Is everything just politics? How The New York Times, others viewed death of evangelical Doug Coe

Barely four weeks after the February 2 National Prayer Breakfast he managed for so many years, evangelical lay pastor Doug Coe died on February 21 of complications from a heart attack and a stroke. He was 88, and had for 48 years led the Fellowship Foundation, referred to in some accounts as the International Foundation and as a private group also known as The Family.

The late German novelist Thomas Mann is credited with first saying "Everything is political," and one might derive that impression from looking at The New York Times and other media accounts of Coe's life and work, something a GetReligion reader noted in calling our attention to the Gray Lady's obituary.

Take it away, Times:

Mr. Coe was regarded by many political and business leaders as a spiritual mentor who blurred the line between religion and philosophy. Many in his orbit, including presidents and members of Congress of both major parties, described him as a quiet organizer who used spirituality to build relationships, often with unlikely allies.
In her 2003 memoir, “Living History,” Hillary Clinton recalled Mr. Coe as “a genuinely loving spiritual mentor and guide to anyone, regardless of party or faith, who wants to deepen his or her relationship with God and offer the gift of service to others in need.”
As a senator from New York, Mrs. Clinton was also a frequent attendee of a smaller weekly prayer group for members of Congress that Mr. Coe led personally for years.

Yes, but did that have an impact on party politics?

It's not possible, I suppose, that someone could merely work privately to advance an understanding of their religious beliefs. Nope, there has to be something else behind it, right?

Saith the Times

[Coe's] proximity to so many high-ranking politicians made him an object of curiosity in Washington, while inviting speculation about his motives and ideology. He rarely spoke in public or to the news media. In private gatherings he was known to use improbable metaphors -- likening Maoists and Nazis, for example, to religious zealots and extolling them as effective leaders.

Granted, it is sometimes difficult to capture the entirety of someone's thinking in a single obit, and given that there's no link to the actual remarks Coe is alleged to have made about Nazis and Maoists, it's also difficult for the reader who has no access to their context to properly judge just how "improbable" those metaphors were. After all, plenty of scholars and others, including the U.S. Holocaust Museum, noted the raw power of the late Leni Riefenstahl's cinematography in the service of Hitler's National Socialist movement, without endorsing the despot.  (And, no, gentle reader, I'm not suggesting either Maoist politics or Nazism as worthy of emulation.)

So was Coe a quiet influence for good, or a stealth political force seeking to break down the wall of separation between church and state? According to the Washington Post remembrance, Coe certainly had his critics:

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.”
An investigative journalist, Jeff Sharlet, documented what he alleged to be the Fellowship’s theocratic ambitions in two books “The Family: The Secret Fundamentalism at the Heart of American Power” (2008) and “C Street: The Fundamentalist Threat to American Democracy” (2010).
Among other accusations, Sharlet charged that the Fellowship helped push a legislative effort in Uganda to make acts of homosexuality a capital offense. A Fellowship member, J. Robert Hunter, told the New York Times that numerous Fellowship members had spoken out against the legislation.

Yet Sharlet, who made a minor specialty off of his research on Coe and company, wasn't the only one to sound an alarm: World magazine, in 2009, raised concerns about the Fellowship's dealings, finances and seemingly indistinct theology, wherein it was noted that those affiliating with the group "are not becoming Christians, they are following Jesus." Coe, several accounts reported, said, "Jesus wasn’t a Christian."

Another way of looking at Coe's life and work is hinted at in many accounts: He really was a "stealth evangelist," shunning the limelight, eschewing self-promotion and keeping the focus where he, Coe, felt it was important -- on the life and teachings of Jesus. To its credit, Religion News Service's Adelle M. Banks acknowledges this with a quote near the top of her Coe obituary:

“In a town where powerful people are constantly trying to increase their name recognition and their brand, Doug Coe was the opposite of that,” said Michael Cromartie, director of the Evangelicals in Civic Life program at Washington’s Ethics and Public Policy Center. “He was a man who liked to work behind the scenes, who did not call attention to himself, who was a sort of a pastor to people in power.”

While The New York Times and the Washington Post avoid flinging the "fundamentalist" label with the carelessness the Times demonstrated in recalling the life of Tim LaHaye last summer, there's still an emphasis on the seemingly dark aspects of Coe's activity in the political realm, but with little foundation other than a one-off scandal 10 years ago and the repeated carpings of one critic. When even Hillary Clinton calls Coe a good person, perhaps his thinking merits a second look.

Sometimes, everything is not political, or even primarily so.

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