Review: The Family (2019)

This five-episode mini-series on Netflix is based on a book of the same name by reporter Jeff Sharlet. It is about a secretive group of evangelical Christian influencers know as ‘The Fellowship’ or ‘The Family’ that was originated by someone named Abraham Vereide (1886-1969) and whose mission was greatly advanced by Doug Coe (1928-2017).

Sharlet stumbled into this group as a young man just out of college. Coming from a family in which his mother was a Pentecostal and his father was a secular Jew, Sharlet was looking at various forms of religion when he was recruited by a friend who was in the Family. It had a strange cult-like quality where young men lived together and did menial jobs in the service of influential Washington politicians as a form of bonding. At some point Sharlet left the group and in 2008 wrote the book The Family: The Secret Fundamentalism at the Heart of American Power that exposed the working of the group.

The ides behind this group is to be as discreet and invisible as possible, with no formal organization or hierarchy, but instead to approach men (it is always men) on an individual basis to join with them on the basis of a common allegiance to Jesus. This group uses a stripped down version of the New Testament that consists of the four Gospels plus the Acts of the Apostles that they put together in a leather binding with the label Jesus embossed on the cover. It is this group that is behind the annual National Prayer Breakfast that started in 1952 as a counter to the Cold War and the fear of Communism but has grown to such an extent that it in now a huge annual event for which invitations are much coveted and anyone who is anyone in Washington can be found there every year. But that event is just the visible tip of a much larger hidden influential network.

Coe had access to pretty much any politician in Washington over the last five decades but kept a low profile in the media. While the group’s founders and members pray and talk about Jesus all the time and the need to act in obedience to him, it becomes clear that what they really worship is power. While they encourage the formation of small prayer group breakfasts by everyone all over the world, bringing ordinary people to Jesus does not seem to be their main focus. Instead they seek out powerful people in governments, because they view having power as a sign of having been chosen by Jesus.

They place a lot of emphasis on the story of King David in the Bible. He became infatuated with Bathsheba, the wife of his friend, and in order to get her he sent his friend to the front lines of a battle so he would be killed. But yet, despite this despicable, highly immoral action. Yahweh still favored him. The moral they draw from this story is that if you are viewed by them as chosen by god, then your faults and sins and even crimes don’t matter. Power is the visible symbol of god’s blessing.

For example, the Family identified senator John Ensign of Arizona and governor Mark Sanford of South Carolina as people who had what it takes to become president in the future and brought them into the group. But when both of them suffered scandals due to their extra-marital affairs, the Family did not abandon them but stayed with them. So you can see why Donald Trump, who is willing to ruthlessly use power, is seen by them as being exactly the kind of person they would want in their ranks despite the fact that his actions violate pretty much every value that Christian evangelicals claim to hold dear. The Family has chosen Trump as someone who can serve their needs and this is is what lies behind the coalescing of the evangelical community behind Trump and they will never abandon him as long as he is willing to use his power to advance their goals.

They believe that it is through powerful people that they can achieve their goals, not through ordinary schmucks. As such, they try to get presidents, senators, and congress people into the group, and then use those people to get access to the leaders of other countries, so as to grow the size, reach, and power of the Family. Prominent members in this effort are senators James Inhofe and Tom Coburn and representative Doug Aderholt of Alabama. But while they claim to be non-partisan and boast of having both Republicans and Democrats in their ranks, the policies they pursue seem to be all conservative ones.

Where this leads is to them courting and associating with some of the most horrendous leaders in the world, ruthless people who were butchers and exploiters of their nations, such as Sani Abacha of Nigeria and Omar al-Bashir of Sudan. But rather than try to convince the brutal leaders of those other countries to change their ways, they seem to only care that they pay lip-service to Jesus. And those leaders are no fools. They quickly realize that simply by saying ‘Jesus, Jesus’ and praying with these people they get access to powerful politicians in the US. In effect, the Family becomes a conduit to facilitate networking and lobbying among the top political and business figures around the world.

What is clear is that these people are not really seeking to spread Jesus’s teachings but instead to use his name as some kind of talisman, a label of allegiance, a rallying point, to form a network of self-righteous men who claim to be doing their god’s work when they are really pursuing power to advance a socially conservative agenda. And because they work as much as possible in the shadows, they avoid getting targeted for being the reactionary force in politics that they are.

Here’s the trailer.


  1. Mobius says

    …senators James Inhofe and Tom Coburn…

    Both senators from Oklahoma, my home state. Jeez! Though Coburn is no longer in office. It wouldn’t surprise me one bit if his replacement Lankford were in this group, too.

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