The five-part, original Netflix documentary “The Family,” is about a secretive, international religious network that has profoundly influenced governments in the U.S. and around the world for many decades. The 250-minute event is a hair-raising story backed up by photos, internal documents, and first-hand experiences revealed in Jeff Sharlet’s books The Family: The Secret Fundamentalism at the Heart of American Power and C Street: The Fundamentalist Threat to American Democracy. We owe it to our (shaken) democracy to not avert our eyes from the documentary evidence that the film provides of the strength, resilience, and growth of the Christian Right that has long baffled many observers.
“When you look at the changing nature of the Christian Right,” Sharlet says to the camera, “the Family goes a long way to help explain how it endures. They are in it for the long term. They understand the struggle we are in is a marathon. It is not in a sprint for the evening news.”
We also learn that the Family seems to seek an almost 1950s vision of white, privileged American suburbia, and intends to export this model and vision around the world. But in practice, this comes in the form of what PRA has exposed as exporting the culture wars, and, as Sharlet emphasizes, “using the agents of empire to do it.” The Family’s role in fiercely anti-LGBTQ politics in Romania and Uganda are discussed in some detail.
And we learn that God is said to have what others might call a trickle-down theory of the blessings of building the Kingdom. If the elites can be reached, everything else will follow. While presenting a benign public face of a kind of noblesse oblige, their methods include aligning with some of the most horrific figures in modern history.
When I reviewed the book The Family: The Secret Fundamentalism at the Heart of American Power, on which the film is largely based, in The Public Eye in 2008, I wrote that Sharlet, “writes with insight, verve and, thankfully, none of the bogus punditry and bad sociology that often passes for informed discourse about the contemporary role of religion in public life. His refreshing narrative style is as engaging as his groundbreaking information.” Fortunately, I can say the same about the film, which like the book, opens with Jeff Sharlet’s recruitment.
The story begins when Sharlet is invited to join a Christian community in Virginia, (suburban Washington D.C., really), called Ivanwald. It turns out to be an entry level training facility for a network of what Sharlet calls “elite fundamentalists” that operates partly in the open, but mostly behind the scenes of power for much of the American Century —and into the present day.
Ivanwald turns out to be kind of a cultish, clean-living frat house where they are introduced to powerful men from all over the world. The house for young women is called “Potomac Point” and although it is only briefly discussed in the film, Sharlet says, “The whole [Family] organization is based on the idea of male headship. As Christ is to his Church, a man is to his family. And there are these levels of hierarchy that must be observed throughout. It was the most gender segregated world I had ever lived in.” While the men were being groomed for leadership, the women were being directed toward service, he said, “and relationships with men of the Fellowship.”
It is important not to lose sight of this in the story that follows. Because in the film we also learn that participation in the Family means the “erasure of the self” and that one must “annihilate individual conscience.” Democracy itself, Sharlet reports, is a form of rebelliousness against God.
The Family (it has gone by several names) was started by conservative Christian businessman Abraham Vereide in Seattle in 1935 to oppose labor unions and the New Deal. In the face of the rise of communism and fascism, he thought that democracy was dying. Since then, the Family has promoted authoritarians and authoritarianism in a quest for power sufficient to build the Kingdom of God. Sharlet tweeted, “Know The Family by its own words: “totalitarianism for Christ”; “worldwide spiritual offensive”; “Jesus plus nothing”; “Christian mafia.”
After WWII, the U.S. State Department commissioned Vereide to comb the prisons for high Nazi leaders who could be, as Sharlet reports, be “changed and used for the good work. Who would switch out the Fuhrer for the Father.” Among those Vereide found was one Gustav-Adolf Gedat, who went on to become a top Family leader in Germany, frequently traveled to the U.S., and even became a spiritual advisor to Members of Congress. “We go back in his record,” Sharlet said, “and he says God has ordered us to hunt down the Jews.”
Even as the film reveals many such shocking facts about the goals, activities and members of the Family, perspective and nuance is not lost. Sharlet says, for example, that Vereide “was not a fascist, but he was fascinated by Nazis, by how they built power – and he wanted to work with them. He would say, ‘what if we had that strength – the strength that Himmler with Goebbels, his brothers, bound them together. A small group of men got together in Bavaria and look what they did. What if we could do that for Jesus?’” But the Family does not just look to the Nazis for role models of strength, loyalty and discipline. They also say, if you want to understand Jesus, there are also such men as Lenin, Stalin, Mussolini, Mao, Pol Pot, and Osama bin Ladin.
The film gives Family spokespersons ample time to tell their stories. These include prominent Christian Right public relations executive Larry Ross, Cal Thomas (the one time spokesman for Jerry Falwell’s Moral Majority), former U.S. Representatives Zack Wamp (R-TN) and Mark Siljander (R-MI); Robert Destro (who was confirmed in 2019 as Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor), and Bob Hunter, who says he is a liberal. We can see some of them display a remarkable ability to turn a blind eye to the horrors committed by their “key men,” and thereby hide their own complicity from themselves.
One episode highlights Washington, DC sex scandals involving the C Street House (the subject of Sharlet’s second book on the Family) including how then-Senator and potential presidential candidate John Ensign (R-NV)’s extra marital affair and betrayal of his closest friend is covered-up by the Family, notably by then-Senator Tom Coburn (R-OK). Another C Street related scandal depicted involved former South Carolina Governor (and current U.S. Rep) Mark Sanford, who was forced to resign in the wake of a spectacular sex scandal. At this writing, Sanford is publicly considering challenging Donald Trump for the 2020 GOP presidential nomination.
Sharlet says, “Vereide constantly emphasizes the bigger the monster — the greater the work of God we’re doing. If you are a Nazi and I forgive you, God’s grace is flowing through me. Forgiving and forgetting. Not holding accountable. And this becomes the model for what would become their…slogan, ‘worldwide spiritual offensive’, recruiting key men into their veritable underground of God’s men all through government.”
Sharlet says that the Family “has always worked with bad men, bad people” such as those featured in the film including the late Libyan strongman Muammar Gaddafi and President Yoweri Museveni of Uganda, whose barbaric “kill the gays bill” and the complicity of the Family that Sharlet exposed, compelled them to disown it. Authoritarian strong men of many—and any— type are cultivated for alignment.
In a promotional interview about the film Sharlet told progressive radio host, Nicole Sandler, that the book “God’s Chaos Candidate,” which had made the case for Christian conservative support for Donald Trump, includes an anecdote about an unnamed man who was “almost certainly Doug Coe, the longtime leader of the Family.” Author Lance Wallnau asks the unnamed Coe, how do you deal with pols who are “imperfect vessels”? It turns out that God is not as interested in the sheep as he is the wolves. You seek out, Sharlet explains, “not just the wolves, but the leader of the pack. The guy who Coe calls the wolf king.” You offer to add Jesus to their power. You make a deal. Sharlet describes the deal evangelicals made with Trump as leading to the biggest evangelical electoral turnout in history and the subsequent transformation of the government and government policy in favor of the Christian Right and its agenda.
“They are not thinking that Trump is going to get religion and become sweet and mild,” Sharlet explains in the film. “Just the opposite. The reason we [the Family] work with Trump is because he is not a sheep. He is the wolf king.”
The film delves into this in recounting a controversial episode at the 2017 National Prayer Breakfast (organized by the Family and where every president since Eisenhower, including Trump, has spoken). Dozens of high-level Russian officials had been recruited (by a now convicted Russian agent, Maria Butina) to attend. Sharlet explained the Family view: “By their own acknowledgement, they are witting accomplices. They said, we can take these people — maybe they’re cynical; maybe they are using this to try to corrupt American politics — but we’re just going to love on them, and eventually some good will come of it.”
“This is either the most naïve theology ever created or the most cynical one,” Sharlet observes. “The transcendence of the Family is that it somehow manages to be both at the same time.”
As good as Netflix’ “The Family” is in giving visual life to Sharlet’s books, and adding fresh reporting, there is also missing context. For example, as interesting and important as the Lance Wallnau story is, the film does not explain that he is a leading proponent of Seven Mountains Dominionism, an important animating ideology of the contemporary Christian Right. Wallnau was a featured speaker at the 2018 Values Voter Summit, in Washington, DC — the annual premier political conference of the Christian Right.
No one book or film can cover everything, so this is not meant as a criticism so much as an observation about how readers and viewers should view this, and really any such investigation. Writers and producers know that the more we focus, the more we leave out. And the more we generalize, we often omit or obscure important details. There are no perfect answers to this. The challenge we all have then, is to rely on, and learn from multiple sources as if our lives and those of millions of others, depend on it.