“I wish I could say more about it,” President Ronald Reagan once said of the group, “but it’s working precisely because it is private.”
The kind of secrecy that has for decades made The Fellowship Foundation successful in Washington, D.C., and around the world is the same secrecy that has made it such a tempting target of curiosity and criticism.
The organization — ostensibly a kind of confederated network of Christian prayer groups dating back to the early 1900s that eschews traditional denominations and hierarchies in favor of trying to more closely follow Jesus’ teachings — sponsors only one public activity: the annual National Prayer Breakfast, which is perennially attended by each president.
The Fellowship’s history and work is the focus of The Family, a five-part Netflix docuseries premiering in August.
The Family, a reference to another name used for the group, is based on the work of journalist and former member Jeff Sharlet, who across two books took a flinty-eyed look at The Fellowship’s work and what he describes as its largely conservative membership and ideas.
Though the group’s participants have long insisted their goal is to bring Jesus’ message into the lives of those who need it, their particular methods invited scrutiny and skepticism. As The New York Times detailed in 2010, The Fellowship had no website, no physical location, no obvious leadership, membership or spokesperson. (A website has since been launched.)
“I wish I could say more about it,” President Ronald Reagan said in 1985, according to the Times, “but it’s working precisely because it is private.”
Over the years The Fellowship has cultivated deep and wide-ranging ties with America’s leading politicians, businessmen and other world leaders, who attended the prayer breakfast or became regular attendees of various prayer groups around the world — places where they could speak candidly and seek support from other members, though critics cast the gatherings as a nefarious mixing of religion and government with sometimes unsavory dealings with despots.
“We’re not being secretive,” Doug Coe, The Fellowship’s de facto head, told The New Yorker in a rare interview in 2010. “It’s just that no one advertises that we’ve got a guy here who’s an atheist and is having a problem with his life, or maybe stole money from his country’s treasury.”
“Most of my friends are bad people,” Coe said then, casting himself as an open heart on a mission of healing through prayerful connection with people in need.
Ed Meese, a former U.S. attorney general under President Reagan, told the New Yorker the prayer group of which he was a part “has meant a great deal to me.”
“All of us have had family problems, personal problems. It’s a place where you can discuss these problems. You come together in the name of Jesus, so you have a natural kind of bond,” Meese said. “And the group dynamics are such that you have total confidence that nothing you are going to say is going to make you vulnerable through your colleagues, which is rare in Washington.”
Others view it differently.
“I’m sure a lot of people use The Fellowship as a way to network, a way to gain entree to all sorts of people. And entree they do get,” Michael Cromartie, a critic of the group, told Sharlet in his 2008 book, The Family.
David Kuo, a former adviser to President George W. Bush, told Sharlet: “The Fellowship’s reach into governments around the world is almost impossible to overstate or even grasp.”
The Family premieres on Netflix on Aug. 9.