Doug Coe lives a quiet life, even though the Fellowship organization he founded appears often in the news. Last year, two politicians who confessed to adulteries drew attention to the Fellowship. Earlier this year, a group of pastors filed an IRS complaint over the tax-exempt status of the Fellowship's C Street house, where a small number of politicians live. Coe, who rarely gives interviews, spoke with Grove City psychology professor Warren Throckmorton at the National Prayer Breakfast earlier this year. Throckmorton regularly blogs on sexuality issues and has reported on the anti-homosexuality bill in Uganda. What follows is Throckmorton's analysis of the interview as submitted to Christianity Today.
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In 2005, Time magazine selected Doug Coe as one of the 25 most influential evangelicals in the nation. Coe provides spiritual leadership for the Fellowship Foundation, the entity that organizes the National Prayer Breakfast. This event brings together political leaders from around the world during the first week of February for prayer and networking. Attended by every President since Dwight Eisenhower, the event is the pinnacle of many smaller meetings involving thousands of world leaders and volunteers.
For more than a year, I have been writing about Uganda's Anti-Homosexuality Bill, which, if passed, would make consensual homosexual intimacy a capital crime if one of the parties was HIV positive. Other same-sex intimacy would be punished with life in prison. People failing to report knowledge of others engaging in gay sex could also be jailed. Because the bill's sponsor, David Bahati, has been involved in activities related to the Fellowship Foundation, some observers thought the American associates promoted the bill as well. Interviews with people connected to the Fellowship led me to believe otherwise. I was invited to explore the Fellowship more openly by attending the prayer breakfast, and Coe agreed to sit down with me to provide a glimpse into his organization.
I began by asking Coe to describe the "Fellowship." He began by saying that the Fellowship was a "network of friends around the world attempting to be centered on the principles and teachings of Jesus." Coe added that, for many years, insiders described the Fellowship another way: "We are an informal association of concerned laymen bonded together to find through Jesus Christ 'the better way' of everyday living and to promote for home, community, nation, and world a more effective 'leadership led by God' at every level of society."
Coe told me that it is important for observers to understand that what is happening in the hundreds of little groups nationally and worldwide is a kind of "people-to-people—friend-to-friend" network. Each group, city, and nation is autonomous and independent. He emphasized that there is no central top-down leadership that speaks for all the groups throughout the nations. However, he said, "we all want to be friends and we are relationally together in spirit. That is the reason we call each other brother, sister, and friend as Jesus told us to do." The focus, Coe explained, is "to help each other with endeavors that help people, specifically the poor, widows, and orphans of the world."
He went on to say that the way you communicate the importance of Jesus' teachings is not primarily through spoken words, but "over 90 percent by example." Invoking the Golden Rule, he said Jesus taught that we should "do for others what you would like others to do unto you." According to Coe, expressing the teachings of Jesus is much more about deeds than about words. "One of the most important ways of communicating the precepts of Jesus is not to be judgmental of others, thinking yourself to be better than other people," he said.
He said that he was learning that it was not so important for him to get others to love God, but to love God himself and to love his neighbor. Coe said, "I have broken all of the Ten Commandments myself. How can I be judgmental of others?" He added quickly that he did not mean a literal violation of all Ten Commandments. "Not that I have really killed anyone, but I remember twice in my life I became angry enough to kill." With heaviness, Coe described the two situations.
Once, when he was skiing, he overheard a man he guessed to be in his late 20s brag about raping a 15-year-old girl. The man went into great detail about all he had inflicted upon her and how he abused her. At that moment, he had the urge to kill the man, but restrained himself.
At another time, he was traveling with a leader of a very poor nation who was known for causing the death of hundreds of people. Coe said that as he was sitting next to this man, anger welled up in him over the senseless deaths of all the women and children, many of whom Coe had witnessed dying. Voice shaking a bit, he told me that the thought crossed his mind that maybe the solution would be to eliminate this leader. Again, he restrained himself.
Coe presented himself as a sinner who must work to keep the teachings of Jesus himself as his first task. "At the end of the day, it is kind of a team effort to help one another to love God and love each other," Coe said.
Coe mentioned two of his heroes: Abraham Lincoln and Mahatma Gandhi. Coe said that Lincoln was always faithful to go to church, but never joined a church. When asked why he stayed unaligned, President Lincoln replied, "When I find that church which has as its only creed 'to love God with all its heart, mind, soul and strength,' I will gladly join." Coe seems to want the Fellowship to be the kind of group Lincoln could join.
Coe brought up Gandhi with a story about a question put to Gandhi by a friend: "If you love Jesus so much why don't you become a Christian?" According to Coe, Gandhi said, "When the Christians decide to follow Him, I'll become one." The man also asked Gandhi, "Aren't you a Hindu?" To which he answered, "I'm a Hindu, I'm a Christian, I'm a Jew, and I'm a Buddhist." Coe observed that Gandhi loved all the people of India, not just some of the people.
Drawing lessons from historical figures has brought controversy to Coe in the past. In a 1989 sermon to the Navigators, Coe referred to followers of Adolf Hitler and Mao Tse-tung as illustrations of total devotion to a cause. In that same address, he noted that Christian leaders ask almost nothing of followers of Christ. I asked Coe about those references.
He did not hesitate to acknowledge that some people have been critical of him, saying that he was an admirer of Hitler, Tse-tung, and others. Coe explained that in the past, he often used the dictators as an illustration of how some of the most evil people in the world use God and the Bible for their own purposes; they often quote from the Scriptures, but use them contrary to the way God intended them to be used. Coe said the method was to quote Jesus often, but just change his words a little bit. According to Coe, Joseph Stalin went to seminary to prepare to be a priest, but then he used thoughts from the Scriptures in a way just opposite from how they were used by Jesus and others down through the centuries.
After Coe's explanation, I asked if he would provide a copy of the sermon so people could hear it for themselves and draw their own conclusions. Coe agreed and said he would provide it to Bob Hunter, who is acting as the Fellowship's spokesperson. I recently posted the sermon, titled "Jesus Demands Total Commitment."
During the interview, I told him I was surprised by the different religious groups represented in the Fellowship events I had attended. Coe replied that the teachings of Jesus are "totally cross-cultural and form the bridge for common ground. What unites all the major religions," he said, "is Jesus."
This theme of the universality of the teachings of Jesus was a common one during my conversations with friends of the Fellowship. "We try to keep our focus on Jesus," Coe said. "We try to accept everybody, just as Jesus did." In his view, that does not mean you have to say the word "Jesus" every minute. "It's the way you live and the way you love that counts," he said.
Since I was interviewing Coe because of my writing on the Ugandan Anti-Homosexuality Bill, I asked him if the acceptance of everybody includes homosexuals.
He looked a little perplexed when I asked him, as if I had asked a question that was too obvious to be answered. He said quickly, "Of course, homosexuals are loved by God like everyone else. Jesus loves them the same." Pausing, he continued. "Look, my problem is pride. I have to work on that and with myself. Shouldn't there be a law against pride, as it is the worst sin according to the Scriptures? We are all sinners and need to worry about ourselves."
I noted that Bob Hunter had condemned the bill and asked if Coe could confirm that Hunter spoke for the Fellowship. Coe nodded affirmatively, saying that "whatever Bob said was as important as what I say—and probably more so."
During our interview, I was struck by the intensity of Coe's narratives and his sense of himself as fallen. His willingness to reach out to other fallen people may be unsettling to some, but to him, such actions seem entirely consistent with his understanding of the teachings of Jesus. He moves quietly, apparently seeking what he says he wants—to be a follower of Jesus.
Copyright © 2010 Christianity Today. Click for reprint information.
Frank Wolf and Tony Hall wrote "Who Is the Fellowship?" for Christianity Today. CT previously covered the Fellowship, Sen. John Ensign, and Gov. Mark Sanford stories at our politics blog.
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