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The new Netflix documentary series, The Family, could have been an insightful exploration of the poisoning effects of secrecy and political power on faith. Instead, it contributes to the divisive age we live in by turning common failings into Da Vinci Code–style conspiracies and subtly suggesting evangelicalism itself is a threat to the nation.
The “family” in this series is The Fellowship, a press-shy group that ministers to government leaders. The biggest downfall of the series is that, a few brief interludes excepted, it relies almost entirely on the testimony of a single man: author Jeff Sharlet. This would be problematic even if Sharlet hadn’t built his career by suggesting the philandering pols of C Street represent a wider Cosa Nostra of Christianity. The series provides adequate proof that the Fellowship is committed to, if not secrecy, at least flying under the radar, but it reads sinister motives into the group’s behavior to such a degree it becomes laughable.
Anyone who grew up going to church in the 1980s and 1990s has heard common phrases like “Jesus plus nothing” or expressions of waiting on God for direction. These are not evangelical code language for secret plots. And because pedestrian sins like greed and adultery are apparently not enough, the show implies that Fellowship members marshaling support for traditional marriage and the sanctity of life is uniquely treacherous.
This is all frustrating because the series had ample provocation to explore far more worthwhile territory.
When a Russian Christian sets aside the totality of the New Testament to parrot the Fellowship ideal of courting the powerful because of a single verse in Acts, we cringe from the Biblical illiteracy.
The filmmakers rightly look askance at a positive-thinking, prosperity Christianity and the idea that any believer should have a rock-solid certainty he’s called to great leadership. But then it commits the equal error of calling for evangelicals to prove their principles with political resistance in this present era. It misses that both the resister and conspirator may sin if their foremost concern is with political power at all.