Often titles with questions are ways of saying something without committing to it. In this case, I really don’t know the answer to the question.
Today is the annual National Prayer Breakfast, an event facilitated by the Fellowship Foundation but one with the feeling of government sponsorship due to the involvement of numerous Representatives and Senators as well as every president since Eisenhower. Trump will speak today.
Of late, TYT Network’s (The Young Turks) Jonathan Larsen has been doing extensive reporting on the operations of the Fellowship Foundation. In a story out Tuesday, Larsen sited a 2018 blog post in which I noted that Fellowship volunteer leader Doug Burleigh seemed unusually partisan toward Donald Trump.
Larsen reports evidence that those now leading the Fellowship Foundation fund Republican political causes and are strongly in Trump’s court. If this becomes a wide spread perception around the world and in Washington, I think the Fellowship’s influence will decline. Being perceived as non-partisan was a value of the late Doug Coe and accounted for the success of Coe in attracting an impressive array of political figures from both parties to their list of supporters.
In a previous article, Larsen also reported that the Fellowship implemented new rules designed to make clear the Fellowship’s opposition to use of the NPB for influence peddling. For those interested in the NPB and the work of the Fellowship, I recommend that article and a review of those new rules which the Fellowship supplied to Larsen in full.
Surrounding the 2016 election, the Russian government was quite busy in the U.S. One component of their efforts was an effort to infiltrate the Republican party via the National Rifle Association. Alex Torshin and Maria Butina were point people on that effort. Today, the plea agreement with Butina was released by the Department of Justice. Butina has been in custody since her arrest in July.
My interest in Butina’s arrest was due to a minor aspect of the story. Butina also infiltrated the Fellowship Foundation and the National Prayer Breakfast. You can read my posts on Butina’s involvement in the NPB via the links at the end of the post.
The one mention of the NPB in the plea agreement is below:
The NPB is a perfect place to meet people of political influence. Making friends at the NPB is a first step toward making deals of all sorts. Butina hoped to make many friends for her bosses in Russia.
Although Fellowship leader Doug Burleigh joked about “Russian collusion,” it is now clear that the Russians were using the NPB for their aims. After the Butina plea agreement, there shouldn’t be anymore scoffing about the seriousness of the Russia investigation.
In March of this year, one of the organizers of the National Prayer Breakfast Doug Burleigh joked about Russian collusion with Jesus prior to delivering a sermon at a church in Tacoma, WA. Then last week, in a federal indictment, it was alleged that Russian national Maria Butina used her connections with the NPB to carry out conspiracy activities. Although the prayer breakfast organizer was not named in the indictment, Mr. Burleigh is the NPB member responsible for coordinating with the Fellowship’s representatives from Russia.
Prior to his sermon, Burleigh told his audience that MSNBC talk show host Joe Scarborough found out the number of Russians attending the NPB in 2018. However, Burleigh dismissed any concerns about that as “fake news.”
Burleigh told the group that he had 61 Russians and 52 Ukrainians at the event this year. Then at 1:02, he said:
Thursday was the breakfast, the 8th of February, and I started getting texts from all over the country. ‘What’s the deal with the Russian collusion?’ Well, I’m going to personally share with you a little fake news okay that I ran into is the morning guy on MSNBC who hates Trump Joe Scarborough, he goes, ‘I hear that there’s more Russians than have ever come to the prayer breakfast before and that’s true. But what he didn’t know is that a lot of them were young professionals we invited to lift up Jesus and we had six wonderful times with them. He said, ‘there must be collusion, obviously there’s something going on, so I got friends from around the country going what’s the deal with the Russian collusion. And I said, ‘boy there’s big time collusion: it’s the Russians and Jesus, that’s the collusion.
In the July 14 indictment it is alleged that in 2017 two of the Russians who were supposed to be “colluding with Jesus” at the prayer breakfast were Maria Butina and Alexander Torshin. In fact, both Butina and Torshin may have been working the religious group on behalf of the Russian government. Because Butina asked, according to the indictment, the NPB organizer offered to give Butina 10 Russian spots for the 2017 event. It is not clear if that happened or if there were any requests for the 2018 event.
His Tacoma speech wasn’t the first time Burleigh expressed a dim view of the U.S. media. At a Russian prayer meeting in May 2017, Burleigh spoke to a group affiliated with the American Fellowship. After the meeting, he spoke to writer Andrei Tyunyaev.
At about 2:25, Tyunyaev asked Burleigh a question:
Tyunyaev – The fact that you are present here after a few years of a going down relationship between Russia and America and growing tension and so just for us it’s a good thing so what’s your impression, what’s your hope for the future?
Burleigh: I’m very hopeful. The reason I’m hopeful is Mr. Trump is a relational person. He’s a negotiator. He’s going to sit down with Putin and they’re going to talk. And I think, we have an expression in America – win-win. I think he wants a win-win situation. I’ll bet Mr. Putin wants a win-win situation. In other words, both sides win. So how’s that going to happen? When they get together and talk. You know in our country, it’s always strange to in divorces, the attorneys tell the husband and wife not to talk to each other. How can you possibly reconcile with somebody you can’t talk to? The real estate agent tells the seller not to talk to the buyer. You know why that is? He’s worried about losing his commission. He doesn’t care about them getting the best deal they can get.
So the reason I’m hopeful is I think our president really wants to talk to your president. I think they’re both intelligent people. Neither of them wants war. I know that. People always tell me Americans want war. No we don’t. And the reason I know you don’t is I’ve been coming here for 52 years. War to an American is going to Vietnam or Afghanistan. War to a Russian is the tanks coming down the streets of your house. You understand war far better than we do. And I tell my American friends that all the time, you don’t want war. So I’m hopeful.
By the way, some of my best friends are Russian. They’re loyal, faithful and loving. So some of my best friends are American, and they are loyal, faithful and loving. So we just gotta get them together.
Tyunyaev: So when we learned after the prayer breakfast that Mr. Trump would become the president of America, we were pretty cheerful and supportive of that fact. We can see the difficulties that he has to overcome to change the structure. We believe in Mr. Trump’s intelligent and smart approach to the issues, walking toward each other and not away from each other.
Burleigh: Yeah, and the problem in our country is press hates Trump, okay? And I think the press is so biased that you don’t get a true story from them. Let me give you an example from last week is the president said he would be honored to meet with the president of North Korea. I thought, ‘that’s the first time anybody’s ever said that.’ All the press could focus on was the word ‘honored.’ He said he be honored to meet with him!?
Tyunyaev: That’s a step of friendship
Burleigh: Of course it is. He went the extra mile to affirm him. What’s wrong with that?
National Prayer Breakfast: Non-Partisan?
Those close to the Fellowship Foundation that I have spoken to insist that the organization is non-partisan. In fact, one recently told me that if the Fellowship and NPB were perceived as pro-Trump (or pro anybody), the “group would self-destruct.”
In contrast, Burleigh portrays a positive stance toward Trump in these and other public statements. His criticisms of the press are startling and parrot the Trump talking points. In fact, the press coverage of Trump’s announcement in May 2017 about meeting Kim Jong-un was straightforward and only reported what Trump said. In reaction to Trump’s words, many pundits and experts criticized Trump which the press also reported. Furthermore, some raised the observation that conservatives criticized Obama when he offered to meet with our enemies without preconditions.
Has the Fellowship taken a pro-Trump, pro-Russia position? While I doubt it given some of the people still involved in it, I wonder what might happen over time now that leader Doug Coe has passed.
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With the indictment of Maria Butina for conspiracy and acting as an agent of the Russian government, public attention has come upon the Fellowship Foundation. Founded by the late Doug Coe, I crossed paths with the FF beginning in 2009 when Ugandan affiliates of that organization promoted the death penalty for GLB people in the Ugandan Parliament via the Anti-Homosexuality Bill. I took a strong stand against that bill which eventually led to an invitation to the National Prayer Breakfast, hosted each year by the Fellowship. While there, the American leaders allowed me to interview Doug Coe — one of only four published interviews of the reclusive founder — so that he could tell the public in clear terms that he did not favor criminalizing homosexuality.
Now via the documents describing the indictment of alleged Russian operative Maria Butina, the National Prayer Breakfast is again in public focus. The documents refer to an organizer of the prayer breakfast and various individuals who Butina contacted. While I don’t know for certain in each case who she contacted, a source close to the Fellowship told me that Doug Burleigh, the son-in-law of Doug Coe, is the person at the organization who handles networking with the Russian affiliates.
Burleigh Predicted Trump and Putin Would Have a Breakthrough
Almost exactly a year ago at the Russian version of the prayer breakfast, Doug Burleigh made a prediction. A news article from the Russian Evangelical Alliance tells the story:
On another note, Doug Burleigh from Washington’s National Prayer Breakfast forecast that “a breakthrough in relations between Russia and the USA is about to occur. The greatest possible hope for Russia and the USA is friendship between our nations. I believe that Vladimir Putin and Donald Trump will yet become friends.” (Reverse translation from the Russian.)
I wonder how Burleigh knew such a breakthrough was about to happen. Prophecy? Or perhaps he was on the inside of efforts to make it so. According to the indictment documents, the National Prayer Breakfast organizers were aware of a desire to bring Vladimir Putin to the event. Butina also promised to keep them apprised of new developments in the effort to improve relations between the two nations and the two presidents.
The refusal of Donald Trump to criticize or hold Vladimir Putin accountable has puzzled numerous observers. Behind the scenes, an effort to craft a friendship between Trump and Putin has been in operation for several years.
Were the Russians using the National Prayer Breakfast as a ploy to advance political goals? Is the talk of faith a means to a darker end? Butina will have her day in court and I hope evangelicals who went along for her ride will watch and listen carefully.
Former state legislator Scott Mendenhall sounds disappointed. On the morning of Feb. 26, he learned that Gov. Steve Bullock won’t attend the annual Montana Governor’s Prayer Breakfast.
At issue is the breakfast’s keynote speaker, David Barton. Barton has garnered national headlines for his revisionist teachings, pro-life advocacy and calls to criminalize homosexuality, all of which would seem to run contrary to Bullock’s politics. According to the Southern Poverty Law Center, “The scary thing about David Barton is that he has the ear of so many.”
In response to a reporter’s request for comment, Senator Jim Inhofe, known to be affiliated with the Fellowship Foundation, condemned the Anti-Homosexuality Bill, now active again in the Ugandan Parliament.
According Red Dirt Report:
OKLAHOMA CITY — Responding to Red Dirt Report’s October 27, 2011 story “Uganda, The Family and the reintroduction of ‘loving punishments,” U.S. Sen. Jim Inhofe, R-Okla., offered the following statement, sent to this reporter on Friday:
“I do not, nor have I ever, supported or condoned this legislation. It is my hope that Uganda will abandon this unjust and extraordinarily harsh legislation,” Inhofe said.
After a tumultuous end to business in the last session involving the Anti-Homosexuality Bill, the current Ninth Parliament of Uganda continues to organize itself for business. Last week, committees were formed and rules or order are being devised. Jockeying for power and influence occupy the efforts of those in the ruling party and those in the opposition.
Lawmaking is probably a month away but one legislator is predicting that a re-introduced Anti-Homosexuality Bill will be law within two months. Otto Odonga, a member of the committee which Legal and Parliamentary Affairs committee in the 8th and now again in the 9th Parliament told me via Skype that he expects David Bahati to reintroduce the bill as soon as possible. He predicted that the bill will come to the floor of Parliament as soon as rules allow.
“It will be expedited this time around and passed within one, maybe two months time,” the MP said. Odonga also told me that Stephen Tashobya, the chair of the Legal and Parliamentary Affairs committee, was re-appointed to that same post in the new Parliament. While Bahati will need to start from scratch on the bill, the committee will be able to use the report issued last session as a basis for their work this time around. That report called for minimal changes and retained the death penalty for certain offenses. Odonga said the bill has wide support in the Parliament.
As a follow up on a prior story, Odonga also said that David Bahati was selected to be the coordinator of the Parliamentary Prayer Fellowship.
In another sign that David Bahati’s stock continues to rise in Uganda, Bahati presided over the recent opening parliamentary prayer fellowship dinner as chairman. From the New Vision:
The chairman of the parliamentary fellowship, David Bahati, said the caucus of God is bigger than all other caucuses and does not discriminate against political affiliations.
The parliamentary fellowship was founded in 1986 by the late Hon. Balaki Kirya, and has since 1991 been organising a prayer breakfast on every October 8.
Bahati said the fellowship, initiated some bills like the Anti- Homosexuality and Anti-Pornography believes in a God led country and God led policies.
Bahati here locates the Anti-Homosexuality Bill in the agenda of the Uganda Fellowship. Bahati’s position is contrary to the American group and that Bahati’s continued advocacy is a source of frustration for the Fellowship.
On February 3-4, I attended various meetings associated with the National Prayer Breakfast. By invitation of Bob Hunter and the various hosts, I was able to attend the African Prayer Breakfast, the International Luncheon and a dinner hosted by a group of people who put on prayer breakfast meetings in the western US. On the day of the prayer breakfast, I was allowed to watch the proceedings in the African Suite. One of the highlights of my visit was the opportunity to meet and interview Doug Coe which was published yesterday by Christianity Today.
The 2010 National Prayer Breakfast African Breakfast was held at 8:00am on Wednesday, February 3. The formal invitation was extended by Rep. John Boozman (R-AK). Andrew Marin also attended the meeting along about 300 invited guests, mostly from Africa, or the African diplomatic corps in Washington DC. The purpose of the breakfast was printed on a card at each table.
Purpose of this Breakfast:
To provide a unique gathering to advance three principles:
To communicate the power of small groups that meet regularly around the teachings of Jesus of Nazareth.
To create an environment of dialog in order to help create lasting relationships.
To follow the Acts 2:42 model to hear the disciples’ teachings and fellowship, to eat together, and to pray.
The value of a small group:
With the Spirit of Jesus at the center, this ancient idea of gathering together meets a long-felt spiritual need of men and women at all levels of society in our modern world. People find acceptance, understanding, confidence, and hope for the future through a deepening relationship with God and in discovering the secret of true brotherhood with their fellow men and women. The primary goal of a small group is to build trust, fellowship, and closer bonds of friendship through the life and teachings of Jesus of Nazareth.
“Where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them.” Matthew 18:20
The African Breakfast featured an array of religious and political figures from around the continent. Rep. John Boozman opened by welcoming the crowd on behalf of the Congress. I will have more to say about various presentations in another post. For now I want to list each event and the speakers.
African Breakfast – This event featured Rwanda’s Minister of Education, Charles Murigande, as the keynote speaker. He told his story of moving from a Howard University professor back to his homeland of Rwanda as the holocaust was taking place. Andrew Marin provided his thoughts about the presentation on his blog. The opening prayer was delivered Sophie Boyoya (Burundi), with an Old Testament reading delivered by Mouloud Zaid (Western Sahara), a New Testament reading by Antonio Sumbana (Mozambique) and short speech on the importance of small group prayer meetings by Dr. Inonge Mbikusita-Lewanika (Zambia).
International Luncheon – The invitation for this event came from Senators Amy Klobuchar and Johnny Isakson, co-chairs of the National Prayer Breakfast. The luncheon was described as
A luncheon for international guests and the Diplomatic Corps will be held at the Hilton Washington in the International Ballroom on Wednesday, February 3, 2010…This luncheon is the first official event for our international guests attending the 58th National Prayer Breakfast.
Former Ohio Representative and current Ambassador to the United Nations Agencies for Food and Agriculture, Tony Hall, welcomed the audience and led the opening prayer. The speakers for the luncheon were Yuli-Yoel Edelstein (Israel), Rajai Muasher (Jordan), Grace Pinto (India) and Andrey Makarov (Russia). Mr. Edelstein is Minister of Public Affairs and the Diaspora in Israel and noted that a prayer breakfast small group meets in the Knesset. Mr. Muasher gave what sounded like a political speech, specifying his belief that peace in the Middle East would come in exchange for land. Moving from the political, Ms. Pinto described her large religious school in India. I had to leave during Mr. Makarov’s speech in order to meet Doug Coe.
Rounding out the day, I attended a dinner of representatives from the Pacific Northwest and Rocky Mountain region. Hawaiian Senator Daniel Akaka moderated the event and introductory speeches were given by Rev. Richard Foth, and Chaadi Massaad from Lebanon. Gen. Mick Kicklighter was the keynote speaker with The Shack author, Paul Young giving the closing prayer.
The diversity of speakers and topics was impressive, with a hint of what I was to learn in my meetings with various Prayer Breakfast leaders. For instance, one speaker said he was a Muslim follower of Jesus. He told the crowd that Christians do not own Jesus. While I think different people mean different things by this statement, it appears that changing religious labels is not a requirement to be a follower of Jesus in this movement. As noted in yesterday’s post, the Prayer Breakfast movement puts a focus on what they called, “the main thing” – which is loving God and one’s neighbor.
Last year and early this year, as a component of reporting on Uganda’s Anti-Homosexuality Bill, I wrote a bit about the Fellowship Foundation. Author Jeff Sharlet reported in November of last year that the main movers of the Ugandan proposal were associated with the Fellowship. As the matter unfolded, it has become clear that those behind the bill are associated with the Fellowship, but outside of Uganda, many other Fellowship associates oppose the bill. In particular, former Ford and Carter administration official, Bob Hunter offered vigorous public opposition on behalf of the Fellowship. To get the context, Jeff Sharlet’s guest post here on the subject is well worth reviewing.
The signature event associated with the Fellowship Foundation is the National Prayer Breakfast. The Fellowship organizes the event for the Congress with the President sometimes taking an active role in inviting guests from around the world. Held the first week of February, speculation was high in January about who would attend from Uganda. In relationship to my reporting on Uganda, I was invited to come to the National Prayer Breakfast to learn more about the event and the group behind it.
As an aspect of that visit, I was given a rare opportunity to sit down with spiritual leader of the Fellowship, Doug Coe. He grants few interviews, in fact, I only know of a handful, but he was glad to affirm to me that Uganda’s Anti-Homosexuality Bill was completely inconsistent with his vision for the Fellowship. Today, Christianity Today published the rest of the interview on their webite.
Over the next week or so, I will be reporting more on my visit to the National Prayer Breakfast. In this post, I want to begin by providing the talking points for a meeting where delegates from Africa were given information about the essential aspects of the National Prayer Breakfast work. In the legislatures of many nations, Fellowship groups conduct prayer breakfast meetings with similar aims as the US version. What follows is a document used to explain the Fellowship at an African gathering at this year’s event.
Eight Core Aspects of the vision and methods – the National Prayer Breakfast work:
Based on Long Term Relationships: There are a circle of friends connected with this that go back several decades in some cases. Sometimes we simply call ourselves the fellowship or a family of friends. Family refers to the nature of relationships and friends speaks to the quality of our relationships.
It’s a Wide Vision but grounded in Small Groups: It’s world-wide – we have members coming from very many different nations – it’s a very wide vision – but at the same time the whole thing is composed of friends gathering regularly in small groups for fellowship and to pray for their nations, their leaders and the leaders of the world.
We focus on Jesus as the Common Ground: Any movement needs to have a strong ideal of shared values holding its members together. Many initiatives that try to promote unity across religious divides – can often end up with the ‘lowest common denominator’ when trying to create common ground. We are seeking the highest common denominator and so we reference our core values and methods to the principles, precepts and person of Jesus.
We work across all that is dividing humanity: Nearly all of the conflicts and wars in the world today are being fought because of religious or ideological difference and ethnic differences. And part of the vision of our family of friends – is to raise up a movement of people who can cross these divides – who can ‘stand in the gap‘ – who can love ‘ the enemy.’
It’s also call for Personal Transformation: A personal transformation – by Divine influence. All of us are works in progress… we experience changes in ourselves as we follow this Way of Jesus. And this happens the more we reflect His thinking, His way of speaking these actions – his love. The hope for the transformation of society – lies with transformed individuals.
It’s about faith for a Better World: As human beings making up the family of nations in the world – we can do much better than what we have done so far. We can do better than this. We need to articulate and communicate a vision that is big and inspiring enough for people to buy into with whole-hearted, life-long commitment. A vision for a new way of living, this is what Jesus’ concept of the kingdom of God was all about. The world in its present state is not at all in line with the ideals of God’s Kingdom. That is, it is not operating by the values of God. This is why we see wars, injustice, poverty, crime and so forth.
We Focus on the Essentials: By the time of Jesus – in his religion there were over 600 commandments. Jesus boiled them down to two. He said “Love God with all you heart, mind and should and Love your neighbor as yourself.” This he said was the Sum of all…..the other commandments. The sum of the law and the prophets. This was the greatest commandments. The main thing. And the main thing to keep the main thing the main thing.
Finally – we work with Leaders but only have one leader that we give our lives to and that is Jesus: One of the earlier followers of Jesus – Paul was given a special mission: “This man is my chosen instrument to take my name…before the Gentiles and their kings….Acts 9:15,” This group of friends has helped to carry on this mission in regards the “king” – or other leaders of our world – who hold enormous influence – for better or worse – over vast numbers of people including billion of the poor – “the least of these” for whom Jesus has a special concern.
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.
For now, let me note that Coe rarely speaks in public and rarely takes public positions on issues. He was willing to do so in order to say that the Anti-Homosexuality Bill was inconsistent with his vision of following Jesus.
I am very interested in observations and dialogue regarding the interview and the summary points above. There were many more questions I will ask Mr. Coe if given the opportunity. I suspect this will have an interest to many outside the Ugandan anti-gay bill so I hope the discussion will not be limited to it.