Before I went back to school to study journalism, I knew of Jeff Sharlet’s writing. I was so impressed by the simple fact that he’d made writing about faith his “beat.” This resonated with me because I had so many questions about faith, but rarely did I think of it as a field for journalism. Probably because I was too ashamed of my own doubts and what exploring them would look like to those around me. In a wonderful 2017 episode of the Longform podcast, he discusses many of his stories, but none captivated me like his description of writing the books The Family: The Secret Fundamentalism at the Heart of American Power and C Street: The Fundamentalist Threat to American Democracy. Though published a decade ago, The Family is now enjoying a second life, thanks to wide reach of Netflix, which has adapted the five-part documentary series.
“It’s a breathtaking enmeshment of Church and State,” a woman says in voice-over during the opening montage. It’s followed immediately by a man stating, “A humble example of leadership that the world has never seen.”
Netflix’s popularity will like put The Family before the eyes of many Americans, and after watching, it seems clear that, like so many other aspects of our daily existence, it will become a Rorschach test that will reveal more about the viewer than the subjects studied in the film. The inkblots spread across all five episodes, and conversations after viewing the series could just as likely hear a scathing critique of religion’s influence on politics (and vice versa) as you are to hear a scathing critique of liberal journalists who would deign to impugn these faith leaders for doing nothing more than spreading the Gospel.
Let me be clear on what I’m talking about: The Family tackles the task of explaining a group that doesn’t even want its existence known. The Family is the name of a group of fundamentalist evangelicals Christians that wield outsized influence in American politics. It begins with Sharlet’s own experience at Ivanwald, the fraternity-like house in Arlington, Virginia where the young men lived together in a rigorous simplicity. Sharlet recalls: “No swearing, no drinking, no sex, no self. You don’t waste time on newspapers. Never watch T.V. You eat meat. You study the Gospels. You play basketball.”
He remarks on how unknowingly he stumbled into the experiences that would become his two books on the organization. “I told them I was a writer, and that I’d been traveling around the country trying to understand all the different ideas of Jesus, and I was interested in getting to know theirs,” Sharlet says. Soon, he realized just how Jesus would factor into the Family’s beliefs. “There’s not a whole lot of theology,” Sharlet says. “There’s no wrestling with God, with conscience, traditional concerns of fundamentalism. They don’t talk about the devil. Just Jesus. Just Jesus. That’s all.”
It’s not clear to me what that means. And I confess there was a time in my life, a long while actually, where I would have nodded along, seemingly on the same page. I’m sure I would have thought I understood it better then. I will venture a guess here, in an attempt at fairness. By spreading awareness of Jesus and his teachings, presumably the most important of which is his sacrificial death on the cross to forgive the sins of the world, the country will be a better place, will result in more just leadership and purer lives for all of us without the evil that results from unrepentant sin.
Perhaps Sharlet’s two books delve into the faith side of things, as it’s clear from the series that he didn’t think those men with whom he lived were bad men. He defended those he knew personally. The series, as it nears its conclusion in the final episode, gives time to a small group of men from Portland, Oregon who are strong in a faith that gives me pause as I watch them talk sincerely to the filmmaker as he sits amongst them. It’s a beautiful articulation of faith, their fiery, exacting brand of Christianity, and it reminds me of how stirring and moving such “preaching” can be, likely awakening something that now lies mostly dormant in some part of my reptile brain. But the series as a whole seems like the filmmakers were almost surprised that Netflix agreed to let them tell the story over the course of five hours, and, as a result, they tried to cram in as much as they thought we could handle. As Jay Chaney wrote in Vulture, any discombobulation a viewer might feel at the series’ conclusion isn’t the result of “no there there” but rather a lack of completeness in probing all of the “there.” I’m inclined to agree.
The teachings and beliefs of the Family are so vague as to be almost meaningless to the uninitiated: “Jesus. Plus nothing.” The more one tries to wrap one’s head around that, the more shapeless it becomes. And because of this, it’s perhaps the biggest inkblot of them all. Supporters of the group (and everyday, run-of-the-mill Christians alike) would likely say, “Of course. That makes perfect sense. Jesus is all that matters.” For those seeking something more accessible, this may seem like infuriating nonsense. But Sharlet makes the case that the vagueness is part of its insidiousness, particularly in the later episodes when the focus turns to the Family’s involvement in international affairs. He makes a principled “separation of church and state” argument, and he laments the members of the Family who use the power of elected office in the most powerful nation on earth to take Family-sponsored trips to foreign countries and pretend that while they meet with tyrants and dictators and thugs, they’re just “doing my Jesus thing,” with no further explanation. And, of course, he’s right. But the case against them seems relatively circumstantial, and again, the inkblots will look differently viewer to viewer.
The series is definitely worth watching, but I wouldn’t be surprised if a sense of confusion followed the end credits of the final episode. Many will feel annoyed. Many will feel as if they’ve just watched a promotional video for religious leaders they very much support but possibly didn’t know about before watching. Others will feel like something is rotten, something is off, something is corrupt. I stand in this camp, and by doing so, I’m not giving myself over to conspiracy theories. Although I’m sure I’d never convince anyone who sees the inkblots differently than I do of that simple fact. In the final episode, a member of the Family perfectly articulates why this topic is ripe for straw men to be set up and knocked down. Speaking of Sharlet, who’s simply a stand-in for so many reporters who investigate in this seemingly post-fact age, the man says: “People come with their own agendas and their preconceived ideas, and then they look for information that will ratify those ideas. People are not used to other people who don’t have an agenda, who humble themselves, who appeal to an authority higher than Washington, and who lie in a world and with a worldview that is so opposite what everybody else lives in. And that’s why they think there’s a cover-up, there’s a conspiracy, there’s something secretive going on. You know, handshakes, code rings and things like that. It’s just not true.”
Watch for yourself, and you be the judge. But if the series leaves you wondering and wanting more, check out Sharlet’s books, as, like most things, they’re probably a little better than the adaptation.