Tomorrow, President Obama and dozens of members of Congress will attend the National Prayer Breakfast in Washington, DC. Unbeknownst to most, this seemingly innocuous event is hosted by a shadowy religious organization known as "the Fellowship," or alternatively, "the Family." They should not go.
The Fellowship has been cultivating an unorthodox brand of Christianity amongst the political, military, and economic elite of America and other countries for over 50 years, focused on meeting Jesus "man-to-man." The group operates in secret, away from the "din of the vox populi." Doug Coe, described as "The Stealth Persuader," has led the group since 1969. He has been praised for his "quiet diplomacy" by former President George H.W. Bush. That diplomacy has included forming relationships with some of the most ruthless dictators of the last half-century, including "Papa Doc" Duvalier of Haiti; Jonas Savimbi of Angola; Costa e Silva of Brazil; and Siad Barre of Somalia, considered a "brother" to the Family.
The one time of year when the Family emerges from the shadows is the annual National Prayer Breakfast, its signature event. This large-scale function serves as a recruiting tool for the group, but is often misconstrued by attendees as an official government event -- a perception reinforced by a presidential address at the breakfast, presidential seals strategically located around the room, and an organizing committee made up of members of Congress. Given the official façade, some attendees have expected at least a nod to other religions, but they are quickly disappointed. "JESUS is there!" reads a breakfast planning document.
At past breakfasts, the Family has facilitated meetings between its foreign allies and the president as well as members of Congress, outside the reach of the Department of State and traditional U.S. diplomatic protocol. Past prayer breakfast attendees have included General Eugenio Vides Casanova of El Salvador, later found liable for the torture of thousands of civilians, and General Alvarez Martinez of Honduras, later linked to secret death squads in that country.
The Family has been linked to ethically troubled politicians including Sen. John Ensign (R-Nev.), Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.), Gov. Mark Sanford (R-S.C.), Rep. Todd Tiahrt (R-Kan.), and former Rep. "Chip" Pickering (R-Miss.). These politicians were all at one time affiliated with the Family- run C Street House, a boarding house on Capitol Hill, which also operates as a church. Residents of C Street honored the organization's penchant for secrecy by taking a pact not to discuss their living situation.
The mixing of religion and diplomacy, regardless of U.S. interests, is a hallmark of the Family. Indeed, some members of the Family have taken to proselytizing on the group's behalf while on the taxpayers' dime. Sen. Jim Inhofe (R-Okla.) and his staff traveled to Africa dozens of times at a cost of over $189,000 and admitted to doing Fellowship work on these trips. A group of congressmen affiliated with the Family discussed their prayer groups with President Karzai of Afghanistan and President Mushaaraf of Pakistan in early 2002.
Perhaps most troubling, members of the Family have been behind efforts in Uganda to pass draconian anti-gay legislation that includes life imprisonment -- and in some cases the death penalty -- for anyone convicted of having gay sex. The legislator who introduced the bill, David Bahati, is a member of the Family. He organizes the Family's Ugandan National Prayer Breakfast and oversees a student leadership program designed to create future leaders for Africa, into which the Family has poured millions of dollars. As late as mid-January, Mr. Bahati was scheduled to attend tomorrow's breakfast, but recently he was disinvited, undoubtedly because press coverage of his connection to the Family has proven embarrassing.
The White House has confirmed that President Obama will attend tomorrow's breakfast, with the ludicrous, child-like explanation: all the other presidents have attended. First, does the White House really require the parental reminder that just because everyone else has done something doesn't mean the president must do it too? Second, didn't President Obama come to Washington on a platform of change, specifically promising to run his administration differently?
The Family is a cult-like secret society with unknown funding and intolerant views. It is tied to ruthless dictators abroad and unethical politicians at home. It mixes religion and diplomacy to a frightening extent, all while remaining in the shadows. In short, there is nothing about this organization that any American official, much less the President of the United States, should support.
By attending the National Prayer Breakfast, senior government officials lend their imprimatur to an organization whose ideas and practices are antithetical to the American ideals of transparency and high ethical standards -- the very ideals upon which President Obama has based his administration. Given all of this, the president and members of Congress would do well to reconsider attending the Family's National Prayer Breakfast.
Follow Melanie Sloan on Twitter: www.twitter.com/CREWcrew