CHURCH AND STATE
‘The Family’: The Evangelicals Trying to Turn America Into a Theocracy
Netflix’s new five-part series “The Family,” now streaming, explores an elite coalition of Christians with enormous influence in American politics.
According to The Family, Netflix’s unnerving new five-part documentary series, the most powerful club in America is a consortium of religious true believers bound by their fanatical love of Jesus. It has no official membership and requires no dues. It works overtime to avoid publicity. Its ranks are comprised of both Republicans and Democrats.
And it seeks the eradication of the separation of church and state in its quest for its most coveted asset: power.
Available now on the streaming service, Jesse Moss’sminiseries is an adaptation-cum-expansion of The Family (2008) and C Street (2010), two nonfiction books penned by Jeff Sharlet, whose experiences with “the Family”—often also referred to as “the Fellowship”—provide a window onto an invisible world, and movement, hiding in plain sight.
As Sharlet himself explains at length, the Family is a coalition of elite evangelical Christian men who hold positions of governmental authority both here and abroad. They organize the annual National Prayer Breakfast that’s hosted every American president since Eisenhower, and they establish and run Bible-study groups around the country. Driven by the belief that they’re God’s “chosen,” hand-selected by Him to lead, they spread the gospel far and wide—and, in doing so, shore up political and social influence right beneath the population’s nose.
Their unabashed goal is a global Christian theocracy—no morality, or democracy, required.
That undoubtedly makes The Family sound like a work of conspiracy-theory exploitation. And yet there’s nothing make-believe about Moss’ show, which conclusively contends that the Family is very real.
Its origins began in 1935 Seattle, where Norwegian-born Abraham Vereide brought together 19 business leaders for a meeting about how to combat the threat of organized labor. Through a shared adoration of Christ, the informal Family was born. Upon Vereide’s 1969 death, the reins were passed to Doug Coe, an unassuming fundamentalist who took pride in his (and the Family’s) anonymity as he went about spreading his missionary message to American presidents—Jimmy Carter praises him in a new on-camera interview as “a fine Christian”—and international heads of state, no matter their awfulness. He was “the most powerful man in Washington whose name you don’t know,” says Miami Herald investigative journalist Lisa Getter. “He’s like the Wizard of Oz.”
The Family begins with dramatic recreations of Sharlet’s time at Ivanwald, an Arlington, Virginia, house where he was schooled in the Family’s brand of chauvinistic old-school gospel as he scrubbed toilets (subservience!), played sports (manliness!), and avoided sex (chastity!). There, he came to understand not only followers’ core fixation on Jesus—whose name functioned as a veritable talisman for members—but how they then used it to amass and bolster their power. In this movement, anyone willing to accept Christ is welcome, including despots such as Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi and Nigeria’s Sani Abacha, as well as Russian agents such as Maria Butina, who attended the 2017 National Prayer Breakfast before pleading guilty to conspiracy charges for failing to register as a Russian agent with the Department of Justice.
The Family argues that the National Prayer Breakfast is the primary public means by which the Family exerts its influence, both by assembling and uniting believers of all political persuasions, and by exporting its template abroad. That it’s also a venue ripe for exploitation by unscrupulous foreign lobbyists is of no consequence to the Family because, as many members assert in candid interviews, the endgame is an inclusive alliance made up of fellow Jesus acolytes (as former Tennessee congressman Zach Wamp states, “Anyone who is interested in it is welcome”). By their logic, good or bad behavior is beside the point; all that matters is that you’re one of God’s special individuals. And in fact, the worse a given person is, the more they deserve your time and attention, because forgiving others’ trespasses proves the miracle of Jesus’ love.
Thus from Argentina to Nicaragua to the Ivory Coast, Prayer Breakfasts have sprouted up, courtesy of American congressmen who use their official status and clout to form unsanctioned back-channel agreements and relationships—all inherently rooted in Christian dogma—on the U.S. taxpayer’s dime. The Family’s depiction of this sprawling web of alliances (some of it centralized at C Street, a veritable D.C. dormitory for Family-member congressmen) is greatly augmented by the participation of Sharlet, whose temporary time inside the group, as well as investigation of its conduct over the past 80 years, expertly lays out its insidious position in American government. While the show’s dramatic recreations rarely rise above functional—even those featuring James Cromwell as Doug Coe—its thoroughness and expansiveness is bracing, conveying the Family’s tremendous 21st-century reach.
Moreover, it exposes their mounting interest in collaborating with Russia, which sent as many as 60 delegates to the 2018 National Prayer Breakfast, thanks in part to new Family bigwig Doug Burleigh, Coe’s son-in-law (who took over after Coe passed away in 2017) and a specialist in all things Russia.
In this context, evangelicals’ support of President Donald Trump—a lewd urbanite without a pious bone in his body—isn’t hypocritical. On the contrary, they view him as the very sort of alpha strongman needed to expand their dominion, via a mutually beneficial alliance where power is the ultimate objective. In line with their long-standing fondness for authoritarians (including Hitler and Mao), the Family views Trump as a kindred spirit who understands that some are predestined to rule over others; that anyone is a potential business partner; and that ethics are no impediment to achieving one’s ends. Consequently, it’s no surprise that, in return for its support, Trump gifted the Family with the most fundamentalist Christian cabinet in American political history.
Think of it as a Christian mafia endeavoring to create a global theocracy under Jesus, with grassroots enclaves around the USA (and planet) and a commitment to conducting “non-consensual diplomacy” with tyrants—by elected American officials who claim their overseas efforts are just “Jesus stuff”—as part of a “worldwide spiritual offensive.” With a depth and breadth that amplifies its terrifying conclusions, The Family lifts the veil of secrecy surrounding this shadowy outfit, and what it reveals is a new world order that’s not only on its way—it’s already here.