A clandestine religious sect secretly controls the US government! In an age when we are all grasping for outlandish solutions to what’s gone wrong, it is an unbeatable premise for a non-fiction Netflix five-parter. Of course, The Family doesn’t really demonstrate any such thing – but it does tell us a lot about a particular kind of elite mindset that has caused an awful lot of damage.
The series profiles an American evangelical Christian organisation, sometimes dubbed “the Family” but more often known as the Fellowship – which presumably was felt to lack the connotations of death cults and organised crime that make for a juicy documentary title. For decades, the Fellowship was overseen by the mysterious Doug Coe: a series of amusingly Zelig-esque photographs of him lurking smoothly behind US presidents and foreign leaders confirms Coe (who did Netflix’s lawyers a favour by dying in 2017) as the most powerful guy you never heard of.
The Fellowship has two signature moves. Its main gig is the National Prayer Breakfast (NPB), an annual invitation-only festival of speeches and meetings that has been addressed by every president since Dwight D Eisenhower. If you have measured out the Trump years in startling gaffes, the NPB is the one where Donald irrelevantly slagged off The Apprentice for tanking in the ratings. That was crass because the event is so reverently esteemed: The Family points out that it has achieved this status without most people, including many attendees, knowing who actually runs it.
Even less is known about the luxurious residential properties in which politicians of the present or future are invited to live communally, helping each other to find Jesus. The Family’s star witness is Jeff Sharlet, the author of two books about his brief period as a resident of the pillared mansion in Virginia where the Fellowship hosts impressionable and (with the honourable exception of Sharlet) discreet young men.
Enhanced by dramatic reconstructions, the opener tells Sharlet’s story, and it is here that The Family looks most like a febrile exposé of sinister deviancy, à la Wild Wild Country. Everything is shadowy and creepy, all conversations revolve around glassy-eyed invocations of Jesus, and there is one scene in which Sharlet undergoes a slightly violent initiation rite. Then an elder visits and holds a disturbing seminar that sets out what is really at play. It is made clear to Sharlet that the gang he has joined is all about power, based on a Bible reading that sees Jesus – and, in the Fellowship’s reading of its favourite scripture story, murderous home-wrecker David – as a sort of original alpha male, lending legitimacy to men who believe they have been chosen to be in charge. The faith and devotion are perfunctory, a means to an end, an excuse.
The Family’s focus on the Fellowship hides what is really a portrait of the whole “Christian” right wing in the US – as well as the type of (white) man who has thoroughly infected western postwar politics. A stale whiff of viciously inadequate masculinity hangs over the whole show, from the young Fellows’ awkwardly enforced celibacy to the episode that sets out how Fellowship missionaries have been sent to less developed countries that might be vulnerable to campaigns against gay rights. As an LGBT activist in Romania puts it: “They have a purpose in their life now. To hate you.”
Episode two outlines how Fellowship-affiliated Congressmen have been exposed as adulterers, and therefore huge hypocrites who don’t follow their own moral teachings, yet have brazenly continued their careers with Fellowship support – because public shaming didn’t dent their sense of entitlement to power. The Family’s biggest lesson is probably how that entitlement has evolved.
Coe is a key figure, not for any big policy wins – exactly what direct influence he had on US presidents remains fuzzy – but for the way he went about his business. He made the Fellowship non-hierarchical, publicity-shy and thus untouchable. The National Prayer Breakfast – really a giant corporate lobbying event – didn’t have to advertise who organised it, so it didn’t. C Street, the Washington townhouse that claimed to be a church for tax purposes, where Congressmen have been allowed to live at bargain rents, didn’t have to tell anyone who the inhabitants were, so it didn’t.
Coe’s approach mirrored the politics of opaquely funded thinktanks and wealth secreted offshore. Where does that disgust for integrity and accountability end? The Family concludes with an assessment of the limp, furious Trump as perhaps the ultimate Fellowship president, butting up against the biggest affront of all to those who feel born to rule: democracy itself.