We’ve all heard that famous line from the movie Fight Club: “The first rule of fight club is you do not talk about fight club.” The shadowy religious organization, with headquarters in Washington, D.C., known as “The Family” appears to adhere to the same mantra. Through recreations and interviews, Netflix brings to life a group that has largely had a behind-the-scenes role when it comes to politics.
While many have probably heard of the five-part Netflix series with the same name released this past summer, the series about the secretive Christian organization has taken on a new meaning in light of the recent allegations that could bring impeachment against President Donald Trump.
The series is based on the work of author Jeff Sharlet and his two books The Family: The Secret Fundamentalism at the Heart of American Power and C Street: The Fundamentalist Threat to American Democracy. In the series, he says the organization has been “hiding in plain sight for 80 years.” The books are based on his March 2003 feature that was published by Harper’s Magazine.
When speaking of the group back in the 1980s, former President Ronald Reagan said: “I wish I could say more about it, but it’s working because it is private.” The secret society, which is also often known as “The Fellowship,” has been a part of D.C.’s political culture for decades.
The series has received plenty of mainstream news coverage and attention on social media. It has been criticized by some, as this review in National Review notes, for its bias.
“Members of the Fellowship are given the opportunity to defend themselves in the show, saying Jesus loves and forgives everyone and adding that they spoke out against the Ugandan ‘death to gays’ bill,’” writer William Nardi noted. “Clearly, they have moral limits. But their defenses are juxtaposed with clips of leftist pastors’ condemning social conservatives as intolerant of LGBTQ rights, revealing the filmmakers’ own political bias.”
Here’s what you need to know about the Family.
Who was Doug Coe?
Born in Medford, Oregon, Doug Coe served as the group’s longtime associate director. In the 1980s, Time magazine even went so far as to name him one of the 25 “Most Influential Evangelicals in America” and the “stealth Billy Graham.”
By his own admission, Coe acknowledged his group of friends were unsavory. Like Jesus, Coe believed that one needed to sit down down with sinners. Some of these men include Nigerian dictator Sani Abacha, according to the documentary.
“Most of my friends are bad people,” he told the New Yorker magazine in 2010. “They all broke the Ten Commandments, as far as I can tell.”
Coe was able to keep much of his personal life private as well — but he was widely known for his ability to mentor and disciple many individuals and leaders throughout Washington’s political realm. Coe, who died in February 2017 at age 88, believed the bipartisan group should work in secret to best achieve its objectives.
What exactly does this group do?
The Family is made up of politicians from across the country. Foreign leaders have had access to the group as well. The Family is best known for an event that they put on in Washington each year known as the National Prayer Breakfast. There is no public list detailing the members who make up the group, which only fuels the mystery and conspiracy theories surrounding it.
The Family also has a few homes set up throughout the Washington D.C.-area. As the Netflix docu-series notes, “The Cedars” is a mansion in Arlington, Virginia, where most of the meetings take place. “Ivanwald” is another home owned by the group, where young men who intern with them live and work. Right down the street, there is a home called “Potomac Point,” where the group’s female interns reside.
The series also looks at a place called the “C Street Center,” a three-story brick townhouse Washington that the Fellowship also runs (although the group has denied they have any ties to it). The building was the former convent for nearby St. Peter’s Church.
Some of those high-profile members have included disgraced politicians such as former South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford and Sen. John Ensign. Both were caught having extramarital affairs. It was in 2009, after Sanford had been caught cheating, that he revealed he’d been part of “this group called C Street,” which helped shine a light on the organization.
Is this group as powerful as people say?
Considering that lawmakers and others with political influence have direct ties to The Family, this group may indeed hold more power than what we might think. Reagan, who spoke at the National Prayer Breakfast in January 1985, said at the time, “Members of the media know, but they have, with great understanding and dignity, generally kept it quiet. I’ve had my moments with the press, but I commend them this day, for the way they’ve worked to maintain the integrity of this movement.”
In a statement regarding the series, the group said: “Though the Netflix docudrama series mischaracterizes the work of the Fellowship and attempts to portray people of faith in a bad light, we are encouraged by how often viewers are introduced to, and challenged by, the person and principles of Jesus, which are at the core of our mission and message. Perhaps they will also better understand the integrity and transformational impact of this informal network to encourage everyone in a spirit of friendship and reconciliation to love God with all their heart, soul and mind, and to love their neighbor as themselves.”
There is obviously so much more that needs to be uncovered in regards to this organization. Nonetheless, it does seem that many past presidents (and the current one) have helped promote the group and give it credibility within Washington’s power circles. What this means for Trump’s future remains to be seen.
“If you can get past its smug disdain for conservative views, The Family offers a fair critique of Trump’s character and the Christians who stump for him,” Nardi said. “But its assertion that Christians such as Coe own the religious Right is tabloid fiction.”
Julia Roberts is a student at The King’s College in New York City.
Date published: 30/10/2019
Feature image: Doug Coe (left) with President Ronald Reagan and his wife Nancy. Photo courtesy of Netflix.
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