By Andrea Mitchell and Jim Popkin, NBC News
For more than 50 years, the National Prayer Breakfast has been a Washington institution. Every president has attended the breakfast since Eisenhower, elbow-to-elbow with Democrats and Republicans alike. “I am really proud to carry on that tradition,” President Bush said at this year’s breakfast. “The people in this room come from many different walks of faith. Yet we share one clear conviction: We believe that the Almighty hears our prayers -- and answers those who seek Him.”
Besides the presidents and first ladies--Bill and Hillary Clinton attended in 1997--the one constant presence at the National Prayer Breakfast has been Douglas Coe. Although he’s not an ordained minister, the 79-year-old Coe is the most important religious leader you've never seen or heard.
But Doug Coe is well known to scores of senators in both parties--and many faiths--including Sam Brownback, Mike Enzi, Mark Pryor and Bill Nelson. They go to small weekly Senate prayer groups that Coe attends. Participants tell NBC News that so have senators John McCain, Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton, which those campaigns confirm.
Senator Clinton’s participation is surprising to observers who have investigated Coe’s group, called The Fellowship Foundation, which critics have described as a secretive organization populated mostly by conservative Republicans. “I think in part through her involvement with the Fellowship’s prayer group she was able to meet with some of these Republican senators and get to know them on a one-on-one basis,” said Joshua Green, a Senior Editor at The Atlantic magazine.
In her autobiography, “Living History,” Senator Clinton describes 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.” She writes that “Doug became a source of strength and friendship" during her often-troubled White House years.
Their relationship began in February 1993 with a prayer lunch at The Cedars, the Fellowship’s Virginia estate on the Potomac River. NBC News reviewed the First Lady’s official daily calendar, recently made public by the National Archives, and found other gatherings including a “Private Meeting” with Coe in her West Wing office on December 19, 1997, and a “Meet & Greet with Business Leaders” on Feb. 4, 1998. “Doug Coe introduces business leaders to the First Lady,” the calendar states.
So who is Doug Coe? He shuns almost all interview requests, including ours. But in hours of audiotape and videotape recordings obtained exclusively by NBC News, he frequently preaches the gospel of Jesus to followers and supporters. In one videotaped sermon from 1989, Coe provides this account of the atrocities committed under Chairman Mao in Communist China: "I've seen pictures of the young men in the Red Guard…they would bring in this young man’s mother…he would take an axe and cut her head off. They have to put the purposes of the Red Guard ahead of father, mother, brother sister and their own life. That was a covenant, a pledge. That's what Jesus said."
In his preaching, Coe repeatedly urges a personal commitment to Jesus Christ. It’s a commitment Coe compares to the blind devotion that Adolph Hitler demanded from his followers -- a rhetorical technique that now is drawing sharp criticism.
"Hitler, Goebbels and Himmler were three men. Think of the immense power these three men had, these nobodies from nowhere,” Coe said.
Later in the sermon, Coe said: "Jesus said, ‘You have to put me before other people. And you have to put me before yourself.' Hitler, that was the demand to be in the Nazi party. You have to put the Nazi party and its objectives ahead of your own life and ahead of other people."
Coe also quoted Jesus and said: “One of the things [Jesus] said is 'If any man comes to me and does not hate his father, mother, brother, sister, his own life, he can't be a disciple.’ So I don't care what other qualifications you have, if you don't do that you can't be a disciple of Christ."
The sermons are little surprise to writer Jeff Sharlet. He lived among Coe's followers six years ago, and came out troubled by their secrecy and rhetoric.
“We were being taught the leadership lessons of Hitler, Lenin and Mao. And I would say, ‘Isn’t there a problem with that?’ And they seemed perplexed by the question. Hitler’s genocide wasn’t really an issue for them. It was the strength that he emulated,” said Sharlet, who is a Contributing Editor at Rolling Stone and is an Associate Research Scholar at the NYU Center for Religion and Media in New York.
Sharlet has now written about The Fellowship, also known to insiders as The Family, in a soon-to-be published book called “The Family: The Secret Fundamentalism at the Heart of American Power.”
“They’re notoriously secretive,” Sharlet said. “In fact, they jokingly call themselves the Christian Mafia. Which becomes less of a joke when you realize that they really are dedicated to being what they call an invisible organization.”
Federal tax records for Coe's non-profit group shows it funds charitable programs around the world -- but that it is also a family business.
The 990 tax forms for 2005, the last tax year available, show that both of Coe’s sons were on the payroll, at $110,000 a year each. The organization also paid his wife, his daughter and his daughters-in-law.
So how do Coe's admirers explain his unusual sermons? David Kuo, a former Bush Administration aide and religious-outreach official at the White House, says The Fellowship is a peaceful, faith-based group that does good works internationally. Kuo says Doug Coe wasn’t lauding Hitler's actions.
“What Doug is saying, it’s a metaphor. He is using Hitler as a metaphor. Jesus used that,” Kuo said. A metaphor for what? “Commitment,” Kuo answered.
Coe declined repeated requests for an interview. But a close friend told NBC News that Doug Coe invokes Hitler only to show the power of small groups -- for good and bad. And, the friend said, Coe spends “99 percent” of his time during the sermons talking about the leadership model set by Jesus Christ.
Supporters also point to Coe’s charitable works around the world. Still, critics question his influence -- and secrecy -- in a year when the candidates' religious beliefs are part of the political debate.