We are in a high season of political showboating. On the debate stage, candidates for the Democratic nomination tussle for our attention, straining to exploit their allotted seconds of screen time. But televised debates are electoral theatrics, not governance: Most of the people who run the world have little to no face recognition. I don’t think I could pick Robert Mercer out of a line-up, for example, and he bankrolled Brexit and Trump’s candidacy.
But that public-private boundary is fraying. President Trump’s atrocious behavior in office has begun to sully the public image of many of his major donors, with billionaires like Equinox-owner Stephen Ross suffering boycotts waged by his high-income, left-leaning customers. Things have gotten so perilous for plutocrats that Joaquin Castro, a congressman whose brother, Julián, is one of those Democratic candidates for president, was accused of harassment when he publicly named a few of Trump’s campaign contributors—which of course was already a matter of public record.
The scrutiny has extended to evangelical Christians, who have confusingly been a pillar of support for the president, despite the fact that he behaves in decidedly un-Christian ways and frequently takes the Lord’s name in vain. A new documentary faces both issues—the private money behind the government, and Trump’s alliance with the religious right—head on. The Family is a Netflix miniseries based on two books by the investigative journalist Jeff Sharlet. Across five episodes, director Jesse Moss lays out a series of shocking claims regarding a secretive Christian organization variously called The Family, The Fellowship, or nothing at all. It has no hierarchy, no staff, and its members prefer not to acknowledge the group’s existence. But if Sharlet and Moss are to be believed, The Family is one of the preeminent powers behind the throne. It doesn’t merely run a system of private prayer meetings to funnel tax-exempt cash to favored individuals, or promote a warped interpretation of Christian scripture. Its goal is to undermine the project of American democracy itself.
It’s the kind of story we’re hungry for now, because The Family, like any good conspiracy theory, makes sense of what would otherwise be absurd, nonsensical. We begin with Jeff Sharlet himself. As a young writer in New York City in the early 2000s, Sharlet recalls, he was asked by family friends to check on their son, who they worried had joined a cult. The two men met, and the son invited Sharlet to take a look at the community he had joined near Washington, D.C. There, Sharlet found a group of young men all living together, fraternity-style, spending their days playing sports or reading from a slim volume simply titled Jesus. Also: The young men were told they were being trained to rule to world.
The organization running the community claimed to have no name and no real mission, aside from spiritual matters. So why was Sharlet noticing so many politicians—from U.S. senators to the leaders of foreign nations—visiting their compound? From its narrow initial focus, the show’s narrative opens up to incorporate a huge story that has its origins in the Great Depression.
In the 1930s, a Norwegian named Abraham Vereide visited America, where he organized a “breakfast prayer meeting” between 19 unnamed business leaders who wanted to keep Western money in private pockets as the world’s markets heaved. When Vereide died in 1969, leadership of the secretive club passed to the legendary evangelical figurehead Douglas Coe (who died in 2017—the group now has no official leader, but many cells).
Vereide’s little meeting grew into the National Prayer Breakfast, the annual D.C. event attended by hundreds of politicians—including, since 1953, each sitting president of the United States. Many congresspeople believe the event is thrown by Congress itself, Sharlet discovered, but in truth it has always been a Family affair. “The more invisible you can make your organization,” Coe once said, “the more influence it will have.” The Family is modeled on Coe’s own profile: he was deeply pious, extremely secretive, and influential beyond belief.
For example, President Jimmy Carter himself appears in The Family to recall how helpful Coe was in during the 1978 Camp David Accords, helping negotiate the peace deal between Egypt and Israel behind closed doors. President George H.W. Bush spoke directly to Coe during the 1990 National Prayer Breakfast speech to praise him for his “quiet diplomacy—I wouldn’t say secret diplomacy.” The show’s fourth episode, “Dictators, Murderers, and Thieves,” explains how Coe and his congressmen emissaries travelled around the world to pray privately with leaders, including men like Muammar Gaddafi, to build diplomatic back-channels.
How did Coe gain the trust of so many politicians, Democrat and Republican and Libyan dictator alike? He met with people one on one, looked into their eyes, and told them to believe in Jesus and nothing else. He called the doctrine “Jesus Plus Nothing,” and the strategy seems to have relied on Coe’s enormous charisma. Coe was never elected to any public office in his lifetime, instead building a network of religious allegiance that he always intended to function as a closed-room alternative to the democratic process.
In The Family’s eccentric theology, the world is run by “key men” who have been chosen by God to rule over the rest of us, in imitation of Jesus, who they believe to have been a muscular leader interested only in power. This equation of divine and political power runs counter to the American principle of the separation of church and state, and propounds an elitist, even totalitarian view of politics.
The Family shows several clips from a lecture given by Coe in 1989, in which he invites his audience to think about “Hitler, Goebbels, and Himmler.” The three men were so powerful because “they bound themselves together in an agreement.” Coe means this, however, as a compliment. “Jesus said, ‘You have to put me before other people. And you have to put me before yourself,” Coe says. The same was the case, he adds, with Hitler: “that was the demand to be in the Nazi party.” He goes on to marvel at China’s Red Guard, and its members’ willingness to execute their own mothers in the name of their cause. “That was a covenant. A pledge. That was what Jesus said.”
This, Coe figured, was exactly what America needed to retain its place at the top of the global food chain. To create a comparable “covenant” in America, Coe decided to strip away all aspects of Christian theology not having to do with Jesus himself, so that the ideas were basic enough for anybody to subscribe to. A simple idea can be more powerful than a man’s love for his mother, Coe observed, so why not make such an idea our own?
Coe has been dead for a couple of years, but his works live on. Sharlet and Moss demonstrate that The Family has lately cultivated an intimate relationship between the evangelical movement and Donald Trump, helping Christians accept him as the “imperfect vessel” for Jesus’s will.
Forgiveness, in a sense, is the heart of The Family’s “religion.” All sins can be forgotten, they argue, because Jesus loves any fallen man who loves Jesus back. And if a man has been chosen by God, then who are the people to contradict him? It’s a some-are-more-equal-than-others theory that suits the evangelical agenda: In Trump, they found a “key man,” in Vereide’s phrase, who could channel the muscular vision of Christ’s will favored by those who value Christianity’s ubiquity more than any other policy. Jesus isn’t the point—power is.
The problem with The Family is the sheer sprawl of the subject: There is so much information here, with such far-reaching and horrifying ramifications, that it is difficult for the viewer to leave clearheaded. The extent to which The Family influences Democrats as well as Republicans, for example, is uncertain—Hillary Clinton was a friend of Coe’s, but we don’t know much beyond that. (Like Jeffrey Epstein, Coe’s deleterious influence seems to have transcended party lines.) And while the documentary clearly seeks to accumulate sufficient evidence against Trump to seed doubt in his supporters’ minds, it never really comes together into a single, snappy argument.
Moss and Sharlet also struggle to define the ideological roots of the Vereide/Coe/Family mission. The easy answer, of course, is that it doesn’t exist: They cared about increasing their own power, and not much else. But that kind of nihilistic realpolitik is no match for the emotions such agents traffic in. Once you’ve won a person’s heart, it’s hard to appeal to the head.
The Family’s most valuable payoff is, in the end, the story of fascist rhetoric’s entry in fundamentalist conservative politics. Trump doesn’t sound like a dictator by accident, and The Family finally explains why, in detail: The president speaks that way because men like Douglas Coe idolized fascist rulers of the mid-twentieth century and spread their appeal. The “covenant” offered by Christian fundamentalism is popular because of, not in spite of, its similarity to Nazi brotherhood, and it was engineered on purpose to be its equivalent.
Though it’s doubtful that The Family will sway many conservative religious viewers—how can you prove that the show about a conspiracy isn’t a counter-conspiracy?—Coe’s admiration for Hitler cannot be forgotten once learned. Though the documentary’s larger argument is muddier and harder to verify, that speech from 1989 will haunt Coe’s spiritual descendants with a viciousness that will only grow as more of the public learns about his views. Meetings can be secret, and diplomacy can be covert, but videotape is forever.