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Netflix series based on Dartmouth professor’s work exposes a secretive group

  • Dartmouth College professor Jeff Sharlet appears in a scene from "The Family." Sharlet narrates much of the five-part series, which is based on his reporting. (Courtesy of Netflix)

  • Doug Coe, left, longtime leader of the secretive Christan group The Family, meets with then-President George H.W. Bush, along with the Rev. Billy Graham, second from left. A Netflix documentary about The Family, based on books by Dartmouth College professor Jeff Sharlet, is available for viewing now. (Courtesy of Netflix)

  • Jimmy Carter, second from right, and Doug Coe, leader of The Family, right, appear in an image included in the Netflix documentary "The Family." (Courtesy of Netflix)



Valley News Staff Writer
Thursday, August 15, 2019

In the realm of American narrative entertainment, only one genre is currently experiencing a Golden Age. Television critics can’t stop gushing about how great everything is, with major acting, writing and directing talents climbing over each other to make ever more exceptional series.

Even Jeff Sharlet, author of six books, some of them bestsellers, sees the small screen as a way to bring his work to the widest possible audience. The Family, a new five-part series on Netflix, takes material from two of Sharlet’s books and expands on it.

“It’s not going to have the audience of Stranger Things,” said Sharlet, who teaches creative writing at Dartmouth College. But for people who don’t read books, the series “puts those people in the conversation.”

The series, which became available for viewing last Friday, is based on the materials Sharlet amassed and wrote about in his 2009 book The Family: The Secret Fundamentalism at the Heart of American Power and a 2010 follow up, C Street: The Fundamentalist Threat to American Democracy. The books exposed an organization called The Family, which has quietly maintained a grip on power in Washington, and around the world, without drawing much attention to itself.

The Family believes, according to Sharlet’s reporting, that it exists to serve both Jesus and leaders who follow the vision of Jesus that they study. In their view, Jesus and those close to him were interested in wielding power and creating an order based on worship and values. It has followed this mission in almost total secrecy since the Eisenhower Administration.

“The more you can make your organization invisible, the more influence it will have,” the series quotes The Family’s longtime leader, the late Doug Coe, saying.

When the books came out, it was early in the Obama years and there was less attention on fundamentalist Christianity and its place in the halls of power than there had been during the presidency of George W. Bush, a born-again Christian. Potential readers might have had the misconception that “not only is the Christan right dead, the whole right is dead,” Sharlet said in a recent interview.

The 2016 turnover of the White House brought The Family back into focus. “It’s not hyperbole in any way to say that the Trump Administration is the most fundamentalist administration in American history,” Sharlet said.

The Family’s focus on power helps explain how a serial adulterer who ran his Atlantic City casinos into the ground can be a darling of the religious right. The shadowy group believes that certain men are chosen by God to lead and that those men need not be perfect to be effective. The Family, also sometimes known as The Fellowship, exists to serve and support these men.

“God always uses imperfect vessels to do his perfect work,” former U.S. Rep. Zach Wamp, R- Tenn., says in The Family.

Wamp was among the members of Congress who lived at a townhouse on Washington’s C Street, a home owned by The Family. Director Jesse Moss was able to get former residents of the C Street house to sit for interviews. As the series notes, the house’s “current occupants are unknown.”

Sharlet knows The Family first hand. In 2002, a friend invited him to visit Ivanwald, a home in Arlington, Va., for young men who want to devote their lives to Jesus. It’s operated by The Family, and the home’s residents learn from and serve the fellowship’s members. The series dramatizes Sharlet’s time there, mixing scenes at Ivanwald and The Cedars, a lavish home owned by The Family, with interviews with Sharlet and other figures who either are part of The Family or have investigated it.

While the series is based on his books, Sharlet said it stands alone as its own piece of storytelling.

“I think the film is a tremendous piece of work,” he said, crediting Moss and documentary filmmaker Alex Gibney, who like Sharlet was an executive producer on the project. “It moved in a way that I think the book couldn’t.”

One thing the film does is bring the events of the books up to the present. The Family is best known for organizing the National Prayer Breakfast, which brings together powerful people from both political parties. Presidents, members of Congress, Supreme Court justices, diplomats and foreign leaders listen to speakers and often talk about their faith.

It’s also a magnet for people who want access to power, which is what brought Maria Butina, a leader of a Russian gun-rights group, to the breakfast, Sharlet said. Butina, who had ties to Russian oligarchs and the Russian intelligence community, later pleaded guilty to conspiracy for acting as an unregistered foreign agent. She was sentenced in April to 18 months in federal prison.

The breakfast is “transparently used by oligarchs to influence American policy,” Sharlet said.

Scrolling over the series on the Netflix homepage brings up three descriptors: “Halls of Power,” “Limited Series” and “Conspiracy Theory.”

But Sharlet notes that The Family is not a conspiracy so much as it is a social movement. He was not the first person to report about it, he said, noting that newspaper accounts date back to the 1960s.

Still, The Family has managed to remain out of the limelight and advance its aims, which include the traditional social conservative goals of restricting access to abortion, rolling back civil rights for lesbian, gay and transgender people and sharply curbing immigration.

“We’re already at the point where things are worse than I could have imagined back in 2010,” Sharlet said. In his books, he made a point of downplaying the idea that, although Coe often referred admiringly to the loyalty that Hitler and Stalin inspired, The Family was not a fascist organization. “Let’s not get hysterical,” he said of his attitude at the time.

“I was wrong,” he said.

Alex Hanson can be reached at ahanson@vnews.com or 603-727-3207.