By now we all know about Jeremiah Wright, Barack Obama’s former pastor whose homiletical remarks have become a serious liability for the Obama campaign. Less known are the “pastor problems” of Hillary Clinton and John McCain. This week’s column is the first in a series of two columns that will look at the religious baggage being carried by Barack Obama’s fellow presidential candidates.
This has the potential of becoming a huge story: Doug Coe, a man Hillary Clinton has called a “genuinely loving spiritual guide and mentor for many” has been caught on tape praising the personal relationships shared by Hitler, Goebbels and Himmler. In the same speech Coe expressed admiration for the dedication of Chinese soldiers who, according to Coe, were forced to chop off the heads of their mothers as a demonstration of their commitment to the People’s Republic of China.
Doug Coe is the spiritual leader of an organization that uses many names but most commonly is known as “The Fellowship,” or “The Family.” Some, both within and outside the group, refer to Coe’s organization as “The Christian Mafia.” Whatever the name, the Fellowship is a loose affiliation of mostly rich, mostly powerful, mostly white, mostly men—a priesthood of rich white guys, according to one former member—with strong connections to corridors of political and economic power around the globe.
It is an organization that works quietly, preferring to remain unknown. The only public work of the Fellowship is the organization of the annual Presidential Prayer Breakfast, which is presented to its guests as an event sponsored by the Senate.
But the shroud of secrecy that has surrounded the work of the Fellowship is starting to be pulled aside. In May two significant media events will shine light on the work of Doug Coe and the Fellowship Harper Collins will publish a book on the Fellowship by Jeff Sharlet, a journalist who has been writing about the Fellowship for years; and in Europe, a documentary on American Christianity will examine the influence of the Fellowship in the United States and abroad. It will air on Germany’s ZDF/Arte, an affiliate of the largest European television network.
I’ve yet to read the book or see the documentary, but I was interviewed for both. Several years ago I wrote an article on the Fellowship for Beliefnet.com. Beliefnet shelved the piece but it has had a good life on my church’s website and on my blog, and it has established me as something of a “Fellowship expert” among conspiracy theorists and serious journalists alike.
It’s hard, in the space of a web-based column, to express all of the reasons a person should be concerned about the work of the Fellowship and about Hillary Clinton’s involvement in it. It is an organization with eccentric beliefs—any group that tolerates the use of Nazis as positive role models should raise eyebrows—but its not just inappropriate heroes that are a problem. In my own personal experience as a former member of the Fellowship and through my research into the Fellowship’s work I have found strong evidence that the Fellowship can be spiritually abusive, particularly toward the young people who pay for the privilege of working long hours at retreat centers run by the Fellowship in and around Washington D. C. Hillary Clinton’s involvement notwithstanding, the Fellowship also has a deeply misogynistic bent.
One young Fellowship employee spoke to me about his marriage comparing his wife to the harlot God directed the Old Testament prophet, Hosea, to marry. A woman who dated a Fellowship member told me of being warned by the wives of older members to “get out while you can—it’s hell to be a Fellowship wife.”
When I was involved in a Fellowship-sponsored prayer and Bible study group in college we were encouraged to forsake our girlfriends in favor of our male friendships, and—without the knowledge or permission of our girlfriends—we were expected to share the intimate details of our loves lives with the other members of our cell group. This is typical behavior for spiritually abusive religious organizations.
This oddball behavior wasn’t just happening among Fellowship groups at Westmont College when I was a student there twenty years ago. Just last week I got a call from a young man, currently in his last year at a very prestigious East Coast college, who experienced the same thing on his campus and at a Fellowship retreat for college-aged people this past winter.
The Fellowship’s pattern of spiritual abuse is particularly insidious because of the secrecy that surrounds the Fellowship’s work. The Fellowship is so keen on remaining clandestine that they have used their proximity to power to instill a sense of fear among the members of the group. Again, this is typical spiritual abuse.
I have found it difficult to write convincingly about the Fellowship because nearly everyone I have interviewed has asked me to withhold their names. My sources have included regular Fellowship members, young people who have worked at the Fellowship’s retreat centers; prominent people in business, academia, and journalism. Everyone was scared. They feared the Fellowship’s members would use their influence to harm them or their institutions if they articulated their concerns publicly.
I don’t believe that fear is entirely well founded, but I do know that the Fellowship has used intimidation in an effort to stop people from writing about them. In my case, after members of the Fellowship somehow came into possession of a draft of my Beliefnet article, my former Fellowship mentor—a man I hadn’t seen in more than a decade—sought me out. While on a trip to California, he took me to lunch and applied a significant amount of spiritual, emotional, and psychological pressure in an effort to silence my work.
So, does it matter that Hillary Clinton has been deeply involved in the Fellowship and that Barack Obama and John McCain have been involved to a lesser extent? It matters to me. I doubt that Senator Clinton’s character has been compromised exactly, but religion can be a powerful and corrupting force. Religious institutions need the accountability of transparency. I’m troubled by any religious group that exercises influence and power without formal accountability, especially when the group boasts deep connections to the most powerful institutions and people on the globe and has shown a tendency to employ spiritual intimidation and abuse. I’d like to see Clinton publicly distance herself from the Fellowship—to renounce and repudiate it even—it would be a first step toward transparency, accountability, and healing.
Here’s the video I mentioned above