U.S.

Netflix’s Docuseries The Family Doesn’t Expose Much

Doug Coe (left) with Ronald and Nancy Reagan in The Family (Netflix)
If you can get past its smugness, the show’s critique of Trump has merit. Its critique of the religious Right? Not so much.

Lately the president’s own supporters have been advising him to stop talking about loyalty, and who he thinks is loyal or disloyal to him. It’s bad optics, they say, especially when the Evangelical Christians who make up such a key part of his base believe in loyalty to the person of Jesus over loyalty to fallen men. Their argument would suggest there’s a line of personal character Trump can’t cross without losing Evangelical support. But for some Christians, loyalty to God means securing conservative political power above all else.

Netflix’s new five-part docuseries, The Family, asserts that it’s these Christians who dominate the religious Right, belonging to an underground group that’s largely responsible for getting Trump elected. IndieWire, New York magazine, and The Atlantic have all given the show favorable reviews, but that’s because it is made for left-leaning audiences who would like to believe religious conservatives are universally enthusiastic about the president. In truth, many Christians on the right are critical of Trump’s character, and excluding their voices to frame all people who support conservative policy as Machiavellian is incredibly dishonest.

Based on the book of the same title by Jeff Sharlet, the series is centered around a prominent behind-the-scenes player in the religious Right named Doug Coe, an ordained Presbyterian elder and lay minister who died in 2017. The stated goal of Coe’s organization, referred to as either “The Fellowship” or “The Family,” is to “make leaders Christians and to make Christians leaders.” Records from the group show that Coe wanted to ally Jesus’s flock with “wolf king” personalities for mutual gain. In a sermon, Coe even likened their group to a mafia and many of its members refer to it that way.

With Trump in the White House, the filmmakers portray the group as if it’s at the height of its power, well on the way to establishing a “New World Order.” The series builds as it investigates other figures associated with the group, trying to determine if there is a moral line that even they won’t cross.

Beginning with a group of young men being groomed for leadership positions at a Fellowship-owned estate, Sharlet says he joined them to learn about Christianity. Describing a lack of clear theology, and a strange cult-like devotion to Coe, Sharlet alleges that the group censured a former member who left to console his fiancée after she had been sexually assaulted.

The series then moves on to political figures: Former Nevada senator John Ensign and South Carolina governor Mark Sanford, who were forced out of office when they cheated on their wives, were members; a member of the Ugandan parliament who promoted legislation forcing gay people to undergo treatment or face capital punishment was associated with the group; and Moammar Qaddafi allegedly met with group members once.

Members of the Fellowship are given the opportunity to defend themselves in the show, saying Jesus loves and forgives everyone and adding that they spoke out against the Ugandan “death to gays” bill. Clearly, they have moral limits. But their defenses are juxtaposed with clips of leftist pastors’ condemning social conservatives as intolerant of LGBTQ rights, revealing the filmmakers’ own political bias.

Demonstrating Coe’s alleged influence, the series then goes on to suggest that anybody who attends the National Prayer Breakfast is a member of his network. Framing the event as a four-day lobbying fest, the filmmakers claim this is how “bad-faith actors” can gain access to religious leaders.

But the problem with this argument is that any political event has the potential to be exploited, and not every religious leader shares Coe’s tactics or aims. Many religious politicos, including National Review’s own William F. Buckley Jr., have influenced the religious Right, but no one can control the actions of politicians except for the politicians themselves. And if the American people don’t like what a candidate is doing, they don’t have to vote to reelect him.

That’s the problem with conspiracy theories about the Right: It’s all too easy for their leftist purveyors to take clips of George H. W. Bush or Ronald Reagan thanking Coe out of context, hinting that Coe’s influence was massive without any conclusive evidence. And while there surely are Christians who also think the end of political power justifies any means, the issue is not just some secret society with exaggerated reach, but these Christians themselves.

This is Sharlet’s strongest point: that many Christian leaders appear to uncritically support Trump. But he only tells half the story, leaving out the conservative-Christian backlash against figures such as Jerry Falwell Jr. who zealously vouch for the president.

If you can get past its smug disdain for conservative views, The Family offers a fair critique of Trump’s character and the Christians who stump for him. But its assertion that Christians such as Coe own the religious Right is tabloid fiction.

Editor’s Note: This article has been revised since its initial publication.

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