Netflix’s five-part docuseries, The Family, is about a secretive Christian group called the Family or the Fellowship Foundation which, it claims, is one of the most powerful in the world. The Fellowship has created and destroyed global leaders. It wields enormous power in the Pentagon. It has influenced the decisions of presidents, senators and Congressmen.
The organisation was started by a Norwegian-born minister called Abraham Vereide in 1935, but it became a global movement under the leadership of the American evangelical Doug Coe, who has been referred to as the ‘stealth Billy Graham’, a man who liked to keep a low profile and did his best to stay out of the limelight. Coe, who died two years ago, is largely responsible for shrouding the organisation in secrecy. “The more invisible your organisation is, the more influence it has,” he is quoted as saying.
The Family is told through a series of archival material, television footage and testimonies by both critics and associates of the Fellowship. One of the key voices in the docuseries is that of executive producer Jeff Sharlet, who has investigated the group extensively and written two books on it. In fact, in his 20s, he lived as a member of the Fellowship in what resembled a fraternity house called Ivanwald in Arlington, Virginia, a sort of grooming place for its future leaders. He describes living with the other ‘brothers’, singing Christian songs, strumming the guitar, playing ball and discussing Jesus. Jesus is, in fact, the core philosophy, the unifying factor and the central figure of the group. Its motto is ‘Jesus plus nothing’. According to Sharlet, the youth at Ivanwald did not have any extensive knowledge of the Bible. In fact, their manifesto was a small book called Jesus, which consisted of the four gospels and the book of Acts, a version of the abbreviated Christianity they peddled. As a critic of the Fellowship said: Jesus seemed to be a “talisman” used by the group to achieve its goals.
The problem I had with The Family was that it never spelt out clearly what those goals were. What is this shadowy organisation after? Yes, they want to spread a passion for Jesus. But are there ulterior motives? The series is quick to describe the group as a secretive and invisible one, but it seems to have gotten hold of all its records. Director Jesse Moss was given access to the biggest extravaganza organised by the group—the Annual Prayer Breakfast—which has been attended by successive American presidents, from Bill Clinton and Ronald Reagan to George Bush and Donald Trump. If this is a group that is hiding, it is clearly hiding in plain sight.
I found The Family interesting because I was not aware of the existence of such a powerful organisation with “hundreds of Fellowship groups” that exist in the US and around the world. Today, there are Prayer Breakfasts held in several countries. The Fellowship’s influence is indisputable. But it is difficult to say whether the group is spreading propaganda or peace, and Moss does not do much to enlighten us. In the end, I was left with more questions than answers.
Available on Netflix