taking the words of Jesus seriously

In the five episodes of the Netflix documentary mini-series, The Family, based on a book of the same title by investigative reporter Jeff Sharlet, we learn a lot about a little-known evangelical Christian ministry to movers and shakers in Washington, D.C., as well as capital cities around the world. Officially called The Fellowship Foundation, the shorter nickname for the group is of its own choosing. As part of its assiduous pursuit of anonymity and invisibility, when its adherents are asked about their affiliation, they coyly answer, “We’re a family.” They may also say, “We’re just friends of Jesus.”

Of course, there’s nothing wrong with shorthand references to affinity groups, religious or otherwise. After all, the Quaker church is known as “Friends,” members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Days Saints are called “Mormons,” and an agent of a clandestine government intelligence service will tell you he or she is just a “government worker.” It’s in the last analogy, though, where, to quote hackneyed Hamlet, “there’s the rub.” The Family is obsessed with secrecy.

The Family is known to me, though. I literally sat at the feet of its venerable polyhistoric sage master, Doug Coe, whose simple invocation had a kind of Christian magic to it. In certain places, if you could drop a “Doug Coe” with credible familiarity, you were guaranteed to get undivided attention and even a little awe from your listeners. Washington’s “invisible man” was the evangelical Wizard of Oz, sometimes actually hidden behind a curtain during a public event. Everyone knew Doug believed in secrecy; it was a doctrinal matter for him and for the rest of The Family.

Notwithstanding Coe’s inordinate stealthiness, I found “Doug,” as I would come to know him, to be a generally kind, interesting, sincere, and serious Christian layman. He did have an annoying distain for clergy and organized religion, often speaking in passively aggressive and pejorative terms about both. Workers under his charge were not allowed to use titles of any kind. Calling cards had only names and telephone numbers on them. There was no corporate seal, logo, or even moniker on stationary or anything else. The organization’s headquarters, a sprawling campus with the antebellum mansion you’ll see often in the Netflix series was only known as, “The Cedars.” It’s impressive Capitol Hill outpost was just, “C Street House.” Early on, I thought this spy-like behavior was both unnecessary and quirky. I eventually wrote it off as a projection of Doug’s own anxieties about public exposure — maybe even a type of agoraphobia. Doug has passed on to his eternal reward, but I still believe his code of silence never did serve The Fellowship Foundation well, and still doesn’t. I hope with time that changes.

All this is to say that Jeff Sharlet’s focus on this idiosyncratic element of The Family’s character is warranted because it affects both the perception of the group’s motives and the nature of its mission and operations. Secrecy breeds suspicion, and Sharlet and the Netflix producers foster plenty of it. To them, The Family is a nefarious, dangerous, even terrifying network of secretive fanatics seeking to subvert democracy wherever it may be found and replace it with theocracies often tied to supremely corrupt strongmen. This is where I think Sharlet goes over the top.

In many ways, The Family is only reaping what it has sown for 50-plus years — ever since Coe took over superintendency from founder Abraham Vereide, who didn’t mind at all if you noticed how he managed to assemble wealthy influencers for prayer breakfasts, first in Seattle, then across the country, and finally in Washington, D.C. That effort would become the annual National Prayer Breakfast, attended by every sitting president since Dwight Eisenhower in the 1950s. After Vereide’s death and Coe’s ascension to the top leadership chair, you would never see its principal organizer on the dais, at the podium, or even in the room. You might hear a president give a verbal nod, “To Doug Coe and all those who make this event possible,” to which any but the knowing would think, “Who’s he?”

Again, this shift from Vereide’s near public flamboyance to Coe’s introversion only cast a shadow across the intentions of this very powerful Christian cosa nostra. And that was too bad. Over my 25 years coming and going from The Cedars and C Street House, presiding at one of the back rooms of the National Prayer Breakfast and, again, literally sitting on the floor, gazing up at Doug Coe and glancing down at his signature stocking feet, while he held forth in fascinating theological riffs, I never felt he or the network he commanded posed any type of threat to anyone. In fact, I knew a lot of Family members who were engaged in extraordinary acts of kindness, from tutoring at-risk kids in center cities, dispatching humanitarian aid following natural and man-made disasters, visiting prisoners and psychiatric hospital patients, and, of course, offering spiritual and emotional succor to those imprisoned by their own lonely lives at the top of industry, civic affairs, and, yes, government.

One thing I always admired about Doug and company was the diversity of political opinion present among both those who were targets of ministry, and those delivering that ministry. In my own Capitol Hill halcyon days at C Street House, I was just as likely to bump into Newt Gingrich there as I was to bump into Hillary Clinton. One thing you could not say about The Family in those days was that it was partisan. Family members were Democrats, Republicans, and Independents. International visitors might have been socialists, autocrats, theocrats, or ardent secularists; they were Christians, Jews, Muslims, and atheistic communists.

But, to employ an oxymoronic phrase, there was a more complicated secrecy to Doug Coe and The Family than was obvious. It wasn’t long before I learned that to be invited inside The Family, one had to exhibit two qualities: The most important was an almost sycophantic loyalty to the undefined cabal that ran the show and, second to it, achievement of a significant sphere of influence by way of your profession, position, or, yup, title. The Family was built on a social network of elitists — quite the opposite of Jesus’ model of gathering uneducated and impoverished fishermen, prostitutes, and despised tax-collectors. Down-and-outers were okay, so long as they were either projects of benevolence, or yup, they had a title, like, “disgraced congressman.”

After spending a full day with Jeff Sharlet when he was writing his book, I think it was these lesser qualities about The Family that left him with a feeling of betrayal. He had lived at The Cedars as an intern, and, in his own telling of the story, was enamored of the place and the “influyentes” that assembled there. The star-struck young people attracted to centers of prestige and privilege had their own significant hang-ups and poor Jeff, like a bespectacled nerd in a locker room, got the brunt of their, let’s say, non-Christian attitudes and behavior. It was, no doubt, socially, politically, and religiously rough for a guy raised by a Pentecostal mother and a non-observant Jewish father. I know that agony because it basically described my parents’ profile. Jeff was formed as both a believer and a skeptic, subservient and resistant, intellectual and superstitious. Not an easy place for anyone.

After watching The Family (in which I pop up in cameo during episode 4), I became even more convinced that Coe’s secrecy doctrine has been disastrous for The Fellowship Foundation. After all, Jesus said, “’I have spoken openly to the world,’ . . . ‘I always taught in synagogues or at the temple, where all the Jews come together. I said nothing in secret.’” (John 18:20 NIV) And when you are engaging powerful people who can pull lots of strings, especially the coercive type connected to government, you must be especially transparent and utterly accountable. That’s what’s behind so-called “sunshine laws.” We’ve learned the bitter lessons of public officials hiding from view. It gets even worse when they hide behind religious screens. I, for one, think there would be a very different disposition toward The Fellowship Foundation and its members if they were totally above-board about who they are and what they’re up to.

As for Sharlet, who is the executive producer and narrator of the Netflix mini-series, I hope this isn’t simply his revenge for the one admittedly very disturbing scene when his fellow interns at C Street drive his face into the ground during a pile-on lawn game. I have no doubt it happened as portrayed by the cast, and was motivated by anything but love of neighbor. Still, if this is, as I suspect, a case of, “You drove my face into the dirt–well, wait till Netflix and I drive yours into mud,” it loses some of its moral authority — to say the least.

There are bad actors in The Family, and you’ll see some of them in the series. But many were not nearly as bad as you might assume. Like all of us, there’s a little good, a little bad, and a little awful in The Family’s members and operations. What it needs is a good scrubbing with a healthy application of sunshine. With Jesus-like transparency, The Fellowship Foundation could go from nefarious-leaning to salutary in pretty short order.

Oh, do watch The Family. It’s really worth your time and attention to the many questions it leaves in its wake. You watching it could be the first redemptive step in The Family’s rehabilitation.

About The Author


Rev. Rob Schenck is a former missionary to top government officials in Washington, D.C., and currently president of The Dietrich Bonhoeffer Institute. He tells stories about The Family in his memoir, "Costly Grace: An Evangelical Minister’s Rediscovery of Faith, Hope and Love" (HarperCollins).

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