The National Prayer Breakfast was one of hundreds of ministries run by what some called the “underground State Department,” according to a D. Michael Lindsay book quoted by the Washington Post, in an article announcing the death of its founder, Doug Coe. The organization was the Fellowship Foundation, and its reputation was controversial:
It reportedly ran as many as several hundred ministries domestically and abroad. Of those activities, only the prayer breakfast was widely publicized. That event was as prominent as the Fellowship’s other undertakings were secretive: The breakfast, inaugurated in 1953, has been attended by every president since Dwight D. Eisenhower.
In the past decade, the Fellowship drew unflattering attention after several politicians it had embraced — among them former senator John Ensign (R-Nev.) and former governor and now Rep. Mark Sanford (R-S.C.) — confessed to extramarital affairs. A house on C Street SE in Washington, owned by a Fellowship affiliate and rented to a bipartisan group of legislators who participated in Fellowship activities, was described in the New Yorker magazine as a “frat house for Jesus.”
The organization, like its founder, Doug Coe, worked under the radar in many ways, “playing roles in the 1978 Camp David Accords between Egypt and Israel and the brokerage of a peace agreement between Rwanda and Congo in 2002,” again according to Lindsay. Coe’s own influence was strengthened by his quiet and discretion, and he was admired on both sides of the political aisle:
In a city where most notables seek rather than shun the spotlight, Mr. Coe was a conspicuous exception. In 2005, when Time magazine named him one of the 25 most influential evangelicals in the United States, he declined to provide a picture to accompany the article.
Described as “the stealth Billy Graham,” the evangelist with an international following, Mr. Coe rarely granted interviews, leaving public attention to the presidents, members of Congress and other potentates to whom he ministered as a layman.
They included former president George H.W. Bush, who commended him for his “quiet diplomacy,” and Hillary Clinton, the former first lady, U.S. senator and secretary of state, who described him in her memoir “Living History” (2003) as “a source of strength and friendship” and “a unique presence in Washington: a genuinely loving spiritual mentor and guide to anyone, regardless of party or faith, who wants to deepen his or her relationship with God.”
“Doug was a very apolitical man when he got with people,” [director of the Evangelicals in Civic Life program at Washington’s Ethics and Public Policy Center Michael] Cromartie said. “He would meet with anybody if it would mean he’d get a chance to talk about Jesus to them.”
And his efforts to avoid politics carried through to his determination to avoid “Christian” terminology.
“His view was the word ‘Christian’ was often a turnoff word because people associated it with politics of the right or of the left,” Cromartie said. “He felt like it obscured the larger message of Jesus so he just didn’t like the word ‘Christian’ and he used to humorously say ‘Jesus wasn’t a Christian.’”
[Author Jeff] Sharlet predicted that Coe would be more influential than conservative Christian leaders such as Pat Robertson and James Dobson.
“Dobson might be able to muscle his way on an individual vote or in an individual election, but Coe and the Family’s influence is going to be much longer term, much more enduring,” he said.
Image from YouTube: Jesus Curriculum Introduction