Film review: The Family


NICK EICHER, HOST: Today is Friday, August 16th. Thank you for turning to WORLD Radio to help start your day. Good morning. I’m Nick Eicher.

MEGAN BASHAM, HOST: And I’m Megan Basham. Coming next on The World and Everything in It—as as I alluded to a moment ago—a new Netflix documentary about an influential group of Washington evangelicals.

EICHER: Longtime WORLD readers may remember the investigative story we published in our magazine back in 2009 about the Fellowship Foundation. We’ll put a link to the story in the transcript for those who want to refresh their memories. It’s a good story.

If you’re not familiar, the Fellowship is a quasi-Christian organization with muddy theology and a disdain for the established church. 

But it does wield a fair amount of influence in Washington. That new Netflix documentary explores the extent of the group’s influence and what it hopes to accomplish.

BASHAM: Yeah, the documentary is called, The Family. It could have been an insightful exploration of the poisoning effects of secrecy and political power on faith—even for organizations that begin with the best of intentions. Instead, it contributes to the indiscriminate, divisive age we live in. It turns common failings into Da Vinci Code-style conspiracies, suggesting evangelicalism itself is a threat to democracy.

The “family” in question is The Fellowship, a secretive, media-shy group that ministers to government leaders in Washington. The biggest downfall of the series is that with the exception of a few brief interludes it relies almost entirely on the testimony of one man. Author Jeff Sharlet. This would be problematic even if Sharlet hadn’t built his career by suggesting the philandering politicos of C-Street represent a wider Cosa Nostra of Christianity. Not that the show doesn’t provide adequate proof that The Fellowship is committed to flying under the radar. But with its over-reliance on dramatic reenactments, the series reads sinister motives into Fellowship behavior to such a degree it becomes laughable…

CLIP: Can you think of anyone who made a covenant with his friends? Hitler. Hitler made a covenant. The Mafia made a covenant. Look at the strength of their bonds. It’s a powerful thing. You see, with them, it’s honor. With us, it’s Jesus. Hitler, Stalin, Mao Tse-tung, Osama bin Laden. The Family possesses a weapon those leaders lacked. The “total Jesus” of a brotherhood in Christ. That’s what you get with a covenant. Jesus plus nothing.  

Anyone who grew up going to church in the ’80s and ’90s has heard common youth group phrases like “Jesus plus nothing.” Or witnessed young people talk of waiting on God for direction on career decisions. These phrases are not ominous evangelical code language for secret plots. And it’s hardly surprising that legislators interested in joining Bible studies might also voice support for traditional marriage or the sanctity of life.

CLIP: Imagine your wedding. You’re in love. You wanna be with the person you love. Now imagine a powerful international organization says, I wanna stop that guy from getting married. The fight they couldn’t win here maybe they can win there. And this has happened all over the world.

This is non-consensual diplomacy. They’re not transparent about their role in affairs of global power that affect the lives of millions.

Sharlet and the few other interviewees we see imply and sometimes outright state that The Fellowship seeks to establish a theocracy. Yet they all admit they’ve never heard anyone associated with the group espouse any specific legislation. This despite the fact that Sharlet lived with a group of young men in a Fellowship house in D.C. for several months. And he wrote two books about the group. 

CLIP: They weren’t happy experiences reporting these books. You know, to encounter a power that is much greater than you understood. Really maybe the darkest expression of religious life that I’ve encountered in 20 years of writing.

Does this mean that the Fellowship isn’t guilty of anything? Of course not. The most compelling parts of the series deal with financial abuses and the group’s shielding of Senators John Ensign and Mark Sanford after they committed adultery. 

CLIP: I believed that because I had solicited the help of the Coes and Tom that there was no way on Earth that this was going to just be ignored. We were supposed to be Promise Keepers. Good husbands. And this does not line up with that.  

But Netflix seems to know that politicians (or anyone for that matter) cheating on a spouse or engaging in shady money dealings isn’t enough to sell a viral series these days. So instead it hints at wrong doing beyond what the facts support. 

For example, the National Prayer Breakfast has been a bipartisan D.C. fixture for more than 65 years. But Sharlet paints it as a subversive front for influence peddling. 

CLIP: Using the National Prayer Breakfast it’s almost impossible to overstate the Family’s reach and access to governments all over the world. 

Frankly, it would be surprising if a significant portion of those who attend the breakfast weren’t angling to make political connections. We’re talking about Washington, after all. I’ve witnessed plenty of people in my own church trying to network for business reasons in the lobby on Sunday morning. I don’t think any of them are connected to deep-rooted theocratic shadow governments. As one friend pointed out to me, it’s not like they have a motive detector at the door.

This is all particularly frustrating because it’s clear the series had ample reason to explore more worthwhile territory, including the group’s willful Biblical illiteracy. Like when one Russian Christian featured in the series sets aside the totality of the New Testament to parrot the Fellowship ideal of courting the powerful because of a single verse in Acts. 

CLIP: Right now, we have people who are on a very high position in Parliament. If we would like to make changes to Russian society we should start with people on the top.

The filmmakers rightly look askance at positive-thinking, prosperity Christianity. And it’s hard to defend the idea that any believer should have a rock-solid certainty he is called to be a great leader of men. That’s a confidence even Moses, David, and Abraham didn’t have. But after excoriating The Fellowship for focusing on political power, the series commits the equal error of calling for today’s young evangelicals to prove their principles with political resistance. It misses that both the resistor and conspirator may sin if their foremost concern is with politics at all.


(Photo/Netflix)

WORLD Radio transcripts are created on a rush deadline. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of WORLD Radio programming is the audio record.

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