A secretive group has been grooming young, Christian men for leadership positions in American politics for decades, all the while ingratiating itself with presidents and congressmembers of both parties — and sidling up to some dictators around the world. Dartmouth associate professor Jeff Sharlet has been studying and writing about this group, known as "The Family," for years.
"The Family is the oldest and arguably most influential, and strangely most secretive, Christian conservative organization in Washington," Sharlet told VPR last week.
"They describe it as 'God-led government,'" Sharlet explained of The Family's mission. "Their goal in their own documents is 200 world leaders connected invisibly. And they have a great dedication to sort of remaining under the radar."
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According to Sharlet, The Family's roots can be traced back to 1935 when its founder said he received direction from God that Christianity should shift its focus away from poor and suffering people.
"His idea was that what mattered more than the faith of the masses was bringing into the fold politicians, business leaders, military leaders — those whom he called 'key men,'" Sharlet said. "And through them, he could pursue his vision of a Christian nation."
Sharlet said he takes issue with using "cult" to describe The Family, but he did admit that their approach is quite different from other Christian organizations.
"I don't like the term cult, but ... you take the secrecy, you take the wildly unorthodox theology — that idea about Christianity being for the up-and-out, not the down-and-out — you won't find that in many churches," he said.
Sharlet said he'd been writing a different book, more broadly about religion in the U.S., when he became acquainted with The Family. He eventually even lived at The Family's compound for young men, known as Ivanwald — an experience which is dramatized by actors in the Netflix series.
The series also focuses on a few politicians who have been involved with The Family, including former South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford and former Nevada Sen. John Ensign. While those men no longer hold those positions, Sharlet said The Family is still a stronghold in current American politics: "They have more power now than ever," he said.
Sharlet noted that Vice President Mike Pence is associated with the group — and while President Donald Trump is not part of the organization himself, Sharlet said Trump "nonetheless has been embraced by The Family in terms that are kind of chilling."
There are five episodes of The Family on Netflix, and Sharlet praised series' director Jesse Moss for getting multiple Family members to agree to on-sceen interviews.
"We wanted this to be scrupulously fair," Sharlet said. "We said, 'We will give you as much screen time as you want. You have your say.'"
Though his books have been out for years, Sharlet credited Netflix's reach for some reaction he's noticed more recently. For example, since the series dropped, Sharlet said a number of former members of The Family have gotten in touch with him to share their experiences. In addition, Sharlet said he's heard that journalists in other countries have been investigating The Family's influence on government.
"That's very promising to me," Sharlet said. "Even though I see The Family consolidating power, I also see democracy pushing back."