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A Critique of the Netflix Series, The Family

Among the many offerings on Netflix television these days there’s a documentary called “The Family.” It is a hatchet job on a good man, and a good organization that calls itself “The Fellowship.” This video series is marked by distortions and some outright lies.

The prime narrator in this Netflix series is an author named Jeff Sharlet. More than a decade ago, he wrote a book with the same title as the video series. It, like the video series, was intended to be an expose of what he considered to be a secret and subversive organization that is endeavoring to take over America and change the world according to the designs of Evangelicals. The focus of Sharlet’s attack is upon Doug Coe, the one-time leader of The Fellowship and a well-respected religious leader across religious lines. Coe, and his associates have been the sponsors and leaders of many projects and programs designed to promote the teachings of Jesus.

The Fellowship is especially known as the sponsors of the now famous National Prayer Breakfast. This annual gathering, held in early February, brings together a cross-section of American politicians, many prominent business leaders, various heads of state and government officials from around the world. Joining them is a notable religious leaders that include Christians, Jews, and Muslims. The National Prayers Breakfast and those associated with The Fellowship, as viewed through the lens of Jeff Sharlet, are viewed as part of some sinister plot by Evangelicals to promote their agenda to impose on the world their version of Christianity. That is not true!

As background, it should be noted that The National Prayer Breakfast was initiated by President Dwight D. Eisenhower at the suggestion of Billy Graham. It was Graham who proposed that it would be a good thing if our nation’s leaders came together once a year to ask for God’s guidance. Out of this annual National Prayer Breakfast has come the impetus for weekly prayer meetings for members of the Senate and for members of the House of Representatives. These meetings have been attended by prominent political leaders across party lines in order to provide encouragement and spiritual. At these gatherings, Democrats and Republicans become personally connected through their shared discussions, testimonies, confessions and prayers. Doug Coe, who led The Fellowship until his death a few years ago, put a hyper emphasis that these meetings, as has been the case with the National Prayer Breakfast, should not serve the purposes or promotion of any political party. Consequently, political leaders as diverse as Jesse Helms and Hillary Clinton had been regular participants at these prayer gatherings.

Out of this National Prayer Breakfast there have been spin offs with prayer breakfast meetings in various capitals of countries around the world, reaching from New Zealand to Japan to various African nations. There also have been mayor prayer breakfasts and governor’s prayer breakfasts in cities and state capitals across America. All of these gatherings have been designed to spread the teachings of Jesus. Muslims have little problem the teachings of Jesus, as they include many of His teachings in the Koran. Jewish leaders are willing to affirm Jesus as a rabbi, whose teachings affirm much of what is found in the Hebrew Bible. It must be emphasized that the Fellowship does not pressure people to become Christians.

Doug Coe has said that what The Fellowship tries to do is to encourage people to become followers of Jesus and to take His teachings seriously. Strange as it might seem, when it comes to taking the teachings of Jesus seriously, Christians themselves, often fail to do this. The radical things that Jesus told His disciples to do often prove too difficult to live out. For instance, to help the poor as sacrificially as Jesus prescribed, goes way beyond the tithing that is usually emphasized in Christian churches (See Mark 10:17-27). His teachings about mercy challenges the practice of capital punishment as it is supported by many Evangelical politicians; especially those in the “Bible Belt” states. And if Christians were to take seriously Jesus’ command to love their enemies and to overcome evil with good, it would make participation in war extremely questionable. It is no wonder that Gandhi once said, “Everybody know what Jesus taught – except for Christians.”

Critics might respond by saying that such radical teaching of Jesus must be interpreted and adjusted to the requisites of contemporary existential situations. One of the most prominent Evangelical leaders has said that the ethics of Jesus were meant only to be applied on the personal level rather than on the societal level, and certainly no to be applied to political policies. Doug Coe once told me, however, “It’s not for us to give our own interpretations to the teachings of Jesus but to just let the words of Jesus speak for themselves.”

Many Evangelicals have criticized Doug Coe for only emphasizing the teachings of Jesus, and that the effort of the Fellowship seem to be devoid of efforts to convert people to the Christian faith. It’s Jesus, not the Christian religion, that Doug Coe said that he wanted The Fellowship to promote. He took a great deal of heat from many Evangelicals following one National Prayer Breakfast because, after having a Jewish leader read a passage from the Hebrew Bible that paralleled the teachings of Jesus, and having a Christian read a passage of Jesus’ teaching from the New Testament, he had a Muslim leader read a passage containing the teachings of Jesus from the Koran. Doug Coe said that he affirmed the teachings of Jesus wherever he found them. That, however, just wasn’t good enough for some of his Evangelical critics.

What I found most disturbing among the various misrepresentation’s in the Netflix video series, now available on television sets around the world, was the false impression that Doug Coe and The Fellowship condoned, and perhaps even abetted, the persecution of gays and lesbians in certain African countries. The opposite is true. Sharlet, must have known that when the President of Uganda supported legislation that made persons who committed homosexual acts subject to the death penalty, and also ordered that those who knew of such persons and failed to report them to the authorities to be incarcerated, that Doug Coe acted swiftly and decisively. All of this happened on the eve of one of the National Prayer Breakfasts. Doug Coe immediately disinvited the leaders of the Uganda delegation and encouraged Hillary Clinton, who had been scheduled to be the primary speaker for that particular breakfast to condemn, in no uncertain terms, such treatment of gays and lesbians. Later that day, I was the speaker for the large evening banquet connected with the breakfast, and I expressed my support for Hillary Clinton’s message on this matter. Nothing about what Ambassador Clinton and I said about LGBTQ brothers and sisters at the National Prayer Breakfast, however, was even suggested in the Netflix programs. Instead, a contrary story was told. The credibility of the entire Netflix series should be called into question given this reality.

The Fellowship does not deserve a white wash job. It does have its flaws. For instance, many contend that there is too much secrecy surrounding the activities of The Fellowship. I believe that those in The Fellowship would defend themselves by saying that they want to keep a low profile because they recognize that Jesus taught in the Sermon on the Mount, that when we pray we ought not to do so “to be seen of men,” but to pray in secret (Matthew 6:5). It has only been over the last few years that television cameras and the press have been allowed to cover the National Prayer Breakfast. To some outsiders, however, the attempts by the members of The Fellowship to maintain a low profile appears secretive and generates suspicion.

It is obvious, furthermore, that promoting the Breakfasts and maintaining “the Cedars,” the apparent headquarters of The Fellowship, requires a great deal of money. Questions arise about the sources of that money and what the givers hope to achieve through their gifts. Actually, members of the Fellowship are themselves among the primary financial supporters for their work. Furthermore, people are entitled to be anonymous as supporters of the work of The Fellowship, but that anonymous giving has created some concerns among its critics.

Sadly, the character of The Fellowship as a non-partisan movement received a major set-back when Dr. Ben Carson, who is now the head of Housing and Urban Development in the Trump administration, was the speaker at the National Prayer Breakfast. With President Barak Obama siting at the side of the rostrum, Carson launched into a blistering attack on the Affordable Care Act, better known as Obamacare. Condemning this program that has provided health care for millions of Americans who previously had no medical coverage may have pleased the political conservatives in the audience, but it was viewed by some observers as a direct promotion of a Republican agenda and counter to the non-partisan claims of The Fellowship. That speech, by this world famous surgeon, launched Caron’s political career but, I believe, it dealt great harm to the reputation of The Fellowship as being non-partisan.

These are my own criticisms of the Netflix series but there are many who are familiar with the series who would agree with me. That old saying that, “sticks and stones can hurt my bones but names can never harm me!” is a lie. Sharlet’s book, The Family, published more than a decade ago did harm, and the Netflix series he helped produce carrying the same title, is doing even more harm. The Fellowship, and its many spin-off groups and activities, are so influential that what they do may deserve careful observation. What The Fellowship does not deserve is the hatchet job it received from Jeff Sharlet and the Netflix video series that he helped narrate.