Last week Netflix released “The Family” a five-part documentary about a secretive group of Christians with a mission to spread the teachings of Jesus to Washington, D.C., and beyond. Many progressives will love the documentary because it gives them what they want to hear, while conservatives will probably question the motives of those involved.
“The Family” is directed by Jesse Moss and based on two books by journalist Jeff Sharlet: “The Family: The Secret Fundamentalism at the Heart of American Power” (2008) and “C Street: The Fundamentalist Threat to American Democracy” (2010). (Sharlet is an executive producer and has a significant amount of camera time.)
Sharlet’s books have appealed to progressive pundits anxious about the Christian right’s threat to the separation of church and state, but his work also has had its share of critics.
Historian of religion Randall Balmer, who over the past 30 years has been one of our most discerning observers of American evangelicalism, panned the “The Family” in a 2008 review in The Washington Post. Balmer criticized Sharlet’s sloppy use of history, his paranoid style and his failure to take seriously members of the Family who did not identify with the Christian right. (Coincidentally, Balmer and Sharlet are now colleagues at Dartmouth.)
When Sharlet published his books, many observers of American religion, like Balmer, were skeptical of conspiracy theories about the theocratic schemes of cultlike groups working behind the scenes in Washington.
Historians of American Christianity were hard at work trying to convince academics and the general public that evangelicalism was a religious movement, not a cover for a nefarious attempt to create a 17th-century Puritan theocracy. The efforts of these historians, of course, did not come easy during the Age of Reagan, Moral Majority and the “culture wars.” Sharlet’s book didn’t help the cause.
But much has changed in the past decade. In fact, Moss and Sharlet’s documentary, which devotes the bulk of its coverage to developments in “The Family” after 2010, is quite timely. The Christian right has found renewed energy since President Trump’s election. Christian nationalism, the idea that the United States was founded as a Christian nation and needs to return to its religious roots, is on the rise. Many pundits and scholars wonder whether the evangelical movement can be separated from the agenda of the Republican Party.
It’s time to examine Sharlet’s work (and now Moss’ work) with fresh eyes, and for this reason alone, “The Family” is must viewing.
Abraham Vereide, a Norwegian-born evangelical, founded the Family (its original name was the International Christian Leadership) in 1935 to provide a space for men with power in his adopted hometown of Seattle to meet regularly for prayer and Bible study.
As Sharlet notes in “The Family,” and Princeton historian Kevin Kruse has argued in his book, “One Nation Under God: How Corporate America Invented Christian America,” Vereide’s organization had more than just a spiritual agenda. He merged evangelical Christianity with corporate capitalism to defeat what he believed to be the socialist leanings of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal. The Family emerged at a time of labor unrest in Seattle, and Vereide used his fellowship of Christian businessmen to crush the city’s growing workers movement.
Sharlet first learned about the Family when he was invited to live at Ivanwald, a house in Arlington, Va. Young men, preparing for future leadership in the movement, resided there in spiritual community and spent time serving the needs of the Family’s leadership and international dignitaries who met at a nearby mansion known as the Cedars. Episode 1 of “The Family” dramatizes Sharlet’s experience at Ivanwald.
The Family is now known best for its sponsorship of the National Prayer Breakfast, an event that has especially attracted evangelicals. Vereide’s successor, Doug Coe; eventually took over the gathering; religious leaders in the world of politics, business and culture come to Washington every February to share a meal and build networks among like-minded believers. Since its inception, every president — from Eisenhower to Trump — has attended.
Coe, who died in 2017, was an enigma, and the documentary doesn’t help us get to know him any better. On one hand, Coe seems to have been a kind, Christian gentleman, with roots in mainstream evangelical ministries who felt called to minister to politicians, lawmakers and other men of influence in Washington. His primary concern was telling people about Jesus.
But the Coe portrayed here was a puppet master who demanded loyalty of his followers. He illegally subsidized the rent of congressmen living at a Family-owned townhouse called C Street Center. He modeled the Family’s organizational philosophy after the mafia and the Nazis. And he operated in secrecy with little accountability.
Moss and Sharlet seem to be interested only in this darker side of Coe. They concentrate on the Family’s numerous efforts to blur, or in some cases, cross the line between church and state. This is especially the case in the episodes dealing with the Family’s influence outside the United States. “The Family” documents several incidents in which Coe’s organization funded the travel of sitting members of Congress to meet with autocratic world leaders for the purpose of sharing the message of Jesus. While such meetings are not problematic in and of themselves, the documentary points out that these ambassadors for Christ rarely condemn, or in some cases simply ignore, the human rights violations of these leaders.
Moreover, world leaders often perceive these delegations as U.S. envoys. Sharlet puts it well when he says that Coe and the congressional members of the Family meet with world leaders “as representatives of the most powerful government in the world,” but when they arrive, they claim that they “are just talking about my Jesus.” Some of these congressmen have even advanced the religious agenda of the Family while serving on official government trips funding by taxpayers, and at least one spent time in prison for laundering money through the Family.
Indeed, “The Family” makes a convincing case that many of Coe’s followers are crusading Christian nationalists who use fearmongering tactics and political influence to spread a false gospel that equates Christianity with worldly power.
Many viewers will inevitably equate the Family with American evangelicalism. And who would blame them if they did? Some of the Family’s most troublesome practices reflect an approach to religion and politics that led 80 percent of American evangelicals to vote for Trump in 2016. Many of the politicians who gravitate toward the Family have run campaigns designed to convince evangelicals that gays, Muslims, Barack Obama and immigrants are eroding white Christian America.
But the Family also seems to be a much more complex organization than the quasi-theocratic movement that Moss and Sharlet make it out to be. The history of the organization suggests that its members and friends also include Christians who reject the Christian nationalism that has come to define much of evangelicalism. Why did Hillary Clinton or evangelical progressive Jim Wallis or Jimmy Carter gravitate toward Coe? (To be clear, none of them are considered “members” of the Family. Clinton and Wallis do not appear in the documentary, but Carter is interviewed.) Did Coe deceive them? Or did they believe that Coe’s vision for prayer and Bible study was not only appropriate, but valuable, in the United States? Moss and Sharlet don’t seem to be interested in exploring these questions.
Take, for example, the Family-inspired fellowship group that meets in Portland, Ore., and is featured prominently in Episode 5. The men in attendance are intense about their faith. They reveal a masculine approach to Christian faith that has been a part of the movement for a long time. But they spend little time talking about government or politics.
The group is interracial and is led by an African American evangelical. A white member openly criticizes Moss for the lack of racial diversity in his film crew. At one point, the conversation sounds like we could be watching a local Black Lives Matter meeting. Yet Sharlet seems to imply that these men are in training, just like the young men he encountered at Ivanwald, to advance the theocratic mission of the Family.
The members of the Portland group are not elite power brokers. They appear to be ordinary men with everyday problems who want to be better husbands and fathers. They struggle with pornography, they lament the prevalence of divorce and adultery, even as they realize that they aren’t immune from such problems, they talk about racial reconciliation, they challenge one another to surrender their lives to God, they display humility and they hold one another accountable in their pursuit of Christian faith.
Maybe this is what the Family, at its core, and despite its many flaws, is really all about.
John Fea teaches American history at Messiah College in Mechanicsburg, Pa., and is the author, most recently, of “Believe Me: The Evangelical Road to Donald Trump.”
Correction: An earlier version of this piece incorrectly stated that Doug Coe started the prayer breakfast gathering and has been updated to reflect that he took over the gathering. This piece has also been updated to fix the original name of the group profiled in the documentary: International Christian Leadership. The piece has also been updated to clarify that the author believes Jeff Sharlet appeared to imply men were in training to advance the Family.