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Netflix's 'The Family' Unmasks the Political Power of Christian Fundamentalists

We spoke with director Jesse Moss and author Jeff Sharlet about the "transactional relationship" between the Christian right and the government.

by Joseph Bien-Kahn
Aug 9 2019, 7:36pm

More than fifteen years ago, journalist Jeff Sharlet joined his friend at a remote compound called Ivanwald, in Arlington, Virginia. Ivanwald was a communal home to up-and-coming members of the Fellowship, an upstart Christian Right organization, that was born in opposition to the mid-1930s organized labor movement. Sharlet, at the time working on a book-length survey of off-the-beaten-path faith in America, had stumbled into a secretive and powerful fundamentalist Christian world.

He followed a 2003 Harper's exposé "Jesus Plus Nothing" with two books, The Family and C Street, which detailed the ways the Fellowship had become a D.C. power player that worked to muddy the separation of church and state both in America and abroad.

In The Family, a five-part docu-series for Netflix, director Jesse Moss uses Sharlet's books and some original reporting to detail the history and influence of the Fellowship, which is also known as the Family. Moss uses dramatizations of a young Sharlet at Ivanwald, talking-head interviews with Family members and critics, and a treasure trove of archival footage and documents to trace the powerful organization's history.

In this moment when trust in the government is at historical lows and Washington corruption is America's biggest shared fear, it's no surprise that there's a desire to better understand the secret forces controlling the capital. That hunger has manifested itself in some creative forms: Trump as Manchurian Candidate, or as victim of a Deep-State witch-hunt, or as pedophilia-busting crime fighter. These last few years have felt like a perpetual state of chaos; conspiracy theories pop up left and right as people try to bring order to the unintelligible. Which made Sharlet and Moss's project both attractive and difficult. How do you document a true story that feels ripped from fever dreams?

We asked Moss and Sharlet how they approached telling a true story that happens to exist in the nomenclature of conspiracy theories.

VICE: I remember reading The Family and having that eyes open, galaxy brain feeling about Washington, D.C. and the effect of fundamentalist Christianity on government policy. I'm actively dubious of conspiracy thinking so I felt foolish, but then the series brought up that similar feeling. Were there moments in the reporting where you both felt like you'd stepped into a 70s paranoid thriller?

Jesse Moss: I use the analogy of film noir in that we have a protagonist, Jeff Sharlet, falling into this world and it slowly revealing itself to him in all of its utter strangeness and terror. So, I did kind of find myself going through the looking glass and feeling like there's a whole world here that I had never seen before or understood. And this is not a conspiracy. This is a real organization. It's one reason I found the archives, the files, the documents, so fascinating: they codify the strategy, this way of thinking.

Jeff Sharlet: The most basic thing to say is this is not a conspiracy, because conspiracy theories are about law-breaking. The Family does not break laws; these are the people who are making laws. And this is the noirish element: it's not, "What is it that they're trying to do?" It's more: "What they have done?" It's more: "How have they shaped the world we live in?"

You go back in history and you ask, "Why is the United States the lone developed nation without a seriously viable organized labor movement?" You can't answer that question fully without going back to the early days of the Fellowship and looking at the intertwining of corporate power and this kind of politicized religion. That's the thing. You don't have to connect the dots. They have six hundred boxes of documents, millions of pages, the story is all there. The story is all there. They tell you what they've done.

One of the episodes shows the way that a Family-affiliated congressman helps push for anti-LGBTQ legislation in Romania. After reading the book and watching the series, it's not a stretch to call the Fellowship a shadowy, Washington D.C.-based organization that uses influence and a moral doctrine to enact policy around the world. Obviously, that language feels ripped straight from the lexicon of conspiracy theory.

Sharlet: Yeah, but it's their own language for themselves. That's the amazing thing about it. You have the late Christian Right leader Chuck Colson, who's a Watergate felon who [...] described it as "a veritable underground of Christ's men all through government." That's their language! The Family at times referred to Doug Coe as "the stealth Billy Graham." That's their language! Doug Coe as "the stealth persuader." Their language! They call themselves the Christian mafia. Their language!

That's what's important about the series: we don't have to go the extra mile to sort of wink, wink. We can present you what these people are doing and how they understand themselves, and that in itself is damning.

With Russia-gate, with Jeffrey Epstein, and with so many other recent stories, it feels like there's a pressing need to find a way to write journalistically on stories that live within the space of conspiracy. As you worked on the film, was there a revelatory moment of how best to tell a story that exists in the conspiratorial-thinking arena?

Moss: Well, I knew right away when I read The Family. The book opens with his account of joining Ivanwald, of going inside this group. And that's how we're led into this story. We're confused, we're provoked. But it's also very human, very ground-level. And as a storyteller, I could really connect with that—that Jeff was having this experience and meeting these guys. I wanted the audience to have that experience as well and the best way to achieve that in this series was to dramatize Jeff's account. He wrote so vividly, so beautifully about that experience, and on such human terms. I thought, "Here are the building blocks for us to do it in a way to represent that." That was the vision I presented Netflix and they went for it.

I think we all recognized that the days of the stylebook, of the rigid straitjacket of a certain orthodoxy to storytelling, is over. We're moving beyond that. And I think the renaissance of non-fiction allows us to use these different tools. Audiences are very sophisticated too, and we're not trying to represent the drama as documentary—it's not shot in a fake documentary way. Instead, it's another way of bringing the audience inside the story and representing a dimension to it. And that is a subjective dimension, but it's an important and truthful part of the story.

Sharlet: I think what Jesse's saying about the renaissance of non-fiction is especially interesting to me as a writer and a journalist. When I handed my book into my publisher, it was not what they thought they were going to get. They thought they were going to get a kind of rock 'em sock 'em hit the Republicans, and here's this weird book: we've got history, we've got current events, we go to Ivanwald. There are Republicans involved, there are Democrats involved. The politics are complicated.

It's good that this renaissance of non-fiction is happening now in the age of Trump, because if we're gonna tell true stories in this moment when all sorts of establishments are collapsing, we're going to have to find the language to represent a lot more perspectives. And that's what's happening in this series. The documentary series is a pretty important innovation, and this story wouldn't have been possible without it. Because, as Jesse said, it is a noir. Your first encounter is with the banal, and then only when you linger do you start to see the depth and complications and, yes, in some places, the terrors of what's really happening.

It feels like, as an audience, we've been trained by All the President's Men and other thrillers. If Trump had been secretly recorded saying this stuff rather than tweeting it out into the world, we would have been more scandalized. Instead, what was once beyond the pale quickly becomes the new normal. In a way, do you think the Family's shroud of secrecy will help the series connect with an audience? Or has the bar for scandal been raised so high that it won't be able to land?

Sharlet: You can't come to it with a fictional expectation. Having been around this story for years I know I've encountered people saying, "Aha! I'm so glad to know about this book because these are the secret puppetmasters!" And I'm like, "No, they're not the puppetmasters of Washington. And no, they're not the only power base." Some people come along and say, 'What about AIPAC? What about the NRA?' And I'm like, "Yeah, those are powerful organizations as well." While looking at the culture of power in politics, we try to understand who all the players are and how they interact with one another. Often times, people go looking for conspiracies when they don't need to.

With the Fellowship, we were like, "Let's not look at what they want to do. Let's look at what they've done." And you can do that right up to the present with Maria Butina. We don't have to imagine secret Russian agents. We can stick to the known facts about this person and her use of this organization to gain influence. That's enough of a story.

If you're hoping that The Family is gonna give you the story that Trump goes into a dark room and someone gives him secret orders, then you're gonna be terribly disappointed. But if you want to understand something about the transactional relationship between the Christian Right and Trump-style government, you're gonna learn a lot. And you're gonna come with the information you need and the story you need and the questions you need to start asking to start addressing those issues. But I think that's absolutely right about the expectations: let's stop looking for fantasies and start looking for wins. Politics is a culture and a power that builds and moves over time.

I just have one more question. Throughout the book and the series, you demonstrate the Fellowship's powerful position in Washington. Are you concerned they'll have an aggressive response to the series?

Moss: Not at all. I look forward to a dialogue with them about the series. Obviously, I've been in dialogue with them in the process of making it to secure their interviews. I would love to have a conversation publicly with them about the series and about their work and about some of the things that we report on in the series. I think the more public the conversation, the better the response. I'm looking forward to it. There may be none. They may choose not to engage; as you know, they have that policy of non-engagement. We'll see.

Sharlet: I've published two books and they've had plenty of opportunity to say, "Okay, this is wrong, this is wrong, and this is wrong." And their answer—and I've spoken to them—has never been, "This is wrong." It's always been, "You shouldn't be talking about it." I mean, that's literally what they say. So, look, if there's other facts, bring them to light. Respond to transparency with more transparency. Otherwise, you're spinning fantasies.

The Family premieres on Netflix Friday, August 9.