The Fellowship under a microscope

Peter J. Boyer deserves GetReligion's "rock star religion reporting of the month" award, an honor that I just made up on the spot. In all seriousness, Boyer has produced yet another thoughtful, thorough, compelling piece for The New Yorker, this time on the Fellowship, a secretive religious group inside the DC Beltway. (Earlier, we looked at his piece on Francis Collins.) We've looked at a number of stories surrounding the Fellowship over the years because they are hard to do well. The group is notoriously difficult for reporters to reach, so Boyer must have taken lots of time and patience to execute this piece thoroughly.

Reports of the Fellowship have grown in the past few years after some high-profile affairs were acknowledged from people who lived in the group's house on C Street. News of Sen. John Ensign's affair seemed overshadowed by Gov. Mark Sanford's bizarre rendezvous in Argentina, but Boyer documents some interesting details behind the Fellowship's intervention, led by Sen. Tom Coburn.

Coburn, the senior man in the house, enjoyed these sessions, but at dinner that Tuesday night in 2008 he was plainly troubled. Finally, he spoke out. "Guys," he said, "we've got a problem in the house."

One day some weeks earlier, Coburn said, he had learned that John Ensign, who was married, was having an affair with Cynthia Hampton, the wife of one of his aides, Doug Hampton, and there had been an immediate intervention that same day. Meeting in an upstairs room at the C Street house (a room that was occasionally used for marriage counselling), Doug Hampton, accompanied by Coburn and three lay ministers who manage C Street, had confronted Ensign about the affair. The encounter was filled with recrimination and tears, and culminated in Ensign confessing and vowing to repent. Coburn returned to the Senate, but the others remained with Ensign, handing him a pen and paper and dictating a letter to Cynthia Hampton declaring his intention to end the affair.

In case you aren't familiar with the Fellowship, here's a primer from Boyer.

The Fellowship's participants (there is no official membership) describe themselves simply as followers of Jesus, an informal network of friends seeking harmony by modelling their lives after his. They are assertively nondoctrinal (eschewing even the term "Christian") and nonecclesiastical (denominations tend to be divisive), and although the core figures are evangelicals, they do not believe in proselytizing. I have spoken to Buddhists, Muslims, and Jews who consider themselves part of this network. The group rejects anything resembling a formal structure--there is no titled executive team, and even the name "Fellowship" is unofficial, an informal convenience. The business cards of those leaders who carry them list the individual's name at the top and addresses and telephone numbers at the bottom, with a blank space in between, where the name of the entity might go. A formal foundation does exist--a 501(c)(3) called the International Foundation, which oversees three hundred or so ministries associated with the Fellowship, and has a board of directors that approves a budget for the ministries (in the fifteen-million-dollar range) and the salaries of the parent entity's relatively few employees. The Fellowship's affiliated ministries vary widely in their missions, from operating a secondary school in Uganda to funding a program for inner-city youths in Washington, D.C. The core mission of the Fellowship, however, is interpersonal ministry to the powerful, meant "to turn their hearts to the poor."

Boyer notes that Coe's theological approach could be fairly controversial among Christians, and he follows up on his quotes from responses from someone who knows Capitol Hill well.

The other change under Coe was a refining of the brand of faith that animated the Fellowship. Coe distilled that faith down to the raw teaching of Jesus, as presented in the Gospels--Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John--and in the first few chapters of the Acts of the Apostles. This approach conformed with Coe's youthful rebellion against the idea of a God who would condemn all but a particular brand of believer. "They tell Jewish friends, You can't go to Heaven unless you're a Christian," Coe says. "Well, the facts are, if that is true, Isaiah could never go to Heaven, Mary could never go to Heaven, Jesus could never go to Heaven. It's crazy."

... "I can tell you that critics to his right think that Doug is just doctrinally soft and confused," Michael Cromartie, the vice-president of the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, and a friend of Coe's, says. "It's one thing to be an admirer of Jesus the man, but there are people in the more orthodox world who want to say that Jesus did more than just walk around and teach; he actually did something in history, on the Cross, that is crucial to everything."

The article then states, "Coe shrinks at the thought of trying to convert anyone." Despite Coe's appearance on Time's "most influential evangelicals" list, he doesn't exactly fit the Bebbington quadrilateral. There's also pretty interesting section on the Fellowship's international engagement that's worth reading, but if I'll refrain from continually block quoting.

Then there's the annual prayer breakfast that the President attends.

If international dignitaries view the Prayer Breakfast as a reliable means of unofficial access, some Presidents -- most notably, Bill Clinton -- have been more accommodating than others. "Bill and Hillary got it," says Doug Burleigh, who is Coe's son-in-law, and a key figure in the Fellowship. "They came early, they'd meet with the groups early and do a photo op with 'em, hug 'em. They got what this was about." George W. Bush, on the other hand, made it clear to Coe and the others from the start that he'd show up at the Prayer Breakfast but not to expect much more. "George came late, and left early -- he did every year," Burleigh says. "Now, I appreciate his honesty. He told Doug, 'You know, this isn't my thing.' "After Bush's first, perfunctory appearance, Clinton telephoned Coe to console him. "He didn't badmouth Bush, he gave it the best spin," Burleigh recalls. "He said, 'Hey, Bush'll get it. He doesn't understand what this thing's about.' "

This is an interesting anecdote, but my impression was that Mother Theresa made things very uncomfortable for the Clintons when she addressed them on abortion. As Emily Belz wrote for World magazine, Clinton spoke this year about an adoption home she helped open after Mother Theresa's address, but Clinton failed to mention that it has since shut down.

I also wonder why Boyer didn't ask about Obama's two appearances at the prayer breakfast. A woman called me earlier this year asking me to investigate why Obama left before Tim Tebow's closing prayer, but I assumed he left for other duties and/or for security reasons.

That said, it's refreshing to read a piece on the Fellowship that doesn't have an underlying agenda to tear down or build up. Boyer seems to simply shed some light on this quiet group, raising some questions without making sweeping generalizations. He addresses politics without being political, considering the relational focus to the group that many reporters don't understand.

Read the piece and weigh in with the parts you thought were helpful or angles he might have missed. There's a lot to digest with this complicated group.

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