SEN. TOM COBURN'S association with the Family last made news when he released a statement declaring that he was cooperating fully with the Justice Department in its investigation of his C Street housemate, Sen. Ensign. (Ensign's ex-aide Doug Hampton, whose wife was the senator's mistress, alleges that Coburn helped arrange payments to their family.) The story startled those who know Coburn, in part because the senator has long had a reputation for moral certitude. He was one of the few in the GOP class elected in the 1994 landslide to honor his commitment to term limits: He served just six years in the House before retiring in 2001. Four years later, he returned to DC as a senator.
"The ultimate objective is that these are individuals who can be influential later on, occupy certain positions in Lebanon, and their loyalty would be to the Family."
Coburn is the conscience of the Christian right, a man who never waters down his opinions. He railed against "attractive young congressional staffers," as one evangelical publication put it, oblivious to the wages of sexual sin, and shanghaied them into watching a slideshow he'd assembled: graphic images of genitals ravaged by sexually transmitted diseases. The "greatest threat to our freedom we face today," he has said, is homosexuality; gays have "infiltrated the very centers of power."
In 2005, at the Family's behest, Coburn waded into the politics of possibly the most religiously conflicted nation on earth: Lebanon. He listed the purpose of his first Family junket there—a $6,500, three-day trip—as building the same kind of elite, confidential prayer groups that the Family had created back in Washington. Part of what that meant was recruiting Muslim leaders as "followers of Jesus"—a dangerous mission, says John Esposito, a professor of international affairs and Islamic studies at Georgetown University. Lebanon has been bloodied by a civil war between (frequently US-sponsored) Christians and Muslims for most of the last century, Esposito notes; interfering with its fragile religious balance could affect US-Arab relations throughout the region. "This situation is really mindless," Esposito says. "Lebanon is a tinderbox. All you gotta do is scratch the surface."
On one of his trips to Beirut, traveling with Rep. Mike Doyle and three Family leaders, Coburn was honored with a lavish party at the penthouse of Samir Kreidie, a cigar-chomping entrepreneur who counts on his Family relations to bring in contracts for aid work. ("Fifteen percent of the income to serve the poor, and 85 percent to our pocket," says Kreidie. "Nice formula!")
"I come as a person," Kreidie remembers Coburn announcing at the reception. "I didn't come as a politician." That wasn't quite true—while Doyle was on the Family's tab, Coburn charged taxpayers (PDF) more than $11,000 for his mission (which also took him to Syria, Israel, and Romania.) When traveling domestically, members of Congress must hew to a strict budget, but for overseas travel, there's no limit, and the State Department is responsible for making arrangements. Yet, remembers Misbah Ahdab, a prominent Muslim member of the Lebanese Parliament who calls himself a "follower of Jesus" when speaking with Americans, the purpose of Coburn's trip clearly was "bringing the spirit of Jesus Christ and the teachings of Jesus Christ."
"We American people," Coburn said, according to Kreidie, "we love the world, and we want to build democracy. We want to build freedom. And also I came to tell you that I forgive you, because not every Muslim or every Lebanese or every Arab is bad." Then came the heart of Coburn's message: how to reconcile with Israel, three years after the 2006 war that left much of southern Lebanon in rubble. Coburn's solution for healing: Everyone should become followers of Jesus.
Next on Coburn's calendar was a trip to the north of Lebanon to see a Family school called the Development Culture Leadership Center (DCL) in the town of Syr. Traveling with them were Doyle and Doug Coe's son, Tim; in Syr they met with another of the Family's men in Lebanon, Mounzer Fatfat. A naturalized American, Fatfat had served a stint as a top official in the US occupation government in Iraq—according to a colleague at the DCL, he credits Coe with making two key introductions in his career: one to Jesus, and one to George W. Bush.
Back in Syr, Fatfat's school had grown into a textbook example of Family evangelism. "The families of Syr are thinking our children are going to the DCL just to learn the English language," an alumnus told us. "But there are a lot of secrets at the DCL. It's for changing minds and getting students to study in the US and maybe come back [with] different ideas about Muslims and Jesus. To change our culture and our religion."
The DCL may be keeping secrets not just from local families, but from some of its American patrons, too. "[Fatfat] showed us an orphan school," tweeted a businessman named Clyde Lear, who visited with Coburn. "Orphans, mostly, being taught by Toufic Agha and others." But according to Agha, a Canadian-Lebanese teacher who returned to his native Syr to help the school and quit when he realized it was practicing stealth evangelism, there were no orphans; that was just a story for men with money.
To bring some of the DCL's most promising students to America, Fatfat and another Family man, Rep. Frank Wolf, convinced the State Department to allocate $200,000 for five scholarships to Christopher Newport University, a public school in Newport News, Virginia, that provided matching funds. A vice president of the university told us that the fellowships were the results of Fatfat's Prayer Breakfast "kinship" with the school's president, former senator Paul Trible—a longtime Family man.
Abir Mariam is one of the beneficiaries of those scholarships. In 2007, as one of the top students in her school in Lebanon, she was summoned for an interview with Fatfat. He told her he could help her get a scholarship—but there were more important criteria than grades. "They wanted to know how I accept other beliefs." Mariam thought they meant American culture, but it turned out they were talking about Jesus. An audience with Doug Coe would be her first stop in the US.
Mariam is a follower of Jesus now, as well as a junior at Christopher Newport. When she graduates, she plans to bring the Family's philosophy to young would-be politicians in Lebanon. And that, says Toufic Agha, is exactly what the Family had in mind: "The ultimate objective is that these are individuals who can be influential later on, occupy certain positions in Lebanon, and their loyalty would be to the Family."
When we reached Fatfat by phone at his American home near Pittsburgh to ask him about the Syr center, he responded with questions of his own. Who had told us about the school? How had we "put the pieces together?" Fatfat was talking fast, his words running together: "How do I know you're who you say you are? I mean, I could call you and say I'm President Bush and impersonate his voice."
When we called Tim Coe to ask him about the Family's work in Lebanon, at a number at which I'd interviewed him before, he answered to "Mr. Coe," but as soon as my colleague Kiera Feldman mentioned Samir Kreidie, he told her she had the wrong number and hung up. When she tried back, he pretended to be a middle-aged Indian woman. Or maybe German. "Nooo, sorrrrrry, you haff wrong num-ber!"
So we tried Coburn and Doyle. We never got past Doyle's press secretary, but one night we managed to get Coburn on the line. The only thing he had to say was that he had never been to the school. He hung up before we could offer to send him a picture of himself, at the DCL, posing with the "orphans."
THE FAMILY'S secrets—its ability to fly under the radar, its backdoor connections, and even its occasional (as in the case of Mark Siljander) underhanded dealings—are fascinating. But they are not, despite what some critics have said, evidence of a conspiracy, or even of malevolent intent. The God-led government the movement wants for Nigeria and Sudan, Lebanon and Albania—and of course, here at home—is not theocracy, an idea nearly every fundamentalist denounces, but the conflation of democracy with authoritarianism. It's a Father Knows Best vision, the authority of the Father-God manifested through his chosen, men and even the occasional women who are to society as they believe fathers should be to their families, both loving and stern. Look through this lens, and dictators become brothers; power becomes love; profit becomes charity.
The men of the Family—and across much of American fundamentalism's elite—are fond of paraphrasing Luke 12:48: "From everyone to whom much has been given, much will be required." A fine sentiment at first blush, but stripped of its Gospel context and presented as a maxim, it can also be disingenuous. The idea that the powerful are powerful because they have been anointed, "given" their rank and position—that they did not grasp for it—is as deceptive as the notion that God prefers to work through "key men," to dispense blessings to senators and strongmen so that a small cut might trickle down to the poor. Nice formula, indeed.
Additional research by Kiera Feldman.