New Netflix Show ‘The Family’ Looks at the Fellowship Foundation, the Nonprofit Christian Group Behind the National Prayer Breakfast

“The Family” premiered on Aug. 9, 2019, on Netflix. Image courtesy of Netflix

In the early 2000s, Jeff Sharlet was invited to live at Ivanwald, an Arlington, Va., house run by the Fellowship Foundation, the nonprofit group behind the National Prayer Breakfast.

He thought the experience would fit in a book he was writing about religion in America. Instead, he stumbled into the story of a lifetime, about a secretive Christian group whose membership, largely elected officials and wealthy businessmen, has helped shaped our politics for more than 50 years.

They call themselves the Family. They work behind the scenes through relationships forged at Bible studies, prayer breakfasts and private meetings with leaders from around the globe.

Family members have befriended dictators such as Ferdinand Marcos, Moammar Gadhafi, Suharto – offering friendship in the name of Jesus to promote political ends. Members often did so in secret at the behest of their longtime leader, the late Doug Coe, who often told his followers, according to Sharlet, that Jesus did not come to reach the poor or the outcast, but to help the powerful.

Sharlet’s books on the Fellowship, “The Family” and “C Street,” are the basis for a new five-part Netflix documentary series that traces the Fellowship’s history from its founding in 1935 by Abraham Vereide, a Methodist minister, to the 2018 National Prayer Breakfast.

Religion News Service Editor-in-Chief Bob Smietana spoke by telephone recently with Sharlet and with Jesse Moss, the series’ director. The interview has been edited for clarity and length.

Director Jesse Moss, left, and Jeff Sharlet chat during a production break. Courtesy photo

What’s been the response to the series on Netflix?

Sharlet: It’s been pretty tremendous. The two things I was afraid of were, one, right-wing anger. But even conservatives are saying, “Oh, this is a problem.”

The other thing I was afraid of is that people would not get it. When someone like a Jerry Falwell pounds the pulpit and starts talking about “the gays” and all this kind of thing, that’s easy to understand. The Family is much smoother.

So that is the good news. The bad news is that so many people are saying, ‘I didn’t realize this.’ We all need to be a little bit more literate if we’re going to hold on to this democracy.

The members of the Family who appear in the series are very earnest about what they are doing. You’re not simply saying, “Look at how bad these people are.” They have a chance to explain what they are doing and why they do it.

Moss: They have a point of view, and it was important to represent that point of view. Getting their cooperation was time-consuming. We only ended up with Zach Wamp and Larry Ross at the end of a long dialogue. But finding people who were still willing to talk to us and who were deeply inspired by Doug Coe and in some way, this movement — those were essential conversations for me.

Doug Coe, left, meets with the Reagans in the Netflix series “The Family.” Photo courtesy of Netflix

Sharlet: I just had an exchange this afternoon that I thought was revealing. A member of the Family had been writing to me, very upset. She was very close to Doug Coe and she loves him and says, “How can you say these things about him.” My response is we don’t actually say too much about him.  We’ll let him do the talking and we let the record of his actions speak for themselves.

And I said, look, you know, this is not an anti-Christian message. I’m not a Christian, but I’m incredibly compelled by the Christ who cares for the least of these.

Her response — and this is coming from a place of deep earnestness and even hurt on her part — was that Doug served, you know, a Christ who cared for the powerful. She said that “it seems like you have some sort of problem with people in power.”

Yes, I do, as a journalist whose job is to speak truth to power, as a citizen of a democracy whose job is to question power. And as someone who has been very interested in faith for a long time and been compelled by the whole history of Christian witness. Christian witness is not about cozying up to power.

Do you think members of the Fellowship are after power for power’s sake? They seem to have a post-millennial motivation — we’re going to make God’s kingdom. And the way we are going to build it isn’t by democracy.

Sharlet: I think you’re right about post-millennialism and that is something I have argued for a long time. That’s part of what historically has made it difficult for the press to understand their work. Secular folks, when they think of politicized Christianity, they think about rapture theology. And even now people say, those guys can’t wait till the end of the world.

Russians Mariia Butina and Alexander
Torshin at the 2017 National Prayer
Breakfast. President Trump later
spoke from the podium in the
background. Photo via Facebook 

That’s not these guys, that’s not the project. They’re in it for the long game.

I think we have to decide if that is right. Do you think preaching a gospel of American power, and anti-LGBTQ values in Romania and putting American power behind that is the right side? Do you think covering up the affairs of the powerful so that they can stay powerful is being on the right side?

Moss: This tension is clearly embodied in the third episode, about the National Prayer Breakfast and in the story of Mariia Butina. Was she pure of heart and spirit when she came to the prayer breakfast? Or was she exploiting this transactional event with a network of powerful people?

Is this naiveté or cynicism?  The answer is the Fellowship manages to be both.

Let’s talk about naiveté. Some of these politicians have to know that when they show up at a foreign leader’s office, they are not just a brother in Christ. They are representatives of the U.S. government. But they seem to want to set that aside and say, I just love you in the name of Jesus.

Moss: That contradiction is embodied in Mark Siljander, who tells his own story about trying to pray with Gadhafi. What could be wrong with that? You know, just a prayer for peace. On the other hand, Siljander was using the Fellowship to launder money and went to prison for it.

Sharlet:  In their own documents, Coe, and certainly many of the political leaders, were fully aware that they were using American power to pry doors open on behalf of this particular religious project. They would be explicit about this in their correspondence. And that to me is a deeply cynical exercise.

When Coe says from now on, we’re going to submerge the institution. We’re not going to use our own letterhead (to invite people to the prayer breakfast.) Use congressional letterhead so it looks like it’s coming from Congress. That’s deception. That’s just deception.

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Source: Religion News Service