tv review

The Family Puts a Secret Organization in the Spotlight, But Could Use Stronger Wattage

The Reagans, pictured with Doug Coe of the Family (circled). Photo: Netflix

The Family, a new Netflix docuseries that digs into the purpose and influence of a clandestine Christian organization, highlights and connects some important dots regarding the religious right and American politics. But by the end, the viewer is left with only a basic outline, as opposed to a full picture, of what the Family, also known as the Fellowship, is really about.

The five-part docuseries, based on the books The Family: The Secret Fundamentalism at the Heart of American Power and C Street: The Fundamentalist Threat to American Democracy by Jeff Sharlet, who serves as a frequent on-camera interview subject, traces the history of the group, which was presided over for several decades by the well-connected Doug Coe. Coe believed the work of Jesus was most effectively done out of the public eye — “The more you can make your organization invisible, the more influence it will have,” he says in a speech — and created a network of highly influential people, in Washington and beyond, who quietly prayed together and, according to the docuseries, attempted to influence policy through back channels.

The National Prayer Breakfast, an annual event attended at least once by every sitting president dating back to Dwight D. Eisenhower, is sponsored by the Fellowship, and brings thousands of leaders and influencers from around the world to Washington, D.C. every February, ostensibly for spiritual reasons. But as The Family notes, political connections are a pretty blatant byproduct. “If I were a bad-faith actor from another country, that is exactly the kind of meeting that I would want to exploit,” says Jack Jenkins, a reporter for Religion News Service. Some allegedly have; Marina Butina, the Russian woman who pleaded guilty last year to acting as an illegal foreign agent, attended the event.

But the Fellowship’s vast, complicated web extends far beyond the National Prayer Breakfast. As the docuseries notes, a townhouse not far from Capitol Hill dubbed C Street houses a handful of representatives and subsidizes much of their living expenses. It is owned by a foundation connected to the Fellowship and, the series implies, helps foster the idea that these leaders have not merely been elected, but were chosen to do God’s work.

The Family also outlines relationships the Fellowship has brokered over the years with leaders overseas, including controversial figures such as former Libyan Prime Minister Muammar Qaddafi, through the guise of spreading Christianity, particularly to those the Fellowship believed it could “save.” Even if you’re charitable enough to believe that their intentions — as some members of the Family insist — are purely in the name of Christ, the mere fact that members of congress have engaged in such behavior, even in an unofficial capacity, makes it problematic. “If you go off to meet with a head of state, you can’t suddenly become unofficial,” says journalist Lisa Getter, who wrote about the Fellowship for the L.A. Times. “And that’s what they were doing.” (Full disclosure: Getter, who acts as a source for the series, is a neighbor and friend of mine.)

Clearly, The Family is trying to run a lot of threads through the needle here, and director Jesse Moss, who directed the excellent documentary The Overnighters, lets some of them hang a little too loosely. The series starts off on somewhat odd and shaky footing with a first episode that focuses a lot of time — I would argue too much — on Sharlet’s experience in his twenties, living at Ivanwald, the equivalent of a Christian fraternity house in Arlington, Virginia, with ties to the Family. That episode toggles — more than any of the others — between a standard documentary approach and scripted reenactments that star David Rysdahl as a young Sharlet and James Cromwell as Coe. While it provides some context about what may drive a person to seek the fellowship of the Fellowship, its unorthodox approach distracts from understanding the nuts and bolts of this complicated story.

Even after watching all five episodes, I was left feeling like I still couldn’t fully wrap my arms around the implications of what I’d just consumed. It wasn’t that there’s no “there” there — there’s more than enough “there” — but Moss leaves out some crucial pieces of the puzzle that would make it complete. For example, the series doesn’t make clear that, historically, Democrats have been involved in the Fellowship, too, nor does it explain what role, if any, Democrats currently play in the organization. (That latter issue may have been difficult to uncover given the group’s notorious secrecy.)

Moss also adopts a bit of “both sides-ism” by including footage of current members, such as former representative Zach Wamp of Tennessee, talking about how they’d like to diversify the largely white, male organization and make it more transparent. But within the footage of Wamp speaking, he intersperses imagery of Qaddafi, Butina, and former Michigan representative Mark Siljander, a Fellowship affiliate who pleaded guilty to obstruction of justice and acting as an unregistered foreign agent, due to his lobbying work on behalf of a suspected terrorist organization. Those images suggest that we shouldn’t take Wamp at his word, in which case: Why include his words in the series at all? Or better yet, why not question him more forcefully on camera, or do the same with Siljander, who appears in the series and insists he was innocent of the accusations that put him in jail?

Then there’s Donald Trump, whose ascent to power is the primary focus of the fifth episode, “The Wolf King.” The president is characterized as the imperfect vessel to do God’s perfect work that the Fellowship has been waiting for since its inception. But the extent to which Trump is actively being influenced by members of the Family — aside from those conservative Christians we already know about, like Vice-President Pence or the fundamentalist members of his cabinet — is not laid out in clear detail. There are bread crumbs in this series that individually imply that, perhaps, understanding the Fellowship could illuminate pieces of the Mueller investigation, but the crumbs never lead anywhere definitive. By the end of The Family, the one thing that’s obvious beyond a doubt is that, as one former Family member puts it, Jesus and Capitol Hill don’t mix. Which is true. But it’s also something most people will likely know before they hit the Netflix play button.

The Family Goes Deep, but Not Deep Enough, on a Secret Group