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“The Family” Series on NETFLIX: Humility and Exceptionalism, Tools of Cult-Like Manipulation

Shared purpose is a strong social glue and motivator. Shared beliefs are stronger. Commercial interests and proximity to power seal airtight connections.

This is the validation that accompanies NETFLIX’s  5-part docuseries “The Family“. 

The production presents the political and social dynamics and effects of an enigmatic, yet hidden in plain sight for decades, Christian organization – The Family or The Fellowship, whose religiously-coated commercial and power-centered interests have tentacles that reached and held tight the most influential historical figures of the world, starting with all U.S. Presidents, from the 1930s until now.

According to  Jeff Sharlet, executive producer of the series and author of two books about The Family – one of which is the main source for the video program – the organization has access to world leaders, offers advice of evangelical and non-evangelical nature to many of them, and creates a circle of Friends – the Fellowship’s preferred term for members and supporters, whose cumulative power is then directed toward pushing conservative, fundamentalist Christian goals.

If you’re thinking this is just another conspiracy story, the type that would simply use “secret society”, “hidden elite” or “masonry” to trigger an immediate and powerful reaction from viewers, and that the suggested level of influence of the Family is exaggerated in the series, then please consider The National Prayer Breakfast – an annual event that gathers as guests more than 3500 political, business, and social leaders. Among them, every American President since Dwight D. Eisenhower.

The declared goal? The event creates a context for these people to come together and pray. The host? A random member of the United States Congress will issue the invitation each year… on behalf of the Fellowship. Results? Disclosed, almost none. Undisclosed, plenty of connections form and common goals and links emerge or become stronger.

To put it simply, this is a huge networking event among the world’s most powerful people. So, what does religion have to do with it?

The Family claims that what brings them together is “Jesus”. A love and understanding of Jesus’ life and teachings are supposed to be the main and sole reasons that bring these people together. And based on that understanding, they consider that it is their role to offer support – in all shapes and forms, to those who have been chosen by Jesus to hold significant roles in the world.

Ahem. My Critical Thinking – powered radar calls BS on that. Here is why.

At first glance, The Family seems like a usual religious organization/cult. Actually, an organization for tax purposes, cult by the way it treats its members – especially lower-level members -, the antisocial intentions and their potential effects. 

When it comes to their new members, the group attempts to create a family-like environment – embodied in shared living spaces such as the now-famous Ivanwald, where life seems to be a mixture of prayer, witty conversations, youth-directed fun, and match-making. All happening in relative social isolation – contact with non-members is rather discouraged – and close proximity to the world’s finest leaders, for whom the Family members perform menial tasks, such as cleaning the toilets in the locations where state officials are being housed, such as those situated on C Street in Washington, D.C.

Humility exercises are an important part of a cult’s strategy of gaining control over their followers. The method is considered a way to “destroy the ego”, meaning that at the end of their indoctrination program into humility, the person will no longer consider themselves a priority, but will offer that significant role to the cult and its mission. Obedience is the result.

The lessons are different for men and women in the Family. Men are cast in main roles, while women only get the supporting, secondary ones. 

For the Family, the hierarchy seems to be the following: women assist the men in the Fellowship, the men assist world leaders chosen by God, and the chosen leaders do the work of God on Earth.

This link to God’s intentions and plan, even if via an intermediary, provides the key selling point of the Family for those who decide to join and advocate their cause. The members of the Fellowship feel special because they work with special people chosen by God. This makes them exceptional people. Their purpose, via the Family, is higher than any other human purpose not set by God himself.

The leaders of the Fellowship – even if their main figure, Douglas Coe, claimed there is no hierarchy and inner organization, and recommended that the group should rather act in secrecy – can use this alleged link to God and the “this is all God’s plan” claim as rationalization for any of their advice and actions. Who, among believers, would question God’s intentions and plans, especially since they themselves seem to have been cast in an important role by the divine being himself? Divine flattery works like a charm on human subjects.

This type of message is incredibly efficient in cult environments. A while back I wrote an article called How To Recognize A Religious Cult – 31 Clues That You Are Dealing With One – I invite you to read it if you are interested in the extended topic -, where I segmented the signs of cult-like modus operandi in four main stages and categories: [I] The Initial Contact – how the potential member comes to know about the cult, how the cult presents itself, if at all, to the public via different communication methods, and the triggers – emotionally-charged messages meant to get the potential member’s attention and get them to consider the proposal, [II] The Hook – the promises made by the cult for those who would join, [III] The Membership – what it implies, especially in regard to the member’s connections with the non-members community, and [IV] Other Clues of Manipulation and Control.

The Family checks off many of the 31 clues I identified in that article. Among them, all the clues included in the Triggers and Promise sections, but also many others in from the other categories. I will detail some of these aspects.

The Triggers include:

  • They make their members feel special. World elites are chosen by God, Fellowship regular members assist the chosen ones.
  • They seem to offer emotional support. Groups based on the Fellowship philosophy and mission have popped-up all over the world, including Russia as one of the new powerful members. This connection offers plenty of evidence to those concerned with the Russian interference in the American political stage. However, the idea promoted by these local groups is brotherhood – people who share beliefs and goals get together to pray.
  • They make their members feel accepted and included. “The bigger the crook, the better”, quotation attributed in the series to Coe. The Fellowship promotes the idea that only God can judge humans, so any member, with any past, is an acceptable addition to the group.
  • They seem to provide a nurturing social environment. Ivanwald portrays just that. Young men with a common religious mission and interest living together in an environment whose idyllic nuances seem to be almost asynchronous with the present world.
  • They may seem to offer protection. Well, at least for as long as you are useful to the Fellowship and don’t cause them any trouble.

The Promises include:

  • (Hidden) Knowledge and/or Specific Abilities. On your own, you’re average. With them, you’re in the know and close to all the significant action.
  • Promises of Personal Success. You are to be very close to the elite’s success. It is highly likely that you will become successful as well.
  • Power and a place among the elites. This is the specific trait of the Fellowship. It is for the elites, with the support of elite-wannabes. 

When it comes to the membership for the Fellowship, things get a little blurry, since they do not present themselves as an official organization – unless linked to the tax-exemption status [partially revoked now, as I understood from the series], try to mainly work in the shadow, and leave a rather thin paper trail [even though by “secret organization” standards, it may still be a lot, as noted in the program].

I understand there is no official “member” status for the Family. You’re “part of” or “a friend of” the group. Those who are part of the group and live in shared spaces run by the Fellowship are required to pay rent, but other sources for the organization’s high-budget initiatives are rather difficult to track.

I think that the most important aspect to mention here is that staying in the good graces of the group means to keep all your social contacts to a minimum when it comes to non-members and non-targets – by “target” I mean world leaders who may not necessarily be members, but rather collaborators and advocates for the Family.

The way in which a group treats former members is a good indicator of whether that group had benign or malign intentions to start with. When leaving the group means that they will completely cut contact with you, it’s an indicator of cult behavior. Manipulators cut ties with those who can no longer help them reach their goals.

Also, isolation from non-member family and friends allows the cult to control its members better. It creates an experiential bubble where indoctrination can successfully happen.

After watching the documentary I am left with the impression that there are at least two main tiers of members in The Family: A higher level participation, Coe and his successor[s], together with those of the elite who could be persuaded to represent the Family and push its agenda via their global actions, and lower-level members, local groups – those who want to belong, those who want a platform for their message, and impressionable youth, whose participation in the process has more to do with offering legitimacy to the organization as a faith-based brotherhood, worthy of tax exemption.

I do not fully think the Family is a religious cult in the strict sense, I think it is an organization in search of power and commercial gains operating under the guise of religious interests.

After all, it is all in the series’ tagline: “It’s not about Faith, it’s about Power”.

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