Prayer, Politics and Power: ‘The Family’ Reveals Our Insidious American Theocracy
From the Illuminati to the freemasons to QAnon, there’s no shortage of conspiracy theories trying to explain how power is accumulated and shared in Washington, D.C. But the wide-ranging network of politicians, world leaders, and men of faith that make up the Fellowship isn’t mere conspiracy theory: it’s 100 percent true. What’s more, some of its members are speaking on the record about it for the first time in the new five-part Netflix series The Family, directed by documentarian Jesse Moss.
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The Fellowship, also known as the Family, is a highly secretive group of evangelical Christian men who meet for Bible study and prayer meetings; it’s best known for serving as the organizer of the National Prayer Breakfast, an annual gathering of diplomats and world leaders in Washington, D.C. Founded in 1935 by a man named Abraham Veride, the Fellowship initially arose from Vereide trying to arrange a meeting of business owners to crush laborers’ attempts at organizing. Over the course of the past 75 years, it has evolved into what some have referred to as a secret theocracy, or an underground movement of prominent Christian men who exert their influence not just in the United States, but abroad as well.
Moss was inspired to pitch the series to Jigsaw Productions, the production company helmed by documentary filmmaker Alex Gibney, after reading The Family, a 2008 book on the Fellowship by author Jeff Sharlet. Moss says he “just about fell out of [his] chair” when he first learned about the Family’s influence: “I thought, here’s an organization that exists at the intersection of faith and politics, that occupies, unbeknownst to a lot of people, this significant portion of the public square,” he tells Rolling Stone.
Fellowship members operate under a veil of secrecy, which is by design; Fellowship head Douglas Coe, who died in 2017, believed that the group could best exert its influence that way. Its members include senators, diplomats, and religious leaders around the world: Sen. Chuck Grassley, Sen. Jim Inhofe, and Rep. Bart Stupak have been linked to the group, while Vice President Mike Pence and attorney general Jeff Sessions have also been referred to as “friends of the Family.” And it’s a testament to the persistence of the production team that a handful of Fellowship members, including former Congressman Zach Wamp, speak on the record for the first time about the organization in the series. Moss attributes their willingness to talk in part to the organization’s attempts to “adapt to the 21st century with a greater degree of transparency, though only time will tell if that’s true.” Sharlet, however, has a slightly different take: “They’re not opening the doors. They’re not becoming transparent. That simply hasn’t happened. But they do want to have their say.”
The primary way the Fellowship maintains influence, the series argues, is through the National Prayer Breakfast, which every president since Eisenhower has attended over the past 50 years. Though many consider the Prayer Breakfast something of a “banal event,” according to Moss, he says, “It’s really quite an impressive demonstration of influence and power.”
Most recently, the National Prayer Breakfast drew national scrutiny when Maria Butina, a Russian spy, was arrested in 2018 after having been found to have infiltrated conservative circles in the United States, in part by gaining access to the National Breakfast. (Butina pled guilty to conspiracy and was sentenced to 18 months in prison.) Butina’s arrest crystallized the true significance of the Prayer Breakfast as a hub of networking and deal-making, not to mention an exemplification of the secret power of the Fellowship: “She understood where you needed to go to find power and lobby power. And that’s what the prayer breakfast is, in part,” Moss explains.
In its efforts to consolidate its power, the Family has extended its tentacles overseas. One episode of The Family focuses in large part on a trip that Rep. Robert Aderholt, a right-wing politician tied to the group, made to Romania to campaign for anti-LGBTQ rights and advocate for Christian policy. Members of the Family have also aligned themselves with global leaders who had committed atrocities in their home countries, including Libyan dictator Moammar Gaddafi, who once prayed with Coe. “In the face of all these dictators, they don’t say anything at all,” says Sharlet. “They don’t ask any accountability.”
Sharlet has been reporting on the Family since 2003, when he published an article in Harper’s Bazaar about his time as an intern at Ivanwald, a Fellowship house in D.C. His work has been instrumental in lifting the veil of secrecy surrounding the organization, much to the chagrin of members of the Family: even though the group has ties to “all these dictators and war criminals, [I’m] the only person they’ve ever described as evil,” Sharlet says with a chuckle. The first episode of the Netflix series is based in large part on Sharlet’s personal experiences with the Family, featuring dramatic reenactments of his time at Ivanwald, interspersing shots of muscular young men playing football with somber shots of prayer circles.
The focus on the fellowship’s hypermasculine energy, combined with the stringent rules of the group (sex and dating are forbidden) and the Fellowship’s demonstrated anti-LGBTQ stance, creates a strong homoerotic undercurrent throughout the series that Sharlet says is fairly true to his experience. In fact, Moss says he actually toned down the sexual subtext of Sharlet’s description of Ivanwald, so it wouldn’t be too distracting in the context of the series. “There was a Norwegian politician while I was there who liked to walk around in tiny little zebra-striped underwear and his thing was walking around and jumping into guys’ laps and making homophobic jokes,” says Sharlet. “[There’s] a lot of that uneasy joking about masculinity and the potential for it and, at the same time, this desire for intimacy that becomes really challenging for people who have a theological and ideological opposition to that.”
Although it’s been more than 25 years since Sharlet began his reporting on the Family, the inner workings of the group arguably have more relevance than ever, with many members aligning with President Trump despite his decidedly non-evangelical values. Sharlet attributes the Family’s alignment in part to the fact that he has assembled the most fundamentalist Cabinet in history, but also to the group’s unique view of leadership: The Family believes that leaders govern by divine right, and that power is in itself evidence of God’s blessing. Now, “we have our very own strong leader and we have a movement that is willing to work with power,” Sharlet says.
The lack of transparency surrounding the Family’s inner workings, combined with an administration that is marked by “the accommodation of authoritarian leadership,” as Moss puts it, raises extremely timely questions about the intersection of faith and power, and their potential to undercut the very basis of our democracy. “When you see alliances across international borders between religious right organizations and these authoritarian relationships. … I think the consequences are enormous for all of us. It’s more than just the story of the Fellowship. It’s the story of our democracy.”