(RNS) Doug Coe, the well-connected organizer of the annual National Prayer Breakfast and a spiritual mentor to many politicians, has died at age 88.
Coe died on Tuesday (Feb. 21) at his home in Annapolis, Md., after a heart attack and stroke, said A. Larry Ross, spokesman for Coe’s family.
Coe was the longtime head of the International Foundation, a secretive Christian organization known as The Fellowship and The Family, that was responsible for bringing together politicians, diplomats and presidents since Dwight Eisenhower to Washington each year on the first Thursday in February.
Even through the most recent gathering, at which President Trump spoke, Coe remained out of the limelight at the breakfast and its related events to which politicians and religious leaders flew in from across the globe.
“In a town where powerful people are constantly trying to increase their name recognition and their brand, Doug Coe was the opposite of that,” said Michael Cromartie, director of the Evangelicals in Civic Life program at Washington’s Ethics and Public Policy Center. “He was a man who liked to work behind the scenes, who did not call attention to himself, who was a sort of a pastor to people in power.”
When Coe was named to Time magazine’s 2005 list of 25 influential evangelicals — and called “The Stealth Persuader” — he tried unsuccessfully to persuade the editors to remove his name and then declined to provide a photo.
A Medford, Ore., native, Coe was recruited to Washington in 1958 by Christian leader Abraham Vereide after working with the Young Life and the Navigators ministries.
He and Vereide developed the precursor to the foundation that Coe led after his mentor’s death in 1969. Under Coe’s leadership, the foundation turned its focus to people-to-people relationships, whether those were members of Congress, the military or the business world.
In a 2008 book, “The Family,” author Jeff Sharlet said Coe was viewed “with a mixture of intimacy and awe” by members of the organization.
“Doug Coe, they say — most people refer to him by his first and last name — is closer to Jesus than perhaps any other man alive, and thus privy to information the rest of us are too spiritually ‘immature’ to understand,” wrote Sharlet, who lived for a month with the group.
Sharlet wrote that the foundation’s hospitality facility on a historic property in Arlington, Va., was a “refuge for the persecuted and the afflicted,” from Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas after Anita Hill’s accusations of sexual harassment to James Watt, President Reagan’s secretary of defense who was surrounded by controversy around his appointment.
Outside of the annual national gathering, Coe fostered additional prayer sessions with Democrats and Republicans — some of whom resided together at a C Street row house in southeast Washington — and meetings with global leaders that were sometimes called into question.
In a 2008 interview, Sharlet said Coe’s organization had for decades been “playing matchmaker between American power and foreign dictators.”
But Hillary Clinton, in her book “Living History,” was among those who praised Coe: “Doug Coe, the longtime National Prayer Breakfast organizer, is a unique presence in Washington: a genuinely loving spiritual mentor and guide to anyone, regardless of party or faith, who wants to deepen his or her relationship to God.”
Cromartie said Coe received criticism from the right and left for not being political.
“Doug was a very apolitical man when he got with people,” Cromartie said. “He would meet with anybody if it would mean he’d get a chance to talk about Jesus to them.”
And his efforts to avoid politics carried through to his determination to avoid “Christian” terminology.
“His view was the word ‘Christian’ was often a turnoff word because people associated it with politics of the right or of the left,” Cromartie said. “He felt like it obscured the larger message of Jesus so he just didn’t like the word ‘Christian' and he used to humorously say ‘Jesus wasn’t a Christian.’”
Sharlet predicted that Coe would be more influential than conservative Christian leaders such as Pat Robertson and James Dobson.
“Dobson might be able to muscle his way on an individual vote or in an individual election, but Coe and the Family's influence is going to be much longer term, much more enduring,” he said.
In a statement about his death, Coe’s family said he continued even at the end of his life to move the focus away from himself and toward a favorite verse from the Gospel of Luke that reads “for the harvest is ready, but the laborers are few.”
“Doug begged us not to make his passing about him, but rather continuously showed us how to make it about Jesus,’’ the family said. “His wish was that this family of friends around the world would each gather with one or two in their small group in their own location at their next regularly scheduled time, and continue the prayer from Luke 10:2 that was his life focus.”