The Family: More Gilead than Godly

When tuning in to Netflix’s five part documentary series The Family—which provides an inside look into the high-powered Christian ministry known as The Fellowship (aka The Family)—viewers can be forgiven for thinking they clicked on Hulu by accident. The Family’s stately mansions in Virginia—bestowed with such grand names as Ivanwald, Potomac Point, and The Cedars—bear an eerie resemblance to the sets from The Handmaid’s Tale. Colonial-style architecture and dark wood furnishings lend an upper crust English veneer to both settings, where only those deemed worthy may enter the hallowed halls.

For those unfamiliar with The Handmaid’s Tale, this series tells the story of the rise of a totalitarian Christian regime, the Republic of Gilead, where freethinkers are executed and women are relegated to property of the state. In both Gilead and Virginia, men in inner circles have been anointed by God to lead. Conversely, those women chosen to be of service remain in the background where they respond to these godly guys’ commands with a heavenly “blessed be.”

Scenes from best-selling author Jeff Sharlet’s The Family: The Secret Fundamentalism at the Heart of American Power may lull one into thinking the new docuseries is a work of fiction like the Hulu adaptation of Margaret Atwood’s novel. However, in The Family, filmmaker Jesse Moss weaves together historical re-enactments with actual video and still photographs to serve up a potent and chilling reminder that the viewer is, in fact, watching a real-life dystopia.

I’ve been reporting on The Family and the National Prayer Breakfast it hosts since Sharlet’s book debuted in 2008 (most recent coverage focuses on The Family’s role within the Trump administration). So I was well acquainted on paper with the story of how, in the 1930s, Abraham Vereide founded prayer breakfasts in Seattle designed to bring together men of industry.

But I wasn’t prepared for my visceral reaction to audio and news clips chronicling how these seemingly informal prayer groups protected their wealth by eradicating the labor movement in Washington State. Or to watching the long-time head of The Family, Doug Coe, proclaim the motto “Jesus plus nothing” juxtaposed against visual depictions of Hitler and other like-minded dictators utilizing analogous slogans of blind allegiance to justify their atrocities.

Lest we think these actions are all in the past, Moss documents with the slow chilling clarity of a psychological thriller how The Family’s stealth evangelistic endeavors continue to prop up dictators, murderers, and thieves on a global scale. After seeing the vast array of photos and videos of US presidents and members of Congress connecting with such despots on behalf of The Family, one can’t help but feel they’re witnessing the unfolding of a sinister global empire that not even George Lucas or Tom Clancy could envision.

This military mindset became most evident in the second segment of the five-part series. In the episode aptly titled “The Chosen,” Moss intersperses clips from the 1951 popular film David and Bathsheba with re-enactments of Bible studies to illuminate how those whom God (or The Family) anoints as their chosen vessel can be forgiven for their egregious sexual sins. The same illogic, used to justify the affairs of former Senator John Ensign (R-NV) and former South Carolina Governor Mark Sanford (aka “The C Street scandals”), was later employed to justify white evangelicals’ tacit endorsement of the current predator-in-chief.

In Donald Trump, The Family found their Wolf King, a man who will not lie down like a sheep. Rather, he is a biblical-style bully who represents the epitome of muscular Christianity by devouring the meek. Inserting their long-time soldier Mike Pence into the Trump orbit, The Family ensured this wolf would advance their capitalist Christian agenda.

While the majority of leaders connected to this clan claim the Republican label, the series points to Bill and Hillary Clinton and other like-minded neoliberals who are connected to Coe and who praise the work of The Family. Included in this mix are progressive thought leaders who build their platforms and publishing deals based on their public veneer as a new kind of Christian, a warrior willing to do battle against those Bible believers who back a Trumpian theology.

But as The Family demonstrates, these progressive Christians are equally complicit in supporting the structure that placed Trump into power. Anyone who participates in the National Prayer Breakfast, the Fellowships’ congressional prayer breakfasts, or some other Family-friendly gatherings cannot claim they are engaging in “bridge building.” In practice, they’re doing The Family’s business by continuing Vereide’s legacy, utilizing the name of Jesus to advance the interests of industry titans.

Those looking for specific evidence that a particular pastor, author, or other Christian thought leader is connected to The Family (more formally The Fellowship Foundation) may be disappointed. But this is not a documentary designed to prove an individual’s connection to this secretive organization.

Instead, Moss lays out this vast hidden network and lets viewers decide how to respond. Will people unfamiliar with the powerful group be curious enough to watch The Family (debuting August 9 on Netflix)? And if they do, will they grasp how important it is to end US governmental support for the National Prayer Breakfast, as well as any involvement by political and religious leaders in The Family’s global political ventures? Anyone who cares about religious neutrality and the freedom of and from religion will hope they do.

And if they understand, will they speak out or stay silent? To quote Nobel Laureate Elie Wiesel, “Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented.”