The National Prayer Breakfast is supposed to seem like just another dull Washington ritual, a holy Seersucker Thursday, a divine Correspondent’s Dinner. But the ostensibly spiritual event is the public face of a days-long lobbying festival whose invitees have included Russian spy Maria Butina, all mounted by a mysterious religious organization that cultivates acolytes in the halls of power. This group, which is called the Fellowship Foundation, is the subject of a new Netflix miniseries that takes its title from the organization’s more ominous-sounding nickname—The Family. Here’s what you need to know about the group and its founder.
What’s the Family?
The group has its roots in the 1930s, when Norwegian-American minister Abraham Vereide began organizing Seattle businessmen to pray for union busting and the defeat of communism. Jeff Sharlet, whose books on the Fellowship served as the basis for Netflix’s series, wrote in an article for Harper’s that Vereide felt the spiritual needs of the “down-out” were sufficiently catered to, and instead he geared his ministry towards the “up-and-out”—the powerful. Prayer breakfasts spread across the country, and the first National Prayer Breakfast was held in 1953, featuring an appearance by President Dwight Eisenhower. The tradition endures, with presidents, members of Congress, and other power players coming together to pray and schmooze each February.
Over the years, the group grew to include two member residences. One is a mansion in Arlington, Virginia that serves as the organization’s headquarters, with young male interns living, praying, and working on the property together, and serving as cleaners and landscapers for the organization. (Sharlet lived at this property as an intern for a time, and his experiences with the group inspired his books about the mysterious religious organization.) The other home is a townhouse in Washington DC, where politicians affiliated with the group, including disgraced former North Carolina governor Mark Sanford and Nevada Senator John Ensign, have lived while in office.
The organization has also cultivated influence abroad, working with President Jimmy Carter (who appears in The Family) on a prayer for the Israeli-Egyption negotiations that would result in the Camp David Accords, and cultivating ties between the American government and controversial foreign leaders, including Indonesia’s anti-communist dictator General Suharto and recently-ousted Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir, who’s been charged with committing genocide in the nation’s Darfur regain.
Who is Doug Coe?
Coe, who was born in Oregon in 1928, began working for the Fellowship in 1959. He succeed Vereide in leading the organization upon his death. While the group had begun as a more traditionally public organization, in his later years Vereide decided to “submerge the institutional image” of the Fellowship, a tendency that only deepened under Coe, who eschewed publicity for himself and his group.
But despite his low profile, he cultivated close relationships with those in power. In a 2003 memoir, Hillary Clinton called him “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.”
“I wish I could say more about it,” said President Ronald Reagan of his work with Coe in 1985, “but it’s working precisely because it is private.”
While cultivating powerful allies at home, Coe also embedded himself in international affairs. He helped lay the groundwork for a peace treated between Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of Congo by inviting the nations’ presidents to his Arlington headquarters in 2001.
Coe died in 2017. Many of his family members are among the Fellowship’s current leadership, including his son-in-law Doug Burleigh, who’s been interviewed reportedly by the FBI about his ties to Russian agent Butina.