Saturday, December 19, 2009

"Politicians and the Underground Prayer Movement," LA Times, 1974

Defenders of conventional wisdom occasionally respond to The Family by asking, "If this group has so many powerful friends, how come we pundits have never heard of it before?" Perhaps because you weren't paying attention. I'd love to say that I'm the first person to break this story, but I'm not. In 2002, the Los Angeles Times ran a long front page story by Lisa Getter linking the Family to Central American death squads, outing Family associates such as Rep. Bart Stupak, Senator Jim DeMint, and Senator Sam Brownback, and revealing the group's secrecy policy. Not long after that, AP journalist Lara Jakes Jordan reported on the Family's C Street House. Reach back further into the press morgue -- easy enough to do now with Proquest -- and we find coverage of the Family and its secretive ways in Time, the Washington Post, and even Playboy, which in the early 1970s published an exhaustive investigative report focusing on the group's policy of making off-the-books loans to congressmen.

And then, every now and then, there was a positive story, such as this January 1974 column for the L.A. Times Syndicate by Nick Thimmesch. What's remarkable about this piece is that's positive not despite the Family's lack of transparency but because of it.

Below are some excerpts, followed by a few other documents for context. Emphases are mine. The original draft of this article is available in folder 8, box 102, collection 275 -- the papers of Watergate felon and Christian Right leader Charles W. "Chuck" Colson -- in the Billy Graham Center Archives.

Politicians and the Underground Prayer Movement

by Nick Thimmesch

Washington – This city is often cynical, and it can be vicious and merciless, too. But there is an “underground” movement here, spurred by Watergate, which might surprise some of our jaded folks when it shows results in the future. It is the growing inclination among troubled souls here to find serenity and strength through belief in God.

Now this kind of statement can cause even more cynicism, and loud guffawing as well. I know. Particularly when the story broke that Charles W. Colson, the White House’s one-time tough guy and wheeler-dealer, said that “I have found in my own life the relationship with Christ.” Colson might have found God, but it will be a long time before many here will believe it.

It is more believable to learn that two other Watergate figures, Egil (Bud) Krogh, indicted for the break-in of Daniel Ellsberg’s psychiatrist’s office, and James McCord, convicted in the Watergate burglary, have both gone through profound spiritual experiences.

Anyway, Colson, Krogh and McCord now regularly counsel and pray with other so-called “big” men in this town who have also gone through trials of the spirit. These are usually highly successful political, government and executive figures who woke up one day in middle age to discover their lives were empty and that, in reality, they had earned little or no respect from their associates, their wives and families.

They meet in each other’s homes, they meet at prayer breakfasts, they converse on the phone. They are a brotherhood in belief; are slow to accept quick “believers”; are secretive and guarded in discussing their experiences or activities. Unlike most public figures here, they genuinely avoid publicity. In fact, they shun it.

It appears Colson’s story broke by accident. Long troubled over the way his life had gone, and the way he had become involved in high-powered dealings here, Colson sounded out a friend who was deep into the prayer movement [According to Colson's memoir, Born Again, it was actually Family man and CEO of defense contractor Raytheon who sounded Colson out.] Soon, Colson was invited into the home of a prominent congressman and met others there, including Sen. Harold Hughes of Iowa, the anti-war liberal, whose story was made public many years ago…

… The men who go through spiritual ordeals often meet at prayer breakfasts, and wish there wouldn’t be so much publicity about the National Prayer Breakfast, which features the President of the United States, foreign dignitaries and other celebrities. It looks like affected holiness under “the big tent.”

“I don’t spend more than five hours’ times in preparing for it,” says Doug Coe of the Fellowship Foundation of Washington, who quietly helps groups form their own prayer breakfast groups.

“It is only one-tenth of one per cent of the iceberg and doesn’t give a true picture of what is going on.”…

Colson, to whom I devote much of a chapter in The Family, went on to serve less than a year for his Watergate felony, at which point he was paroled into the Family's care, which wrote the warden that he was needed for religious work. Senator Harold Hughes was waiting for him. It was a friendship that startled many, since on most issues Hughes was liberal. He was also a sentimental man, mostly oblivious to the details of allegations against his Family friends -- the Filipino dictator Ferdinand Marcos was another subject of Hughes' spiritual and political patronage -- and a deeply religious one for whom divine law, as he understood it, trumped the law of the land. Another column by Thimmesch, "Why Hughes Shocked Liberals" (by breaking with Democrats and many Republicans to reject a sense of the Senate motion against more Watergate pardons), includes this nugget, which can be found in folder 7, box 102, collection 275 of the Billy Graham Center Archives:

Hughes voted “nay” because he feels that the Senate has no business even implying to any President that he doesn’t have, “in his own wisdom and conscience, the final decision-making process rightfully guaranteed to him by the Constitution, and actually going back in history coming from divine inspiration, or granting mercy to those he may deem proper to receive that mercy.” Amen.