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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 6:00 AM EDT

Nigeria had become a pariah nation by then, and the Clinton administration had condemned Abacha's coup. But its oil continued flowing to the US despite occasional warnings that Congress, or the administration, might impose an embargo. By the time Inhofe, winner of a lifetime service award from a petroleum industry group, went to Nigeria, analysts worried that the signal Abacha was getting from Washington was that the sanctions threat was all but dead.

"If Jesus had adopted the philosophy of the Family," observes one Baptist pastor critical of the organization, "he would have taken Pontius Pilate to lunch."

If Inhofe's religious mission in Nigeria had dovetailed with his political agenda, other African trips put religion front and center. By 2003, Inhofe was using his access to foreign leaders to push a Family initiative known as Youth Corps. Endorsed by former Secretary of State James Baker and Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni, Youth Corps doesn't lead with Jesus—its official brochure doesn't even mention his name. But an internal Family document sets out the vision: to target promising young leaders overseas, "training them on how to live like Jesus and share Him with the poor of their country." The document lays out how:

A) A congressman and/or Senator from the United States will befriend the leader of another country and tell him/her how Jesus and His teachings will help his country and its poor. B) U.S. leader and foreign leader will select 5 men (mentors) from the foreign country to commit to learn about Jesus and how He will help themselves, their country and the poor.

The five would then be matched with American support teams that would cover their costs for travel to the US. The men would not be asked to convert outright—in fact, the Family believes, it'd be better if they continued to call themselves Muslims, Jews, Hindus, Buddhists, or whatever the customs of the land dictated; as "followers of Jesus" who also still adhered to their religion, they could serve as spiritual double agents. To those who were ready, however, the true leader would be introduced: "We will teach the mentors to confess their sins (known or unknown) and to ask the Holy Spirit of Christ to live in them, and to teach them how to live, what to think and what to say. We will teach them to ask the Spirit of Jesus to teach them as they read God's word."

It's a new variation on the idea Abraham Vereide began with in 1935: Win the leadership, win the nation. Only instead of trying to persuade a man like Abacha to come over to its side, the Family is seeking to build the next generation of rulers. A 2004 Family budget for Inhofe's Youth Corps work includes $375,000 for a total of 11 African nations: Benin, Burundi, Congo-Brazzaville, Côte d'Ivoire, Equatorial Guinea, Ethiopia, Ghana, Mauritius, Rwanda, Uganda, and the Democratic Republic of Congo. For each country, the local liaison is listed in the budget document. In all but Ethiopia and Mauritius, it is the president. Then the US leader: Inhofe.

"We know Senator Inhofe," David Bahati, the author of Uganda's Anti-Homosexuality Bill, told me. "We respect him." Bahati considers his anti-gay bill (which Inhofe didn't see fit to condemn until after it started making headlines in the US) a prime example of Inhofe's teachings: "When he says 'political philosophy of Jesus,' I think he's responding to politics as the management of society according to Jesus."

Bahati says he remains in touch with Inhofe's office through the senator's director of African affairs, Mark Powers, a part-time staffer who also is a missionary in the Assemblies of God church. Bahati claims half a dozen US congressmen have signaled their quiet support for his anti-gay crusade, explaining that they can't speak out more boldly in the US because of a powerful gay conspiracy. When I asked if Inhofe was one of them, Bahati merely giggled and said, "Inhofe is a great man."

WHEN MARK SILJANDER was elected to Congress at age 29 in 1981, he wasn't just a conservative—he was an ideologue so zealous he made the Reagan White House uneasy. He was red-haired, red-faced, and obnoxious. He claimed to be the boldest voice against homosexuality in Congress, and to prove it he announced through his pastor that he was seeking a God-fearing woman—Siljander's standards, the pastor warned the ladies, "are very high." His greatest success in Congress was legislation restricting American foreign aid from funding abortions. After losing his reelection campaign in 1986 (despite a plea that constituents "break the back of Satan" by sending him back to Congress), Siljander stayed in the orbit of Washington, creating a firm called Global Strategies Inc. to help companies in "effectively penetrating new overseas markets" and finessing government obstacles related to oil, telecom, and aerospace.

Siljander has mellowed a bit since he left office, on one issue more than any other: Islam. Credit goes to the Family. "As the humiliating final days of my last term were whimpering to a close," he writes in his book, A Deadly Misunderstanding, Doug Coe came to him with a way out of the angry fundamentalism of his past. Look at the world through the lens of love, Coe said. There are no enemies, just opportunities.

The real subject of Siljander's book, which became a definitive Family text, was what he calls his "quest to bridge the Muslim-Christian divide"—by escorting Muslims over to the Christian side. The head-on approach of traditional fundamentalism—insisting on the unquestionable superiority of Christianity—was a dead end when it came to the "kings" the Family considers its specialty. For them to convert would be political suicide. Siljander laid out an alternative approach, simplified into a PowerPoint presentation by a Family-affiliated group called the International Peace Organization. "What do we want?" one slide asks. "To convert Muslims to Christianity," it continues, and then, "NOT." Instead, the goal for Muslims is "a personal relationship with God through Jesus." The last words of the PowerPoint: "The Qur'an points to Jesus."

Muslims, writes Siljander in his book, can keep their religious affiliation so long as they bow before Jesus. "They make every effort to be as normal as possible and not stand out," Siljander writes, the idea being that these "Messianic Muslims," not unlike Jews for Jesus, will be able to pass as Muslim Muslims and thus win the support of their countrymen. The Family doesn't require public loyalty; it wants back-channel connections.

Siljander took those connections further than most. In 2008, the Justice Department indicted him on counts of money laundering, conspiracy, and obstruction of justice. The government says Siljander helped redirect USAID money misappropriated by one of his clients, the Islamic American Relief Agency (PDF), to support Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, whom the State Department lists as a "Specially Designated Global Terrorist." In his defense, Siljander argued that Hekmatyar—a drug-dealing Afghan warlord and former CIA-supported mujahideen fighter—was really working for US intelligence. He later admitted that he'd covered up the fact that the IARA had hired him to try to get its name off the US government's terrorism list, and that he'd funneled its payments through the Family.

By then, Siljander had traveled all over the world on behalf of the Family: "Being an ex-congressman opened all sorts of doors," he wrote. He met with the Muslim leaders of a West Saharan independence movement fighting the Moroccans and told them Jesus wanted their surrender. He and Inhofe met with President Mathieu Kérékou of Benin—a former Marxist military dictator who found Christ (and allies in Washington) after the Soviet Union collapsed—and Kérékou in turn set up a meeting for Siljander with Libya's Moammar Qaddafi. The State Department scotched that idea, though, so Siljander had to settle for Qaddafi's foreign minister.

In 1997, Siljander and Family leader Coe went to see the Sudanese dictator Omar al-Bashir in Khartoum. "He's my prayer partner," Siljander would later boast on a Trinity Broadcasting Network show. "I love Bashir. His heart was changed, and it sure wasn't by my good looks. The Holy Spirit came into the conversation we had and melted his heart."

And that, in turn, melted Siljander's heart; he became an advocate for lifting sanctions on Bashir's oil-rich regime. As for the mass murder and enslavement that Bashir's regime condoned or participated in—targeting, in many cases, Sudan's Christians—Siljander acknowledged that "they realize it got away from them." Lifting sanctions, he argued, would "incentivize" Bashir to stop the killing. (The sanctions remain in place.)

"If Jesus had adopted the philosophy of the Family," Chuck Warnock, a Baptist pastor critical of the organization, observes dryly, "he would have worked with Herod, and taken Pontius Pilate to lunch."

This past July, Siljander pled guilty to obstruction of justice and to acting as an unregistered agent of a foreign power. He faces up to 15 years in prison.

*Correction: This story originally referenced the Oklahoman as being based in Tulsa. We regret the error.

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