Why Netflix Decided to Spotlight a Little-Known Christian Sect — and How the Group Is Defending Itself

"Is it just 'Jesus plus nothing'?" the Netflix director asks of the group. "Or is there something else?

People/August 14, 2019

By Adam Carlson

It started, as many things do, with God.

It was early in the new millennium and Jeff Sharlet, as he recounts in the Netflix docuseries The Family, was a writer living in New York City and working on a book — “trying to understand all the different ideas of Jesus.” Soon after 9/11, Sharlet connected with a longtime friend whose family feared he had been sucked into the tide of a “cult,” moving across the country and leaving his future behind. They requested of Sharlet: See how he’s doing.

Sharlet learned from this friend about a little-known and apparently beguiling Christian sect — decentralized but devout — that supported “men who are chosen by God for leadership.” The men, according to Sharlet, described themselves as “followers of Jesus” instead of as Christians.

It was a group that Sharlet, in time, would join himself: an “undercover” experience that formed first the basis of a 2003 magazine article, then a 2008 book and its 2010 sequel and now a five-part Netflix docuseries, The Family, which premiered on Friday.

“They will accuse me of betraying their trust and, in a fundamental way, I did: They want to be a secret, invisible organization. I wrote two books about them. But this story is no longer just about my experience,” Sharlet says in the series (previewed above; a full response from the group is at the bottom of this article).

What The Family grapples with and tries to illuminate is the same fundamental question that has hinged on the group’s intense secrecy for years: What do its members really want, and are they presenting their truest face to the world?

The organization is ostensibly a kind of confederated network of Christian prayer groups dating back to the early 1900s that eschews traditional denominations and hierarchies in favor of trying to more closely follow Jesus’ teachings. It sponsors only one public activity: the annual National Prayer Breakfast, customarily attended by every president.

“I wish I could say more about it,” President Ronald Reagan said in 1985, according to The New York Times, “but it’s working precisely because it is private.”

The group has been known by multiple names, including The Fellowship, The Fellowship Foundation and International Foundation, and for decades it reportedly did not have any discernible footprint: no obvious spokesman, no website, no public office, no contact number. (A website now exists.)

Over the years The Fellowship has cultivated deep and wide-ranging ties with America’s leading politicians, businessmen and other world leaders, who attended the annual prayer breakfast or became regular attendees of various prayer groups around the world — places where they could speak candidly and seek support from other members, though critics cast the gatherings as a nefarious mixing of religion and government with sometimes unsavory dealings with despots.

Ed Meese, a former U.S. attorney general under President Reagan, told The New Yorker in 2010 that the Fellowship prayer group of which he was a part “has meant a great deal to me.”

“All of us have had family problems, personal problems. It’s a place where you can discuss these problems. You come together in the name of Jesus, so you have a natural kind of bond,” Meese said. “And the group dynamics are such that you have total confidence that nothing you are going to say is going to make you vulnerable through your colleagues, which is rare in Washington.”

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