Why are the people most concerned with traditional family values so committed to Donald Trump? That question generates new headlines every time the president faces a new scandal. Trump has been married three times, after all. He doesn’t know anything about the Bible. 21 women have accused him of sexual assault. But white evangelicals hold fast to him through it all. If you’re befuddled by all that Christian support for a seemingly unchristian man, Netflix’s new docuseries The Family should resolve your confusion.
The series, which chronicles the political ambitions of a secretive network of conservative Christians, is the latest project from The Overnighters filmmaker Jesse Moss. With The Family, Moss has produced original reporting that deserves urgent attention. The series uncovers the work of Alabama Rep. Robert Aderholt, who went to Romania to campaign against same-sex marriage, and of Maria Butina, who exploited the National Prayer Breakfast as part of her attempt to influence American politics. It also draws from the earlier reporting of journalist Jeff Sharlet; the first episode dramatizes Sharlet’s infiltration of Ivanwald, an Arlington, Virginia home for young men run by Family associates. Sharlet would later publish two books about the Family, known also as the Fellowship, and its associates: The Family, in 2008, and C Street, in 2010.
Founded by Abraham Vereide as an outreach to elites, and led by Doug Coe for decades until his death in 2017, the Family reveres power and thrives in secrecy. It has no problem, Moss tells us, with bad men. Before Vereide launched the National Prayer Breakfast, he sought out Nazi war criminals on orders from the U.S. State Department — and though he didn’t hold Nazi beliefs, Sharlet reports that Vereide openly admired their anti-democratic discipline. In the decades since, the Family’s associates have formed working relationships with some of the world’s bloodiest dictators. At least one associate — former Michigan representative Mark Siljander — did time in prison in connection to these overseas activities. And Trump is just the strong man they’ve waited to serve. As Sharlet recalls in the series, Coe had no time for sheep and wished instead to reach the wolf. Bring in the “Wolf King,” as Coe called this strong man, and you have a figure who could finally create a God-led government.
Most evangelicals have nothing to do with the Family. Even so, its theology is relatively mainstream, as I’ve discovered not only through covering the Christian right, but through my own upbringing and education in the evangelical world. The idea that God ordains a person’s place in the world is not unique to Vereide or his successor, and it has pernicious side effects. If God picks our leaders, the thinking goes, we should obey them — no matter how violent their personal lives or how vicious their political views. If you worship power, the pursuit of it becomes a sacrament. The Trump presidency is not blasphemy, then, but God’s will.
Why make this series now, years after Jeff published The Family and C Street?
Jesse Moss: I had not read Jeff’s book when it came out. I wasn’t even aware of the Fellowship. The big question I had was, first of all, How did I miss this? But then, Is this organization still relevant? Is this real? A question I thought this series might help to answer was the relationship between the Christian right and Donald Trump. I feel fortunate that, in the course of making the series, the question of relevance was answered by two things. One was Maria Butina [and] the Russian-spy story exploding at the National Prayer Breakfast. The second was digging into the story of Robert Aderholt in Romania.
When Trump was running for office and it became quite clear that white evangelicals did not have a problem with his personal life or with the seeming superficiality of his faith, I think some of my peers in the press thought that it was hypocritical for evangelicals to support him. But what I get from your reporting, Jeff, and from the documentary, Jesse, is that hypocrisy is perhaps not the best way to understand this support. Is it actually proof of a logically consistent, underlying ideology?
Jeff Sharlet: One of the most frustrating things to me about American political life and American media is the insistence on hypocrisy as the frame through which we understand the Christian right. There’s a naïveté about that — for secular liberals to imagine, as if Christian conservatives have never heard of this thing called politics, and as if they too don’t say, “I have these ends, what are the means I need to achieve them?” As if they don’t have an idea, which is especially strong in the Fellowship, that God does what he wants. That God uses tools.
We see now the rise of far-right authoritarian governments worldwide. The Family and Fellowship associates have been really active in a lot of these countries. Should we assign them any credit for that phenomenon?
Sharlet: I think of the Ugandan dictator Yoweri Museveni and Bob Hunter, who is sort of [The Family’s] Ugandan liaison. You go back into the records — this is stuff that we couldn’t get into the series — and you see that, actually, Hunter was traveling in conversation with the Reagan government. They were looking to recruit a foreign leader. They wanted an anti-communist leader. The Family became the conduit through which they did that work. It wasn’t that the Reagan administration was going to support democracy in Uganda and the Family convinced them otherwise. The Family made it possible in that case, as it did with Senator Chuck Grassley in Somalia.
Moss: In the case of Butina, they set up a framework in which someone who maybe didn’t have Jesus in her heart could exploit the National Prayer Breakfast. Or maybe that is, in fact, the purpose of the framework to begin with. It’s what Jeff talks about: Is it naïveté or is it cynicism? It’s the triumph of the Fellowship that it’s a combination of the two. We see that also embodied in someone like Mark Siljander, and Robert Aderholt’s work in Romania to campaign against same-sex marriage. There’s a whole lot happening in Central Europe around homosexuality now, and we didn’t trace all of those threads back to the Fellowship. But it’s bigger than the Fellowship. It’s a kind of alliance of interests. I think that those authoritarian relationships are a threat to our democracy, and it’s not theoretical.
Even if someone has only watched the series and hasn’t read Jeff’s books, it’s hard to avoid that we’re talking about a very male organization. How do they perceive masculinity, how does it feature in their theology, and how does it influence their relationship to power?
Sharlet: You’re probably familiar with the tradition of muscular Christianity in American Christianity. We see this idea that if Jesus was alive today, he’d be a Navy SEAL. Certainly, the Family doesn’t invent this kind of supermacho theology. They embrace the idea of male headship that one sees in a lot of conservative evangelical settings, but they put it to political uses. So, they will work with powerful women — there’s no line they won’t cross in order to work with power and they believe that they’re theologically called to do so — but it’s on a male-leadership model.
Moss: In adapting that chapter of Jeff’s book that deals with his experience at Ivanwald, I really had to tone down the homoerotic subtext. Even though it’s very present in Jeff’s description, I felt like that would tip the series too far into a space that would detract from the deeper reporting. I’ll also say that when I ended up at this small [men’s] prayer group in Portland, it helped me understand on a non-intellectual level the attraction of a movement of men where I might work out my anxieties around sexuality or social standing or religion. It was helpful to see why you might find refuge in this group and in this movement.
Sharlet: Jesse made the right choice in not focusing on the homoeroticism of it, but it’s pretty pervasive, right down to former Senator Sam Brownback, who’s now Trump’s ambassador for international religious freedom, telling me that his prayer cell would discuss their sexual feelings. A bunch of congressmen getting together to talk about how they struggle with masturbation, you can say that’s silly and goofy and innocuous. I would argue that is in keeping with that mega-Christian right best seller, Every Man’s Battle — the battle is supposedly with masturbation. There’s another best seller, Every Woman’s Battle, and every woman’s battle is basically to keep her man sexually satisfied. There’s a real stark divide there. Those things play out in the world and that’s why it matters.
Moss: We did hear from [former Tennessee representative] Zach Wamp about how he believes the organization is committed to a greater degree of transparency, to reflect the diversity of our modern moment in its own leadership. Only time will tell whether that commitment is real.
Sharlet: I would argue that time has told, because they said all those same things back in 2010 when Rachel Maddow and I forced them out into the open around the Uganda thing. We actually arranged for Bob Hunter, who you see in the series, to go on the Maddow Show and he said, “We’ve been too secretive and want to change that.” And they didn’t. As for diversity, there’s this secular liberal fantasy that the Christian right has always been like the KKK. The reality is that it’s not, it’s always been much more racially diverse — certainly internationally — but there’s also tiers of citizenship. The Family decided in the ’70s that they were going to make their own Black Panthers. And they did it. They called them the Black Buffers. All white-led, but you wouldn’t see the white men. They bought the matching dashikis. They were supposed to infiltrate Black Power organizations and report back. And the leadership was based on the very explicit premise that the biggest problem facing blacks in America is the black man himself. And the answer to racism is not to be found in legislation or government, but in the submission of the black man to God. That’s the diversity that they’re offering.
Trump really does embody so much about the Family. He’s got this swaggering masculinity. He’s the Ur-capitalist. But I wonder if the Family sees Trump as a way to break things down, to the point where a more traditional politician like Josh Hawley of Missouri, or Tom Cotton of Arkansas —
Sharlet: Or Mike Pence.
— or Pence. Someone who will reorder society in the way that the Family wants. Is that conspiratorial on my part, or is that their thinking?
Sharlet: That’s certainly not conspiratorial. That’s very explicit in their rhetoric. Trump is not the endgame, but he is, I think, a huge pivot. It’s a very, very long game. And Sarah, you may be one of the few reporters that we’re talking to who knows the difference between pre-milliennialism and post-millennialism.
That’s probably true.
Sharlet: They’re post-millennials. Certainly there are pre-millennials involved, but the Family is about building the 1,000-year kingdom of God on Earth. That’s the theology.
Moss: I think it’s also why it was really important to look back at the history of the movement — their birth in the 1930s, and their anti-labor activism, and the close relationship with fascism. They might say today that it’s ancient history, but that’s the DNA of the organization, of its philosophy and theology. It’s really important to understand. It may seem inflammatory to talk about the work that Abraham Vereide did in postwar Germany, but this is the organization’s history. This is not something we’re speculating about.
Sharlet: When I wrote The Family, I had a chapter called “The F Word.” The F-word was fascism. I said they are not fascist. I said there’s more than one kind of authoritarianism under the sun. I said fascism is impossible in America and American fundamentalism will prevent it. And I think I was wrong. We’re not there yet, but we see the potential. We see just how quickly the theology of the Wolf King can lead us down that road.
This interview has been edited for clarity and condensed for length.