As Netflix Originals’ The Family tells it, the National Prayer Breakfast held annually in Washington, DC, is the brainchild of a decades-old organisation called The Family, which is really a cabal bent on destroying the constitutional separation of Church and state. And, declares Jeff Sharlet, author of the book from which the documentary series takes its name, it is dangerously Christian and conservative, with tentacles stretching all over the world.
And shouldn’t Sharlet know? He was drawn into a young men’s group that kept the grounds where The Family was unofficially run, a mansion called The Cedars, near DC. There the mysterious Doug Coe, The Family’s self-effacing head, spread the nefarious doctrine of preaching Jesus and bringing leaders of all political stripes together in love.
Sharlet’s experience, dramatised in the series, comes across more as frat house than cult. Once he’s had enough, Sharlet leaves, as does at least one other member, and in spite of all the suggestions of an Illuminati or the Black Hand, he departs with no death threats, no reprisals, no nothing.
Footage of Prayer Breakfasts shows president after president in attendance, heads bowed: Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson, Nixon, Carter (who in an interview praises Coe), Reagan, Bush I, Clinton, and Bush II. Obama, the man whom Oprah dubbed “the One” and a Newsweek editor described as “standing above the country … above the world … sort of God”, appears briefly in a still photo, eyes closed in prayer, and that’s all, even though he attended every Prayer Breakfast during his presidency. Netflix was apparently not interested. They have their god too.
Trump is another matter. Viewers see him not only praying and speaking but also receiving the laying on of hands (maybe at the Breakfast, maybe not), and gracing the front of tabloids for his sexual transgressions. And, oh yes, The Family recruited Russians to preach the Gospel in their country. Get it?
In a taped sermon used repeatedly in the documentary, Coe says Christians could learn the lessons of unity from Hitler, Stalin and Mao. It was not a wise comparison, but his meaning was clear: if the wicked had singleness of purpose, so can Christians. Guess what? In The Family, when one of Coe’s associates is interviewed, the film cuts to footage of Hitler and Mussolini, a tactic both heavy-handed and tendentious.
If The Family is really what Sharlet claims, the group’s successes have largely failed. Despite their “secret”, “worldwide” connections, Christians are being persecuted in greater and greater numbers in the Middle East, Africa and China, and policy hardly appears Gospel-oriented. Could it be that The Family is just leftist propaganda run amok? Could be.
Dr Carl C Curtis III is a professor of English at Liberty University in Lynchburg, Virginia