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Junkets for Jesus

The C Street Family goes global: How congressmen travel the world to preach to dictators on the taxpayers' dime.

| Mon Sep. 27, 2010 5:00 AM EDT

Adapted from C Street: The Fundamentalist Threat to American Democracy.

THE OLDEST AND MOST politically influential Christian conservative organization in Washington is known to the public, if at all, for one thing: adultery. In particular, that of three Republican politicians, Sen. John Ensign (R-Nev.), Gov. Mark Sanford (R-S.C.), and ex-Rep. Chip Pickering (R-Miss.)—all caught last year in various states of moral undress, all linked to a Capitol Hill townhouse at 133 C Street SE, which the blogosphere promptly tagged "the Prayboy Mansion." The organization behind the townhouse, which is used to provide subsidized housing for "brothers" in Congress, is known to outsiders as the Fellowship. But its leader, a quietly charismatic octogenarian named Doug Coe, calls it the Family.

Coe is only the second leader of the movement, which began as a fundamentalist anti-labor coalition of political and business elites in 1935. Coe's mentor, Abraham Vereide, shared with him a revelation from God: For nearly 2,000 years, Christianity, with its emphasis on the down and out, had been getting it all wrong. Their focus would instead be on the "up and out," the "key men" in positions of power who would be able to usher in the kingdom of God—which, to the Family, has always looked a lot like the country clubs where it conducts much of its soft-sell evangelism. The best way to help the weak, it teaches, is to help the strong. That required first building a ministry in the nation's capital that would over the years become one of Washington's most influential, and most secretive, institutions. Dozens of members of Congress from both sides of the aisle are involved in Family prayer groups (Hillary Clinton was a regular in the Senate group), and every president since Eisenhower has attended the organization's only public event, the National Prayer Breakfast. [READ MOJO'S COVERAGE OF HILLARY CLINTON'S PRAYER GROUP.]

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But while Coe's Washington operation has drawn more scrutiny of late, what most news accounts have missed is that the Family has also exported its philosophy overseas—by dispatching US politicians to recruit leaders abroad. Members of Congress have traveled the globe, sometimes on the taxpayer dime. They've gone to Greece and Japan, Aruba and Hawaii. But much of the travel has been to international trouble spots—the Middle East, Africa, the Balkans—where the footprint of American power (and American aid) is vast, and a congressman complete with entourage and military escort is a VIP indeed.

As far as the Family's "key men" are concerned, the separation between church and state doesn't extend overseas.

Many of the "friends" targeted by these congressional missionaries are strongmen such as Omar al-Bashir, the president of oil-rich Sudan, who has been indicted for genocide in the International Criminal Court; and Yoweri Museveni, president of Uganda. (The Family's Ugandan friends also include David Bahati, the author of a murderous piece of legislation called the Anti-Homosexuality Bill, which mandates the death penalty for some homosexual acts.)

What's in it for the strongmen? Legitimacy, and a champion back in Washington. What's in it for the US politicians? Jesus—and, sometimes, profits for themselves or the interests they favor. Many of them have had their expeditions underwritten by the Family: Ensign has enjoyed trips to Japan, Jordan, and Israel that cost nearly $17,000. The list of Family-funded travelers also includes Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) and Reps. Frank Wolf (R-Va.), Pete Hoekstra (R-Mich.), Robert Aderholt (R-Ala.), and Mike Doyle (D-Pa.), who has done the Lord's work in Aruba and the Virgin Islands. [SEE "FREQUENT FLIERS," MOJO'S BREAKDOWN OF WHERE THE FAMILY'S POLITICAL MONEY GOES.] On other occasions, Coe's political missionaries charge their travel to the government—putting not just the weight of their office, but the taxpayers' money, behind an unabashedly religious agenda.

That agenda isn't about converting the masses. The Family's goal, according to one internal document, is to create a "hidden structure" of "national and international world leaders bound together relationally by a mutual love for God and the family." In researching two books on the Family and C Street, I sought to uncover the workings of this hidden structure. I reviewed the Family's files (592 boxes of documents stored at the Billy Graham Center Archives) and conducted hundreds of interviews. I found that as far as the Family's "key men" are concerned, the separation between church and state doesn't extend overseas, and no dictator is too heinous to be embraced as a brother.

PERHAPS THE MOST intriguing of the Family's apostles—and certainly the most candid—is Sen. James Inhofe (R-Okla.). "I'm guilty of two things," he has said. "I'm a Jesus guy, and I have a heart for Africa." The four-term Republican also has a savvy mind with a sharp awareness of Africa's natural resources, chief among them oil; the petroleum industry is his biggest donor (which may explain his insistence that climate change is a liberal hoax). "I'm trying to get members of the House and Senate to understand how valuable Africa is," he declares. Inhofe has crisscrossed the continent for the Family, bearing its "principles of Jesus" to leaders from Nigeria to Sudan—and often flying on military planes, to which he has access as the second-ranking member of the Senate Armed Services Committee.

Inhofe looks like the state he represents: flat-faced, wide open, and a little raw. A former Navy pilot, he still flies at age 76—fearlessly, according to friends who've taken white-knuckle rides with the senator. He has giant, elegant hands, surprisingly gentle as they float around his points—which are often far from gentle. When he first campaigned for Senate in 1994, he told voters that he was running on the "three Gs—God, gays, and guns." He once took to the floor of the Senate with a giant photograph of his children and grandchildren and announced, "I'm really proud to say that in the recorded history of our family, we've never had a divorce or any kind of homosexual relationship."

As a young representative, Inhofe attended the Family's weekly House Prayer Breakfast meeting only out of respect for Oklahoma Rep. Wes Watkins, its chairman at the time. "I assumed I was a Christian," (PDF) he told an evangelical magazine. But that didn't mean much more to him than sitting through a service every Sunday. It was an evangelist for one of the Family's sister organizations, Christian Embassy, who challenged Inhofe to a more zealous faith by suggesting that he was lukewarm toward Jesus. Lukewarm? James Mountain Inhofe—that's his full name—wasn't lukewarm about anything! He was a for-or-against man. "So, right there on September 22, 1988, at 2:30 p.m. in the Members Dining Room, I had an experience I will never forget and I gave my life to Jesus."

Inhofe is just as blunt when it comes to spreading God's word. On December 21, 2008, the Oklahoman ran a story that might have become a major scandal had it not appeared so close to Christmas.* During the previous nine years, Inhofe had taken 20 international trips, spending at least $187,000 in public money—not including the cost of military transport—to promote what he called "a Jesus thing." He visited Eastern Europe and the Middle East, but his real focus was Africa, especially Uganda, a country he has adopted as a personal responsibility.

It was the Family's longtime leader, Doug Coe, who opened Inhofe's eyes to that responsibility. In a video made in response to the Oklahoman story, Inhofe describes the mission as "the political philosophy of Jesus, something that had been put together by Doug...It's all scripturally based." He cites Acts 9:15, an unorthodox reading of which the Family promotes as one of its core principles: "'Take my name, Jesus, to the kings.' And, of course, if you're a member of the United States Senate in Africa, they think you're important." He chuckles, slapping the arm of his red leather sofa. "You can always get in to see the kings!"

Inhofe's first "king" was General Sani Abacha, dictator of Nigeria—Africa's most populous nation, as well as the US's fourth-largest supplier of petroleum. Abacha was known for two qualities: the greed that led him to steal $3 billion from his country, and the ruthlessness that made that theft possible. His execution of dissident writer Ken Saro-Wiwa in 1995—two years before Inhofe's first visit—made international headlines. Abacha already had a long record of brutally dispatching opponents, many of whom happened to be critics of the US and the oil industry. But then, as one Family leader has put it, we all make mistakes. "You can't help who you are. I mean, can't he have a friend?"

Inhofe would be that friend. "We went in there," Inhofe says in the video, "not really knowing what we're doing. He started talking about political things." But Inhofe had a greater mission. "I came all the way across the Atlantic," he told Abacha, "to tell you that in the spirit of Jesus we love you."

Former Congressman Mark Siljander says he was there, too. "There was a moment when Abacha sent all his aides out of the room," Siljander later wrote, "and I wondered if I was ever going to see Nancy and my four kids again." But Abacha was hardly likely to murder two US congressmen in his office. Instead, the two Americans and the Muslim dictator prayed to Jesus. According to Inhofe, Abacha wept.

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