Review: The Family
There is an uneasiness about the Netflix doco-series The Family and it’s not just the Illumanti-esque tinge this organisation carries but how after viewing, it’s difficult to indefinitely conclude that they are detrimental to democracy. Do they really have that much political influence?
This doco-series is based on the 2008 book by Jeff Sharlet The Family: The Secret Fundamentalism at the Heart of American Power. This is the first of two books, which follow a religious organisation that has up until now been invisible yet still have unprecedented access to world’s powerful including American congress, world leaders and diplomats. Also known as “The Fellowship”, the Family’s mission seems on the surface a simple one; to share the message of Jesus through “God-led” leaders of nations.
Jesus plus nothing. That is a phrase noted as a mantra of the Family throughout the series.
In the first few episodes Jeff narrates how he as a young investigative journalist found himself living in one of the Family’s homes called Ivanwald in Washington D.C. He described it as a frat house for Jesus, where young men with promising political futures would live, play football, and have regular bible studies.
Through dramatic re-enactments we’re taken through Jeffs experience at the house. Ivanwald is where surrendering to God is equated to a group of guys shoving Jeff to the ground and laugh as he struggles to get up, before praying together. Where the young men would “humble” themselves by cleaning the houses of wealthy elites. Where the young men’s interaction with women were limited to functions with an equivalent Family house for women called Potomatic Point, that “mentored in service” and prepped women to be future wives of the Ivanwald men.
At Ivanwald Jeff is also confronted with an unorthodox view of Jesus viewed by the young men as an alpha male. Instead of focusing on the sheep, the Family focuses on the leader or the “wolf-king”; a different take on Acts 9:15.
As the series progresses from Jeff’s insights to that of former and active members of the Family, the reach of the organisation becomes unnerving, as is the revelation that they organise the National Prayer Breakfast. This breakfast first started in America and is now organised around the world including Australia (it’s happening this October in Canberra).
Organisers state that the breakfast’s purpose is to remind leadership of their responsibilities to their nation and to God. Flick through the American National Prayer Breakfast photo archive and you will see every sitting President Democratic and Republican attending. This includes Bill Clinton, Barack Obama and most recently President Donald Trump. Here some of the doco commentators describe Trump as the type of “wolf-king” that the Family was waiting for. A bold statement that the series teases but then glazes over again as if realising exploring that statement would need a whole series of its own.
The National Prayer Breakfast also acts as a sort of networking event. While prayer is at the forefront there are backdoor meetings between leaders and diplomats. The doco-series then delves into the influence of the Family in foreign policy, in Russia, Romania and Uganda to name a few, where it is suggested that they are helping push a Christian agenda.
One commentator in the doco-series questions, where does politics end and faith begin?
The Family and their associates, who are mostly old white men, are accused of justifying the reason they are in power and fight to keep it is that it is God’s will.
Even though the doco-series is pitted as an exposé, the way active members and former members speak of the Family’s elusive long-time leader the late Doug Coe and their faith, is fascinating.
It brings to mind, that in all those prayer groups, and prayer breakfasts, surely there is also some good being done and that at least for some Jesus is at the core? But this is hard to determine through this doco-series.
Even with the best intentions, we are all flawed. And as with any religion or denomination there is the good and the bad. Where there is power there is also the temptation of corruption.
Is the Holy Spirit really bringing The Family together as they share the message of Jesus or is it all a political game. Or is it both? You decide.
The Family is now streaming on Netflix.