Ivanwald, Sharlet found out, was an enclave where young Christian men could eat meat, study the Gospels, play basketball, and be indoctrinated into a group that promised them exceptionalism. Coe, the purported leader of the Fellowship, had long expressed admiration for the ways in which leaders engendered loyalty through brotherhood, citing Hitler, Mao, and the Mafia as inspiration. The residents of Ivanwald learned to be humble by submitting to God and doing menial work. The Fellowship, in the meantime, was building relationships with people in power, establishing an 8,000-square-foot townhouse in D.C. where Fellowship-affiliated congressmen could live, hosting the National Prayer Breakfast once a year, and making overtures to world leaders with the capacity to advance a Christian agenda.
The first episode largely re-creates Sharlet’s account of his exposure to Ivanwald, in scenes that (despite casting James Cromwell as Coe) aren’t nearly as compelling as the talking-head analysis of what’s actually going on. The second breaks down the two scandals that threatened to derail the C Street house: Ensign’s very public affair, and South Carolina Governor Mark Sanford’s admission in 2009 that he’d also been unfaithful, in a speech that outed the Fellowship as a “Christian bible study” group that Sanford had been leaning on for support. (In doing so, Sharlet explains, Sanford violated the first rule of C Street, which is never to talk about C Street.) The revelation that not one but two Republican members of a shadowy faith group had fallen from grace led to feverish speculation about the Fellowship, including a lengthy 2010 New Yorker feature that likened the group to “a kind of theocratic Blackwater.”
Moss delves into the Fellowship’s history, and along the way provides a fascinating portrait of an organization that seems uniquely motivated by power. The Ivanwald approach to Christianity, Sharlet reveals, is a limited one—the organization has only minimal interest in the Bible and leans on an unorthodox interpretation of Jesus as a brawny avatar of alpha masculinity, a kind of spiritual Navy SEAL or post-career Peyton Manning. Jesus, in the Fellowship’s eyes, isn’t the Lamb of God so much as a license to expand and project patriarchal power. The young men of Ivanwald are told repeatedly that they’ve been chosen by God to be future leaders, significant cogs in a worldwide spiritual offensive. Coe, meanwhile, uses the truism that Jesus sat down with sinners to justify building dubious relationships with genocidal tyrants such as Omar al-Bashir, General Suharto, and Siad Barre. “Most of my friends are bad people,” Coe once said. In the period after the Soviet Union was dismantled, he visited 16 bloc countries in 16 days.
In its third episode, The Family explores the recent ties between the Christian right and Vladimir Putin’s Russia. (Doug Burleigh, one of the Fellowship’s current leaders, was interviewed by the FBI about his dealings with the convicted Russian agent Maria Butina.) The fourth details the Fellowship’s previous relationships with dictators, and its ongoing attempts to enforce “Christian” and anti-LGBTQ policies in countries such as Romania, with gay marriage in the United States seeming at this point like a lost battle. Along the way, Fellowship-affiliated congressmen seem depressingly eager to embrace strongmen under the pretense of Jesus’s name. Senator James Inhofe tells the Nigerian dictator Sani Abacha that he “loves him.” Representative Mark Siljander travels to Libya, where he asks Qaddafi for forgiveness for the U.S. bombing that killed his daughter. (Siljander was later sentenced to a year in prison for accepting stolen funds from a charity with ties to terrorism.)