The Netflix five-part miniseries titled “The Family” was released last month, but June and I just finished watching it ten days ago. If you haven’t seen it yet, I encourage you to do so even if you have to watch it on someone else’s Netflix streaming account, as we did.
What Is The Family?
The five episodes of “The Family” are about 50 minutes each, and they are based on Jeff Sharlet’s books The Family: The Secret Fundamentalism at the Heart of American Power (2008) and C Street: The Fundamentalist Threat to American Democracy (2010).
Sharlet (b. 1972) is the primary narrator of the documentary, and “Submersion,” the first episode, is largely about his stay in 2002 at Ivanwald, a house for younger men being groomed for leadership in The Family. (A young actor plays Sharlet in that episode.)
In “Chosen,” the second part of the miniseries, we are further introduced to Doug Coe, a man who in the past was called “the most powerful man in Washington you’ve never heard of.”
From the early 1960s until his death, Coe (1928~2017) was the most influential person in The Family, although he was rarely in the limelight. In 2005 Time magazine included him on their list of the 25 most influential evangelicals in the U.S., referring to him as the “stealth Billy Graham.”
Coe became associated with The Family in 1958, working under Abraham Vereide (1886~1969), who founded the Fellowship Foundation in 1935. Later that organization was called International Christian Leadership and then in recent years just The Family.
Through political influence and private diplomacy, The Family has wielded enormous influence in Washington, D.C.—and in the governments of other countries—for more than a half century now. Their main public events are the National Prayer Breakfasts, which have been attended by every President beginning with Eisenhower.
(My 2/4/17 blog article was about Sharlet and the 2017 Prayer Breakfast.)
Bothered by “The Family”
In several ways I was uncomfortable watching the documentary, especially in the beginning. So much of it sounded good—and much was in keeping with what I have emphasized as a Christian pastor and missionary: total commitment to Jesus Christ.
Further, I was bothered at how some of the politicians I respected the most were friends with Doug Coe, people such as Mark Hatfield, Jimmy Carter, and Hillary Clinton. I don’t think that Coe himself or the politicians he befriended, such as the three just mentioned, harbored evil intentions by their involvement with The Family.
Unfortunately, however, even that which is good and praiseworthy can inexplicably become entangled with evil and produce malevolent results.
How Nefarious is The Family?
My friend Aaron Barnhart wrote an article last month (check it out here) titled “The Family Isn’t As Nefarious as Netflix’s ‘The Family’ Says It is.” I hadn’t known until reading his article that as a young man he was directly involved with The Family, much the same way Sharlet was in 2002.
So I can understand why Aaron, who attends the same church I do, is a bit defensive about the way the miniseries portrays The Family. But he does, correctly I think, suggest that there is something “terribly wrong” with that group.
Aaron writes that “Sharlet is right to call out The [Family’s] willingness to be used by dictators and demagogues.” He also notes that the members of The Family are guilty of “enabling rather than doing bad things.”
Still, I think they must be considered frightening because of the way they have enabled “bad things” to be done, because of their disregard for the separation of church and state, and for their implicit desire to replace democracy (in the U.S. and elsewhere) with theocracy.