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Republican Senate Sex Scandals Point Back to Secretive Conservative Christian "Family"

It was a hot summer full of sex scandals for GOP members of "The Family," the exclusive conservative Christian group with designs on DC power.

Before the Tea Party Express brought tens of thousands to protest in the nation’s capital, and before town hall meetings about health care devolved into shout downs, there was the story of the boys of C Street. 


What at first seemed like a series of public sex scandals turned out to have a connective thread. The main protagonists (Governor Mark Sanford of South Carolina, Senator John Ensign of Nevada, and former Arkansas Congressman Chip Pickering) were all one-time residents of C Street and members of the Family, otherwise known as the Fellowship. As the summer unfurled, the three amigos gave mainstream media outlets plenty to talk about, and this highly secretive and powerful right-wing group got a lot of exposure. And then, as is the wont of the media, the story of C Street disappeared from the headlines. 

In this exclusive Religion Dispatches interview, Jeff Sharlet, author of 2008 s The Family: The Secret Fundamentalism at the Heart of American Power, talks about The Family and its summer of scandal, the organization’s tarnished present and future possibilities, and why the mainstream media had such a difficult time dealing with the group’s unusual political/religious beliefs. 

First off, tell us three critical things we should know about The Family?

Jeff Sharlet: The Family is the oldest and arguably most influential religious conservative organization in Washington, a “brotherhood” comprised mostly of politicians such as Senator Jim Inhofe, Senator Tom Coburn, Senator Sam Brownback, Senator Jim DeMint, and, now infamously, Senator John Ensign, Governor Mark Sanford, and former congressman Chip Pickering, all of whom turned to The Family to help cover up sex scandals this past summer. The reason you may not have heard about the group is that it doesn’t want you to hear about it—“the more invisible you can make your organization,” preaches leader Doug Coe, “the more influence it will have.” They’re not the only group in Washington that keeps a low profile, but it’s the nature of their influence that’s really noteworthy: some congressmen call it simply personal and thus private, but nearly 600 boxes of documents stored at the Billy Graham Center Archive reveals decades of intense political work around foreign and economic affairs.

Most people don’t know anything about Doug Coe, the Family’s longtime leader. How did he manage to escape the public spotlight for such a long period of time? What makes him such a unique figure? 

A few years ago, Time magazine was making up a list of the 25 most powerful evangelicals. Since I write a lot on these subjects, they asked me who I’d suggest. I said Coe. “Who’s he?” the reporter, David Van Biema, responded. I told him to call the offices of a dozen congressmen—if at least half didn’t mention Coe, don’t include him. Well, Coe made the list, at number four, pictured with Bush, Sr., under the headline, “The Stealth Persuader.” 

The secret to his stealth is simple: In a city where everybody wants to be in the news, Coe isn’t seeking publicity. Way back in 1966, when he first began assuming leadership of the organization he’d come to re-brand as the Family, he sent out a memo declaring that the time had come to “submerge” the group’s public profile. In a rare interview, he admits that the National Prayer Breakfast—owned and organized by the Family since its founding in 1953, despite its official appearance—isn’t “one tenth of one percent” of what the Family accomplishes behind the scenes. 

That penchant for “invisibility,” as he calls it, makes him unusual, but don’t mistake him for some humble servant of the Lord. Above all else, Coe admires strength, of the iron fist variety. Over the years he’s acted as a de facto lobbyist for strongmen ranging from Haiti’s Papa Doc Duvalier to Indonesia’s Suharto. Disavowing the strident pulpit-pounding that makes headlines, Coe preaches a far more authoritarian message, advising congressmen to look to “evil men” such as Hitler, Stalin, and Mao for insight into the nature of Christ’s power.