This month Netflix released “The Family,” a five-part documentary based on the work of journalist Jeff Sharlet, whose books exposed and explored a secretive organization that for decades has quietly built relationships with powerful government officials in Washington, D.C. and around the world. While the visible Religious Right political movement works to advance specific legislative and policy agendas, The Family has sought to quietly develop long-term relationships with powerful politicians (mostly men), network them with other friends of The Family, and elevate and protect those who share their vision of leadership and government grounded in their version of Jesus.
The Netflix documentary is based on Sharlet’s books—“The Family: The Secret Fundamentalism at the Heart of American Power” and “C Street: The Fundamentalist Threat to American Democracy”—as well as additional reporting by the team that put together the documentary. Sharlet wrote the original “The Family” based on his first-hand experience of having been invited by a friend to live and work at the organization’s headquarters in northern Virginia, where he cleaned toilets, bonded with other young men, and participated in dinners with powerful political leaders—and his coming to understand the scope of the enterprise that he had fallen into. Director Jesse Moss mixes re-enactment, historical footage, and interviews with journalists and current and former associates of The Family—and together it makes for riveting storytelling.
The group portrays itself as having no political agenda beyond building Jesus-based relationships with powerful people. But as Sharlet has documented, the Family—also known as the Fellowship Foundation—was founded in the mid-30s by a group of businessmen in Washington state who sought to crush organized labor and banded together to elect a mayor and then governor who would help them do so. From there they expanded across the country via groups of business and political leaders who would gather for prayer meetings. That anti-labor origin continues to be reflected in the anti-regulatory “biblical economics” advanced by many Religious Right leaders today.
The Family’s most powerful networking event, and virtually its only public-facing event, is the invitation-only annual National Prayer Breakfast, which has been attended by every president since Dwight Eisenhower. One scene in the documentary features Donald Trump making his first appearance at the National Prayer Breakfast, and starting his remarks in typically ham-fisted self-aggrandizing manner, mocking Arnold Schwarzenegger’s unsuccessful effort to replace Trump in his “reality” TV show, “The Apprentice.”
Those who saw Trump’s buffoonish appearance as an embarrassment, Sharlet says, missed the point, and the significance of the National Prayer Breakfast as a ritual of power, a ritual that allows The Family to signal to the world, “We can sanctify anybody, we can anoint anybody we want.” (For a bit of contrast, the Religious Right celebrated when author Eric Metaxas used his remarks at the prayer breakfast to attack Barack Obama’s faith just before the president spoke.)
The prayer breakfast, in and around which world leaders, U.S. politicians and business leaders, and political insiders build relationships and lobby one another, has recently gotten more scrutiny than usual given Russian Maria Butina’s use of the breakfast as a means of gaining access to conservative movement leaders in the U.S. Butina was sentenced to prison for failing to register as a foreign agent, but the breakfast is designed as, in Sharlet’s words, “an unregistered lobbying festival” to promote the kind of networking she was apparently engaged in.
Members of Congress often carry out on behalf of The Family a kind of shadow diplomacy, a secretive “unofficial” and unaccountable outreach to foreign officials. Long before current leaders of the U.S. Religious Right were justifying their support for Donald Trump by declaring that God anoints and uses imperfect men, The Family was cultivating relationships with murderous tyrants. Included in the documentary is former Rep. Mark Siljander, who served time in jail for obstruction of justice and acting as an unregistered foreign agent; Siljander was involved in what he called “bridging work” to Muslim leaders, including the late Libyan dictator Moammar Gadhafi; he funneled some of the money he received through Family accounts.
Among current members of Congress highlighted in the documentary is Rep. Robert Aderholt, a conservative Republican who has traveled the world on The Family’s dime, including a trip to Romania where he publicly advocated for a 2018 referendum to put a ban on same-sex marriage into the country’s constitution.
Doug Coe, the longtime leader of The Family who died in 2017, was focused on powerful men, and promoting a Jesus who came for the “wolves” and not “the sheep.” Coe argued that it was important to identify and come alongside the “wolf king”—now personified in the U.S. by Donald Trump. Of course, Trump has plenty of other Religious Right leaders telling him he was anointed by God and put in office by divine intervention.
Among those who declared Trump anointed is “prophetic” author Lance Wallnau, who shortly before the 2016 election published a book calling Trump “God’s Chaos Candidate.” Wallnau, who appears briefly in a video clip used in the documentary, took to Facebook last Friday to complain about the documentary. He called Sharlet a “weirdo Judas-type guy.” Wallnau said the documentary is evidence that “they are after Christians” and are “out for the jugular” because they “can’t stand the fact that Christians voted for Trump.” Wallnau, who promotes Seven Mountains Dominionism, said “when you go after the Fellowship, you’ve gone off the rails,” adding that in his opinion, “the Fellowship doesn’t go far enough.”
Since the death of Coe, who led The Family for decades and insisted that it remain as invisible as possible, remaining members of the network have reconsidered the value of secrecy as an operating principle. Former Rep. Zach Wamp is among a few friends of The Family who are given ample time on camera to defend the organization’s work and dismiss concerns about its power-building.
In an interview with RWW, Sharlet said that he is glad the documentary will let more people know about the existence of The Family. He hopes people will consider that believing in the sincerity of the group’s leaders does not absolve them from accountability for their actions. And he would like the political press to wrestle with the fact that this network exists and is trying to “organize government around the person of Christ.”
Sharlet says the documentary’s arrival in the age of Trump can also help people understand what he calls a “landmark transformation in American evangelicalism.” The Family has never batted an eye about working with unsavory leaders. But, while leaders of the Christian Right have always known that the politicians they supported were not entirely pious, says Sharlet, they argued that electing leaders of moral character was essential. In the era of Trump, as Right Wing Watch has noted, that principle has been abandoned entirely. Sharlet likens this to a trickling down of Family-style transactional theology, where character of individuals doesn’t matter and it’s all a means to an end.
While the documentary sounds an alarm, Sharlet says he doesn’t want it to leave people “unhopeful.” He notes that the Romanian referendum that was given a boost by Rep. Aderholt on behalf of the family actually failed to pass.
Of course, The Family has plenty of company. Aspects of its philosophy and operating principles are shared in less secretive portions of the Religious Right. For example, Ralph Drollinger, who runs Bible studies for members of Trump’s cabinet and members of Congress, sounds a lot like Coe when he describes why his ministry is focused on powerful leaders. And he, like the Family, is happy to build relationships with unsavory leaders, including those at odds with the U.S. government. Drollinger has publicly dissed The Family for not adhering to and teaching a strict interpretation of the Bible, but it’s also true that friends of The Family—including people like Mike Pence and Sen. James Lankford—are also actively supporting Drollinger’s efforts to “disciple” public officials to his biblical worldview.
Sharlet notes that the long-term institutional power-building of The Family complements the more overt political and lobbying activities of Religious Right groups. The Family wants Democratic members so it can have “access to everyone” and “changing the very terms on which the conversation is had.” People affiliated with the Family have been involved in institutional decision-making that has long-term consequences, he says, such as the creation of offices for faith-based initiatives in federal agencies. Even after Trump and his cabinet are gone, how many like-minded people will they leave in place throughout the executive branch?
Sharlet says that, in his books, he wrote that he believed that Christian fundamentalism in America would actually act as a check against fascism, because devotion to Jesus would encourage resistance to the cult of personality and fetish for violence that fascism demands. But, he said, he now thinks he was wrong. “I don’t think we’re fascist yet,” he says, but he thinks it’s “in the air.” He believes that a range of gatekeepers from editors in the mainstream media to responsible historians of American religion, failed to understand and communicate the nature of Trump’s appeal—and the support for authoritarianism within the Religious Right.
For further reading on “The Family”: