Monday, September 30, 2019

“The Family” is Frightening

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.


  1. I am pleased that the first response received this morning are from local Thinking Friend Aaron Barnhart, who is cited in the article. Here are Aaron's comments:

    "Sharlet isn’t a Christian. While of course Christians should expect to be judged, or misjudged, by people who don’t share their faith — just as fundamentalists deserve scrutiny from non-fundies — 'The Family' makes the classic error of lumping all kinds of intentional Christian community together. The Fellowship’s introductory path, to live in a house where everyone is keeping a hawkish eye on the other, bears no resemblance to gospel living that I know of. Reba Place had its faults but it wasn’t so onerous. The Fellowship’s behavior may explain why they’ve been so tolerant of authoritarians — in the end their view of the world is friendlier to dictators than to democrats."

    1. Aaron, thanks for pointing out that Sharlet is not a Christian, which I probably should have mentioned. As I see him, however, he is not anti-Christian but he is strongly anti-Christian Right.

  2. Local Thinking Friend Temp Sparkman sent me an email with this brief message this morning: "Like you, I cringe at the activities of the Family. I wonder though, how the group violates either clause in the first amendment."

    1. Yesterday I made this email response to Temp:

      Temp, here is what I wrote at the end of my Feb. 4, 2017, blog article about the National Prayer Breakfast:

      "So as a long-time advocate of the separation of church and state, as almost all baptists (small “b” intentional) in this country have been since the time of Roger Williams in the 1630s, I think that not only were the remarks of DJT on Thursday highly questionable but also that the annual observance of a National Prayer Breakfast itself is questionable.

      "I am not against praying and certainly not against breakfasts, but perhaps it is not a good idea to have a 'national' prayer breakfast, especially when it focuses on prayers to God primarily as understood and worshiped by conservative evangelical Christians."

      According to the Legal Information Institute,

      "The First Amendment's Establishment Clause prohibits the government from making any law 'respecting an establishment of religion.' This clause not only forbids the government from establishing an official religion, but also prohibits government actions that unduly favor one religion over another. It also prohibits the government from unduly preferring religion over non-religion, or non-religion over religion."

      It seems to me The Family's institution of and support of the National Prayer Breakfasts from 1953 until the present not only clearly favors Christianity over all other religions (or over non-religion) but it also favors conservative evangelical Christianity over other forms of Christianity.

      Further, there is much that goes on behind the public eye that, again, shows government support of conservative Christianity.

    2. Temp responded very briefly: "Google National Day of Prayer history."

      I did, and then this morning I sent him an email that said the following:

      Temp, as you recognize, I hope, there is considerable difference between the National Day of Prayer and the National Prayer Breakfasts. According to the Wikipedia article, which I think is trustworthy,

      "The National Day of Prayer is celebrated by Americans of many religions, including Christians of many denominations, including Protestants and Catholics, as well as Sikhs, Muslims, Hindus, and Jews, reflecting the demographics of the United States. On the National Day of Prayer, many Americans assemble in prayer in front of courthouses, as well as in houses of worship, such as churches, mosques, synagogues, and temples."

      The National Day of Prayer has also been questioned on the grounds of separation of church and state, and rightfully so, I think. While it does seem to be ecumenical in the broadest sense, it still shows governmental approval of religion over non-religion.

      Unlike the National Prayer Breakfasts, the National Day of Prayer has been so designated by the U.S. Congress and people in the U.S. are asked "to turn to God in prayer and meditation." This is certainly something that churches, synagogues, etc. should do, but I question that being legitimate for the government to do. But, at least, it is an appeal to all religious people. The National Prayer Breakfasts, though, are planned and conducted by evangelical Christians, and when he was still alive, Doug Coe, the leader of The Family for decades, was sometimes praised at those gatherings.

  3. The irony of it: Moses liberated the Hebrews from the Pharoses of Egypt. In a few generations, the majority of them wanted their own pharaoh, and Israel to be an Egypt. The Protestant Revolution sowed seeds of Liberty, Equality, Freedom of religion and Democracy that eventually came to form our nation. Now these reactionary idealists want an Old testament model of governance, a Christian Oligarchy if not a constitutional despot. (Putin light with "Christian" dressing)

    Like the Baptists the denomination of my young adult years, Seventh-Day Adventists, were big on Religious Liberty. They still insist upon it, but now it means the right to discriminate on religious grounds.

  4. Local Thinking Friend Fred Heeren sent these brief comments earlier this afternoon:

    "I've watched most of 'The Family' . . . . Several of my friends have seen it too. Apparently the conspiracy theorists are right about us Christians!"

  5. About three years ago a member of my book club led us in a discussion of The Family by Jeff S. Their fundamentalist take on religion plus their influence on so many in government felt very scary at the time to most of us in the group. ***Now, seeing the movie in our present political situation makes "The Family" seem even more chilling. The phrase "A wolf in sheep's clothing" comes to mind.

  6. Here are comments received this afternoon from Thinking Friend Dean Summers in Washington (state):

    "Thank you for your review of 'The Family.' I also saw it recently. I thought the presentation was sensationalistic (of course it was, it's Netflix!), but the purported facts I've been able to check seem reliable. I want to read the book. I've put a hold on it at my local library. I'm number 43 in line for one of 11 copies.

    "It looks to me as though the Family's founders, current leaders, and foot soldiers all agree with Dostoevsky's Grand Inquisitor when he chided Jesus for not listening to that wise spirit in the desert.

    "Meanwhile, I found a book by Chris Hedges on a related topic: 'American Fascists.' I just posted my review of that book on Goodreads. Basically, I thought 'American Fascists' was a great work spoiled by it's opening chapters and closing pages."

    1. I recently read a different book by Chris Hedges, "America: the Farewell Tour." You can get the message by combining the title with the fact that the lead blurb on the jacket was by Ralph Nader. It is a hard-hitting book about the dissolution of USAmerica. Hedges is an ordained Presbyterian minister, and a graduate of Harvard Divinity School. If Hedges is not pessimistic enough for anyone, try reading a new book I am working on now, "The Uninhabitable Earth: Life After Warming" by David Wallace-Wells. The opening sentence (all caps in original) says "IT IS WORSE, MUCH WORSE, THAN YOU THINK." Fires, floods, droughts, famines, pestilence and pollution all star in an extravaganza of cascading disasters. No wonder the fundamentalists are hiding their heads in the sand, even as they put the likes of Trump in the White House. May God have mercy on our souls.

    2. Dean, thanks for your comments--and for your erudite review of Chris Hedges's book. (For those of you who might like to read Dean's review, here is the link:

      I have read a couple of Hedges other books, the last being (I think) his "When Atheism Becomes Religion" (2008), which I thought was quite good. But in his other books, perhaps he was a bit "sensationalistic," to use your word--although I am not sure I agree with that evaluation of "The Family."

    3. Craig, thanks for your comments about Dean's comments--and for introducing another book that I did not know about.

      You keep writing about the problem of global warming, and I think I have probably not written about it enough. But I don't know that there is anything I could say that hasn't already been said. The problem is not that the issue hasn't been explained, it is that so many people just want to go on as if it is not urgent. Thanks for keep pushing us to think--and do--more about that matter.