The C Street House, a former convent on Capitol Hill, complete with stained glass, used to be known as the “Prayer House,” a place for congressmen to practice piety behind closed doors under the protection of a secretive religious group known to outsiders as the Fellowship and spoken of by members as “the Family.” But, although the $1.8 million red-brick townhouse is registered as a church (and thus tax-exempt), it has won a new reputation this summer in the wake of sex scandals centered around Family members John Ensign, Mark Sanford, and former representative Chip Pickering as something just shy of a brothel.
Such obvious religion-and-sex hypocrisy, however, obscures the fact that C Street House is a whole lot more than a love shack. I’ve chronicled the Family over the past seven years, but it’s only in the past few weeks that I’ve seen how it acts like a lobby, even as it does not register as one. It reaches out to congressmen, providing below-market housing at the C Street House for half a dozen at a time and hosting many more for prayer and policy sessions. It also funds their travel around the world, makes matches with businessmen backers (a few women are involved, but this is a boy’s club; serious prayer is gender-segregated), loans them money when they’re down, and introduces them to foreign leaders when they’re ready to rise from provincial politics and into the stratosphere of foreign affairs.
The list of Family-affiliated politicians here at home is less surprising: Republican senators Tom Coburn and James Inhofe of Oklahoma, Jim DeMint and Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, Chuck Grassley of Iowa, John Thune of South Dakota, and Sam Brownback of Kansas, as well as his likely replacement, Rep. Todd Tiahrt (I once heard Tihart at the C Street House talk about ways “for the Christian to win the race with the Muslim.” The problem, he said, was that Muslims were having too many babies, while “Americans”—a category that, in Tiahrt’s thinking, apparently does not include any Muslims—are aborting too many of their own).One need not necessarily be Republican—the Family claims the support of a number of conservative “faith-based Democrats,” such as Senator Bill Nelson of Florida and Representative Mike McIntyre of North Carolina. The Family even maintained relations with the Democrat most despised by many Republicans: Hillary Clinton, who once described leader Doug Coe as a “genuinely loving spiritual mentor and guide.” (When NBC Nightly News broadcast videotape I supplied of Coe comparing his Fellowship to that of “Hitler, Goebbels, and Himmler,” Clinton immediately distanced herself from the group, declaring that she’d never given it any money.)
The Family’s political focus is, unsurprisingly, in the most authoritative of arenas: foreign policy. A recent review of travel records, undertaken with Chris Rodda of the Military Religious Freedom Foundation, reveals that Family members Ensign and Coburn, along with representatives John R. Carter (R-TX), Pete Hoekstra (R-MI), Robert Aderholt (R-AL), Joseph Pitts (R-PA), Frank Wolf (R-VA), and Mike Doyle, a Pennsylvania Democrat who lives in the C Street House, traveled extensively overseas on the dime of the International Foundation, one of the network of nonprofits created by the Family that ostensibly represents U.S. policy interests.” Destinations included Serbia, Croatia, Kosovo, Albania, Bulgaria, Belarus, Italy, Israel, Sudan, Montenegro, and Macedonia, whose prime minister spoke openly this spring of using the Prayer Breakfast to lobby American politicians, including Clinton.