be tuning in anymore.
I have heard sermons across a wide spectrum of Christian denominations over decades use analogies to Hitler when discussing the commitment Christ calls us to. It is short-sighted and comes across as some effort to 'build a mystery' to suggest that there is some kind of strange, underground, subversive mission here. The media misses the point on this one.  
It is indeed scary to think that our country is being run by people with such deeply held superstitious beliefs in a sky god.
Religion should stay out of politics! Period!

NBC, why is it that you depict most followers of any religion as 'crazy'? Must you assume that everybody in the nation is as religiously skeptical as you are? How about you look for a real story. This is not the first person to use a metaphor, and if you are that blind to a simple literary technique, then you are in dire need of new reporters. I dare you to post this comment.
THE WATCHMAN ON THE WALL (Thursday, April 03, 2008 8:56 PM)

You conveniently forgot every Democratic and Republincan  President sense Eisenhower.  Quit the "Dem" bashing and grow up.  Both parties are guilty!!!
Those radical Christians who believe Christianity is the official religion of the United States do not believe in the freedom of religion specified in the First Amendment of the Bill of Rights.
A "double banger" for the liberal media Obama agenda:  conservative republicans and the clintons all in one shot.  

Can journalism get any lower?  Where is the substance.  Its all innuendo, winks and nods. Now if you're private and religous, you're a secretive diabolical religous group.

Perhaps a better metaphor might have been Martin Luther King or Gandhi.
There shouldn't be any religious things going on at the White House. That should be done at home or in your church. Your religion shouldn't come in to the picture if in you fact represent people of so many differrent beliefs. Freedom of religion, one of the bill of rights, should be left out of the government or they might start burning people at the steak again.
God Bless America! The only way this great nation is blessed is through the works and prayers of this "secretive" organization. For whatever you ask for in secret, will be visible in public! It's too bad the media is not telling the full story but only chooses what's agains Christianity. If this prayer group is involved in praying for peace and contributing for the good of the people all over the world, then wy are we attacking it in such a negative way. It is a great tradition that this nation has and may it never end because we are truly "one nation under God". God Bless America through every prayer group!
My already diminishing opinion of NBC News has now sunk completely below the horizon. With Matthews, Olbermann, Russert and now Mitchell seemingly working full time to drive Hillary Clinton from the presidential race and annoint Obama as the new messiah, the idea of basic fairness in coverage of the two Democratic candidates is no longer in play.   When I saw this so-called story on Nightly News tonight, I was stunned by its lack of substance.  It was a thinly-veiled attempt to equate Hilary Clinton's casual encounters with a religious leader who ministered to many on both sides of the aisles of Congress with Obama's 20-year support and friendship with the vitriol-spewing Rev. Wright.  What a shameful hit job! Please leave this kind of drivel to O'Reilly and Hannnity. The network of Tom Brokaw should be better than this.

Robert Jones, Covington, Georgia
At least from these excerpts, he certainly does a terrible job in making a case for the benefits of blind faith.
This evil man Coe is clearly the anti-Christ.  Jesus was teaching us the importance of love, peace & acceptance.  This Coe is only using his own despicable, incorrect version of religion to give himself power & control over everyone who comes in contact with him.
Separation of church and state is essential to our survival. Without it we are sliding down the slippery slope toward facism and theocracy. Remember christian's like to burn people that don't agree with them.
Here's the thing: You cannot describe a sectarian group as "open to peoples of all faiths" when that group is rooted in one particular religion.  Imagine if this Mr. Coe were a Moslem and filled his meetings with messages about conversion to Islam.  Imagine people from his group called it "The Moslem Mafia."  Imagine if the group were a secretive group of powerful Jews who met behind closed doors.  What would the public outcry be in these other scenarios?  

The bottom line is that while individuals, including those in government, have every right to practice their religions, organized groups like this are a danger to our democracy when they a) exclude non co-religionists in the circles of power and b) mix religion and politics. I am much more troubled by a group like this than I am of Obama's offensive and crazy preacher.  At least his messages have been out in the open.
Religion will eventually destroy every last democracy... or we as a species will finally wise up and  put the novelty of religion in its rightful place: our past.
cmore, as someone who is Atheist and feels strongly that religion should not dictate foreign policy, I still have to agree with your concerns with the article.
I'm sorry you have decided to "soundbite" this man. Definitely not up to the standards of a normal MSNBC docubit.
You mention that senators John McCain, Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton, have all been said to have attended. OK!

Then why the sole focus on Sen. Clinton: Senator Clinton’s participation is surprising to observers who have investigated Coe’s group, called The Fellowship Foundation, which critics have described as a secretive organization populated mostly by conservative Republicans.

If this group is so bad, why should we not be surprised that Obama and McCain were also "participants"?

Has Msnbc lost all sense of fairness? Ask whatever you wish of Sen. Clinton, then ask the same of Obama and McCain ...before you publish.
Jeff Sharlet wrote a lengthy article about The Fellowship for Harper's magazine. It's online. "Jesus Plus One" is the title. As far as the "witch hunts" against Christians... fundamentalists just cannot understand that their view of religion is seen as "cult-like" by others because of their disavowal of truth - such as evolution. (as much of a truth as gravity, but they never bother to note that theory in the scientific context is much more than someone spouting words.

Sharlet's article noted the phrase was "Hitler tactics" and "Stalin tactics." In view of the imperial vice presidency (and prez) America has suffered these last 7 years, conjuring up names of totalitarians is not a comforting view of religion to most post-enlightenment people living in a modern society. Knowing that fundamentalism is a form of absolutism - inerrancy, literalism, skewered interpretation of another religion's text - it is right to question religious leaders who influence our elected representatives. As Justice Scalia noted, democracy is anti-thetical to Christianity. His comment was a scathing indictment of the same in a speech, "God's Justice and Ours." Thomas Paine knew this too, from a positive perspective, as did Jefferson, Franklin and the majority deists who formed this nation.  

Worship as you will, but leave your hand out of the federal till as well as areas which rely upon solid science and mature evaluation of information for informed medical decisions.

Naw, it's just a media talkback trying to scare up stuff comparable to Obama and Rev. Wright. Sorry, fellas, no can do. Obama's mentor in HI was a committed communist, Obama's been supported by the Socialist Democratic groups and he sat 20 years in a pew of a black liberation theology church. Not the same stuff, though ya gotta commend the MSMedia for giving it their all for their candidate, don'tcha?
Could this be a sign that church and state is not really separated? Is it possible that this type of meeting will lead to a theocracy? It would seem so in my eyes and I seriously hope that it does not. It is very importan to keep church and state separated from each other as much as possible
two things that should never be mixed are (government/politics/laws) and (religion/morals).  this is what the founding fathers recognized and what they put in the guiding document of this republic, the Constitution.  If the candidates would stop pandering to those who wish to push their religious/moral beliefs on others, we as a country would be better off.  morals based on religion is fine.  but, religion/morals should not be made into laws as those who pedal religion in politics want.  my goodness.  think about it.  all someone needs to do is say they did something because god wanted them to do  it then they can justify almost anything...because who can argue against that.  so, it doesnt matter who panders to mr. coe, whether it be clinton, obama, bush, or anyone.  they should be looked at closely because god really doesnt talk to people and tell them what to do, otherwise where does free will come in?  oh, wait...free will...yeah...silly me...free to listen to god or not.  and then you are going to explaiin to me, please, why two sides in a war both pray to god to deliver them a victory and one side wins and the other side loses and its because god likes the one side better than the other or because one side takes better orders from god than the other side?  so god liked the north vietnamese better than the us and he is waiting to see which he likes best the us or iraqi insurgents.  you see how silly this all can get?  keep politics and religion separated and stop making the politicians pander to religion and stop allowing them to interject religion into politics.  i mean really.  and then we can also stop silly articles like this as well.  who the heck would really care what mr. coe was up to if politicians didn't mill around him.
This article, while catchy, strikes me as biased. Alluding to people like Hitler and Mao does not mean that he advocates their motives. It seems to me that he is making a point about how much evil people are willing to do when provided with strong leadership, and how much more good they should be willing to do in light of the leadership of Jesus. I see nothing wrong with this man. This article has been worded in a way that intentionally and obviously defaces him. These kind of articles and news reports have become far too common, and far too tiresome.
There is a surprise secret business interest, have undue influence in Washington, DC.  It is like the sub-prime mortgage bail-out, all for the banks and builders and nothing for American families.  America's two party system only works for the wealthy.
Religion is the opiate of the masses.
I'm glad to see you report on this.
Thank you cmore for your insightful comment.  Jesus did say that you had to put him above everything else.  It is not false preaching to quote the Bible.  I am a little uncomfortable with the comparisons to Hitler, and I doubt if I would use the same metaphors to my parish, but lets not lose sight of the fact that Jesus did demand a lot of us.  He was God after all.  And if a preacher is reminding his flock of the cost of those demands, what is the issue?
I agree that the article was long on insinuation and short on facts. I would hope for more from a professional new organization. There isn't enough there to make an informed decision either way, and as the first person noted, it leaves open the question of the intent of the writer.

As to the second comment, written all in caps... I fail to see what is being revealed?

This article really does leave a lot to be desired.
Yeah... that was a pretty pointless article.  Is it suddenly news that Jesus preached a message of complete devotion?

Amazing the lengths the media will goto to try and produce a selling story out of so much smoke
We've also learned the truth about Sam Brownback, Mike Enzi, Mark Pryor, Bill Nelson, John McCain, and Barack Obama.  Looks like we'll be stuck with Cheney for president.
I spent a good majority of my younger years in evangelical, born-again churches and indeed graduated from an evangelical college. I have to cast my vote on the side of those who are wary of evangelicals. Hypocritical, narcissitic, and blindly seeking to enforce there beliefs on others, evangelicals for reinforce the priniple of teh seperation of church and state. The National Prayer Breakfast if a farce and should end.
From rolling Stone such biased nonesense is to be expected. Not from NBC. Respect for the privacy and confidentiality of religious seekers, esp. famous ones, in no way implies a "secrative religious" cult. Would you like to publish a list of those attending confession, including a list of what was confessed, next?

Get real.
Its Religous Radicalism if you ask me. I get scared to think what rights we will loose and what laws will be enacted and enforced based on the laws of the bible,.... as interpreted for us by the Government. I am spiritual, have my beliefs, but I don't expect everyone to live by my interpretations, beliefs and judgements. Hearing a polotician say that they will not "make up" their own laws based on interpetation, but make the laws based on the bible itself, hello its 2008, not BC people, its time to start living and stop judgeing. If we all believed and acted the same, the world would be pretty boring!
I agree with CMORE in OK City.  The news media needs to stop conjuring up issues and state the facts clearly - what does Coe and his "Fellowship" have to do with the current status of the US?  Does he contribute to political issues?  What makes him so secretive and incognito?
Just state the facts and don't keep us in Limbo.
Once again, we find God being villified and not those who practice it in their own rather misguided way.  As a life-long Christian, I see no reason to use Hitler as a metaphor for anything, religious or otherwise.  That being said, this is a free country, which has guaranteed us the rights under the Constitution to practice religion and free speech.  How we choose to use it reflects not on God, but on those who use God as the talisman for rhetoric that is neither helpful nor dare I say Christ-like.

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Deep Background is NBC News’ investigative blog. It covers national security, terrorism, spies, Iraq, and politics, as well as government waste, fraud and abuse. It is edited by NBC News Senior Investigative Producer Jim Popkin.


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