Depending upon whom you believe, the Fellowship is either an interfaith group whose members are bonded by a common admiration for Jesus Christ, or it’s a vast secret, right wing Fundamentalist conspiracy. When I was growing up in the United Methodist Church, we just thought of fellowship as a euphemism for Sunday lunch potlucks after church in the church basement or recreation center.
Apparently, for years before I was born The Fellowship was a secret brotherhood of important people in political circles. They also believe in breaking bread together and sponsor the National Prayer Breakfast, which is an annual tradition observed at least once by every American president since Dwight D. Eisenhower. As for the vast right wing Fundamentalist conspiracy charge, the fact that both the Clintons as well as Al Gore are members, kind of blows that theory out of the water.
The Fellowship has members in the Senate and the House on both sides of the political fence and even welcomes Muslims, Buddhists and Hindus. Anyone who admires the character of Jesus Christ and wishes to live their lives according to his principles is welcome to join. An interview with the The Fellowship’s current leader, Douglas Coe, in a feature article in The New Yorker revealed that the Dalai Lama is a great admirer of Jesus, as was Gandhi, who even wrote a book about Jesus.
Why is The Fellowship suddenly getting all this attention? Well, the current leader of The Fellowship, a man named Douglas Coe, sent his sons to Washington as lay ministers. They purchased a foundation with 501(c)(3) tax status in order to purchase a building that was intended to become a sort of Washington fraternity/dormitory for members of The Fellowship. Some members of Congress lived there with reduced rent. And some members of The Fellowship just attended the Tuesday evening dinners. This fraternity house was known as the C Street Center.
Recently the Fellowship has made the news for a scandal that centered around the C Street Center. Apparently, the Tuesday night dinners are times for theological discussion and private sharing. Men in these Tuesday night dinners are usually big players, and they are remarkably candid with one another about their family lives and consider it important to hold themselves accountable to one another for their behavior.
In June 2009, Senator John Ensign, a longtime member of The Fellowship, admitted to having had an affair with the wife of one of his campaign advisors and fellow Fellowship members, Doug Hampton. Cindy Hampton and John Ensign had an affair for months. One of the members of the C Street Center gathered other members, and before the affair became public, several of the men confronted Ensign and forced him to sign a letter ending his affair with Cindy and then drove him to a FedEx where he paid to overnight the letter to his mistress.
Ensign then called Cindy and begged her to ignore the letter and continued with his affair. The men confronted Ensign again, and this time, in tears, he agreed to end the affair. Members of the C Street Center worked behind the scenes to provide both the Hampton and Ensign families with counseling and the help they needed for both marriages to survive such a storm. An intervention was also held to hopefully facilitate “forgiveness” between Doug Hampton and John Ensign.
Unfortunately, Hampton saw the efforts of the C Street group as efforts to protect Ensign’s reputation and political career, rather than a desire for a quiet resolution to a terribly painful personal ordeal. Hampton blew the whistle, and all this happened at around the same time as the tabloid mess, which was Mark Sanford. Sanford was also a member of the Fellowship who attended the Tuesday night dinners, and in the midst of Jenny Sanford’s distress over her husband’s affair with an Argentinian mistress, she appealed to the Fellowship for help in reconciling her marriage.
We all know what happened to Mark Sanford’s political career, and John Ensign subsequently resigned (disclaimer: Ensign is currently a United States Senator running for reelection; I have been corrected in the comments section. He did resign from a top Republican party leadership position, but not from the Senate itself) from the United States Senate. All this cast a shadow of doubt on The Fellowship, largely because The Fellowship has been so secretive, The Fellowship has ties to virtually every political leader in the world, good and bad, and people were starting to question the ethics of the C Street House’s tax structure and whether or not it was appropriate for members of Congress to be able to rent their second homes at a reduced rate from a non-profit organization.
In actuality, The Fellowship began in 1935, founded by a Methodist minister named Abraham Vereide. Abraham Vereide also founded the well-known “evil conspiracy” of Goodwill Industries. The purpose of The Fellowship is to provide a safe place for decision makers to encourage one another in their faith, attend Bible studies and prayer meetings and help each other to live more Godly lives. They discuss how to change the world for good, with the model of Christ as their inspiration. Anyone is allowed to join regardless of their religion, denomination or political affiliation. Yep. Sounds pretty evil to me.
The reason for the secrecy is not evil but rather because the members of The Fellowship are working to affect change for the poor and oppressed of the world, and they are doing it by Christ’s example. Jesus urged us to do our good deeds in secret, not to announce them to the media and brag about how great we are.
Can The Fellowship be used for bad purposes? Could some “members” be more interested in making themselves part of a powerful political organization than making disciples for Christ? Absolutely. During the debate about slavery in this country, both the abolitionists and the proponents of slavery claimed that the Bible, and consequently, God, was on their side. Men have always used God’s name as a reason to perpetuate evil. It is wrong, and it is sad.
However, I don’t see that as a reason to disband The Fellowship or to demonize a group that’s done a lot of good in the world. That would be like throwing out the baby with the bath water.
Entry filed under: Adultery, Chrisitanity, Ethics, Faith, Politics, Social Commentary, Spirituality. Tags: Al Gore, Cindy Hampton, Doug Hampton, Fellowship, John Ensign, United Methodist Church, United States, United States Senate.