The Real Secret Theocracy in Netflix's The Family Will Give You Chills

Netflix's The Family gives off all the signs of being a conspiracy theory documentary, focused on a secret theocracy that has exerted power over political leaders for decades. Thus, the most shocking part of this docuseries about a fundamentalist organization akin to The Handmaid's Tale's Gilead is that it's entirely true.

In five parts, The Family examines The Fellowship Foundation, a conservative organization based in Washington DC that's best known for the National Prayer Breakfast, a gathering of diplomats and world leaders. Known as "The Family," the foundation organizes Bible studies and prayer meetings but remains opaque about its other operations. Over the years, it has influenced policies and political leadership, borrowing rhetoric from totalitarian leaders to emphasize Christ's messages.

How Did The Family Begin?

Norwegian-born Methodist minister Abraham Vereide founded the Fellowship Foundation in 1935 during a meeting where powerful leaders gathered to block labor organizers. The intimate circle conjured a prayer breakfast idea that eventually gained national political momentum. Every president dating back to Dwight Eisenhower has, since 1953, attended a breakfast event.

The Family became more deeply entrenched with politics in the '60s when Douglas Coe took over. It also became much more secretive, as Coe believed that it would be more influential that way. Coe is known for saying, "Everything visible is transitory. Everything invisible is permanent and lasts forever."

How Does The Family Have a Troubling Connection With Politics?

It's no secret that the Family has offered spiritual guidance for leaders, but its associations and influence over the years has raised legitimate concerns — well beyond the issue of separation of Church and state. The organization has been all about power and wealth, using Family members and friends in politics to support its anti-gay, anti-abortion, and anti-labor views. Coe has referred to the Family's approach as "totalitarianism for Christ," modeling leadership after figures such as "Hitler, Pol Pot, Osama bin Laden, and Lenin." As such, the organization has befriended dictators such as Indonesia's General Suharto, who sanctioned the murders of hundreds of thousands. Core members subscribe to "biblical capitalism," the belief that God's economics are laissez-faire.

Today, politicians such as Mike Pence and Jeff Sessions are known friends of the Family. Critics surmise that the foundation has also been close with Donald Trump because he has organized a fundamentalist Cabinet. But the Family has political reach beyond America. It's also been directly connected to anti-LGBT legislation in Uganda, supporting a bill that would impose the death penalty for homosexuality.

How Did the World Get an Insider's Look?

The world received a deep insider's look of the Family through reporter Jeff Sharlet's 2008 book The Family: The Secret Fundamentalism at the Heart of American Power. The writer interned at Ivanwald, a Fellowship house in DC where he learned about the inner workings of the organization. Ivanwald was a communal-style house where young men were groomed to be leaders. Sharlet illustrates the cultish environment as homoerotic, due to the hypermasculine environment, no dating rules, and anti-LGBT belief in the Family. He recalls how leaders, both Democrats and Republicans, would stop by and talk about the family's political business. The Family follows his story closely, reenacting moments from his Ivanwald days alongside documentary footage.

Even alongside true crime documentaries, The Family, now available for streaming, is no doubt one of Netflix's most unsettling projects.