Peter J. Boyer’s “Frat House For Jesus,” in the most recent issue of The New Yorker, opens on the C Street House, a congressional boarding house associated with a loose group sometimes called the “Fellowship,” which has hosted the District of Columbia’s National Prayer Breakfast for fifty-seven years. It discusses the controversies surrounding several of the congressmen who have lived at the house, as well as the history and global reach of the Fellowship and its affiliated prayer breakfasts. The lead figure in the article is Douglas Coe, long the animating force of the Fellowship and its mission of “interpersonal ministry to the powerful.” Rachel Maddow covered the Fellowship a few times this summer, and Jeff Sharlet has written books about it entitled “The Family: The Secret Fundamentalism at the Heart of American Power” and “C Street: The Fundamentalist Threat to American Democracy.”
I have no doubt that there are people who both consider themselves to be members of the Fellowship and hold frightening, radical fundamentalism views. However this fundamentalism does not appear to be a core part of the Fellowship. Its sinister character has another source.
Those who attend the prayer breakfasts and seek counsel with Coe are both Democrats and Republicans, Jews and Christians, fundamentalists and the secular-minded. Bill Clinton and Al Gore were more enthusiastic Breakfast-goers than was George W. Bush. Coe himself has a non-denominational outlook on faith that focuses less on punishment and dogma and more on prayer and the life of Jesus (however that is to be interpreted.)
In practice, this is a hollow proposition. The chief occupation of Fellowship devotees seems to be cheating on their wives; they of course all help each other get through these trials and (we are told) heal broken marriages. Afterward, they score political points banning marriage for consenting adults. They are, without specifics, told to emulate Jesus. They cut welfare benefits, enact discriminatory sentencing laws and block health care reform and unemployment benefits. It is suggested they pray for the world; they impose sanctions that kill a million people and order an invasion that kills a million more. This the do not on account of a Fellowship that tells them to, although some may have other faiths that do. The Fellowship’s role through all of this is to provide spiritual comfort without content. In telling these men and women that they should look to God and the teachings of Jesus, but not point out to them when they are in blatant contradiction of those teachings, the Fellowship uses theology to absolve of responsibility a small group of people who have an incredible amount of power to do evil or good. It is not “The Secret Fundamentalism at the Heart of American Power,” rather it is the candy-flavored palliative administered to the revolving cast of characters in a corrupt system that could so dearly use a real course of ethical instruction.
(“Frat House For Jesus” also contains one hilarious description of a Congressional diet. Leading conservative Jim DeMint eats a daily breakfast of “tea, Oreos, and dried cranberries.”)