Netflix Documentary The Family: Response to a Christian Critic

Last Friday, I ended the week with a list of reviews and reactions to the Netflix documentary The Family. As promised, I now want to respond to one of the critics in the Christian Post article.

Southern Baptist leader Denny Burk was quoted in the Christian Post as follows:

Since its release, the documentary series has garnered its share of critics. Denny Burk, president of the Commission on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood, labeled the series “one of the most outrageous pieces of anti-Christian propaganda that I have ever seen.”

“There will be millions of viewers whose opinion of evangelicals will be distorted by this film. It catechizes viewers to be suspicious of Christians and to regard us as a clear and present danger to democracy,” he said.

I think irony is the right word to describe Burk’s overreaction. During the founding era, Baptists were fierce advocates of separation of church and state. Jefferson’s letter containing the phrase “wall of separation” was sent to the Danbury (CT) Baptists.  The Southern Baptists have strong statements of doctrine calling for the separation of church and state. In 1804, Baptist John Leland wrote:

Experience, the best teacher, has informed us that the fondness of magistrates to foster Christianity has done it more harm than all the persecutions ever did. (source)

and in 1790, he wrote:

The liberty I contend for is more than toleration. The very idea of toleration is despicable; it supposes that some have a pre-eminence above the rest to grant indulgence; whereas all should be equally free, Jews, Turks [Muslims], Pagans and Christians. Test oaths and established creeds should be avoided as the worst of evils. (source)

In my view, The Family documentary raises a strong warning against entanglements of church and state. Although no legal challenge has been made to the National Prayer Breakfast, I believe a case could be made. The NPB is not multi-faith; it is all about Jesus. When I attended, it appeared to me that at least two branches of the U.S. government had established the worship of Jesus as the state religion.

Necessary Catechism

To quote Leland, evangelicals shouldn’t want the “fondness of magistrates to foster Christianity.” The Family seeks such fondness as a means of operation. When Christians call on government leaders to give aid to the worship of Jesus, the Baptists should be the loudest in complaint. As a Baptist, Burk should be more troubled by the church-state entanglement than by the exposure of it.

I think Burk’s reaction is emblematic of how far Baptists and conservative evangelicals more generally have gotten away from the bedrock principle of church-state separation. I agree with Madison that religion and government both flourish when they are separate:

I have no doubt that every new example, will succeed, as every past one has done, in shewing that religion & Govt. will both exist in greater purity, the less they are mixed together.

Practically speaking, the Fellowship Foundation could continue doing their many good works without the National Prayer Breakfast. The development of the NPB was set in the cold war period and may have served a purpose during that time. However, as we can see in the age of Trump and the emergence of court evangelicals, Christianity and political power damages the simple faith of Jesus and ultimately makes it unrecognizable.

Reviews of Netflix Documentary The Family: Required Reading

I planned to write a review/reflection on the Netflix documentary The Family by today. However, it didn’t happen. Others were more diligent than me and so I will close the work week with links to three reviews and two articles.

Religion News Service – Veteran religion writer Bob Smietana interviewed author Jeff Sharlet and producer Jesse Moss. This is a good inside look at their thinking on some key questions.

Washington Post – Friend and Messiah College historian John Fea reviews and recommends (with some reservations) the documentary. Read his reasons, pros and cons.

Christian Post – Reporter Michael Gryboski cites me in a balanced report about the documentary and provides a statement from the Fellowship Foundation which I haven’t seen anywhere else. I will have more to say about some of the criticisms leveled in this report next week.

The Atlantic – Is the group as powerful as Sharlet and Moss make it out to be? This reviewer wonders if it matters.

Political Research Associates – This is a favorable review from a social justice oriented group.

Annotated Twitter Thread by Jeff Sharlet – Jeff makes notes on the series.

See other reviews or articles about the series? Leave links in the comments.

For trailers and promotional information, go to the Netflix page for the series.

The Family: Doug Coe’s 1989 Sermon to the Navigators – Jesus Demands Total Commitment

Throughout the Netflix documentary The Family, clips of Family leader Doug Coe preaching a sermon to a Christian audience are played. The clips come from his sermon to the Navigators, a Colorado based Christian mission group, on January 16 1989. This sermon — titled Jesus Demands Total Commitment — had not been available online until 2010 when Coe sent the video to me to post on YouTube. He felt his words had been taken out of context and wanted the entire sermon posted.

The video doesn’t include Coe’s introductory remarks about George Bush and is also cut short. Bruce Wilson has the entire audio available which does have several minutes of Coe praising Bush for his Christianity and asking the audience to pray for him. One thing that is typical of Coe in those remarks is that he doesn’t ask for the audience to pray for Bush to pursue certain policy goals (e.g., end abortion, appoint judges), but instead to make godly decisions. While Coe might have had preferences, he did not seem as interested in specific policy outcomes as the current crop of evangelical leaders surrounding Trump.

I believe this is the only posted video of the event which begins just after the sermon begins. Given YouTube guidelines at the time, I had to break it up into four parts.

More on Doug Coe.

The Fellowship (aka The Family) Opposes Uganda’s Anti-Homosexuality Bill: Guest post by Jeff Sharlet

[Author Jeff Sharlet’s appearance on National Public Radio elevated the story of the Ugandan Anti-Homosexuality Bill to an important level of public awareness. One controversial element of Jeff’s reporting was his connection of the Ugandan legislators who introduced the bill to the Fellowship Foundation (aka The Family). I followed up that broadcast corresponding with Fellowship Foundation grantee, Cornerstone Development in Kampala and learned that Cornerstone had no input into the bill. In this guest post, Jeff Sharlet updates the NPR reporting, completes the picture and reveals for the first time that the Fellowship opposes the Anti-Homosexuality Bill. Thanks to Jeff for posting this news here and thanks to Bob Hunter for his candor.]  

The Fellowship Opposes Uganda’s Anti-Homosexuality Bill

by Jeff Sharlet

Add one more very important name to the growing international list of those opposed to Uganda’s proposed Anti-Homosexuality Bill: Bob Hunter, the man who helped build Uganda’s relationship with the Family, aka the Fellowship, the international movement of “followers of Christ” – some reject the term “Christian” that also includes several U.S. politicians with ties to Uganda: among them, Senator James Inhofe, Senator Sam Brownback, and Representative Joe Pitts.

Bob has been active with the Fellowship, as he prefers to call the network of organizations he says can be fairly described as a movement,* since coming to Christ in the late 1970s. But Bob’s faith wasn’t simply a salve; it led him into a relationship with a missionary hospital in Uganda and then with Ugandan political leaders. Bob worked as a private citizen, but he brought to his pursuits the experience and insights of a distinguished career, as a federal insurance administrator for Ford and Carter and a longtime consumer advocate. In Uganda, he established relationships with members of all factions, and, eventually, a friendship with President Yoweri Museveni. Later, he would go on to help Museveni establish the Ugandan National Prayer Breakfast.

Today, his work in Uganda focuses less on high-level politicians and more on those whom he calls “the nail” – that is, not the people in the official portraits, but the people who do the real day to day work of keeping a country running. It’s not glamorous work, but it’s important – maybe never more so than now. Because it’s those relationships that matter most when legislation such as the Anti-Homosexuality Bill is at stake. And Bob has been quietly working through those relationships to stop the bill. His influence may matter more than all the petitions signed by gay rights activists around the globe. And Bob has been brave about using that influence, speaking to his friends in Uganda, and gently pressuring the Fellowship’s associates on Capitol Hill to take a stand against the bill. Bob even agreed to sit down with me.

That took some courage, since I’m the author of a book about the Fellowship called The Family: The Secret Fundamentalism at the Heart of American Power, a critical analysis of the Fellowship in which I described Bob’s initial outreach to Uganda as linked to U.S. government interests in the region. Several weeks ago, I was a guest on NPR’s “Fresh Air” in which I made the same point. I based my characterization on a widely circulated account from Fellowship leader Doug Coe of Bob’s work, two documents in the Fellowship’s archive, “A Trip to East Africa—Fall 1986,” and “Re: Organizing the Invisible,” and a review of tens of thousands of documents in the Fellowship archives that present a portrait of the organization up to that point. I attempted to contact Bob, but failed. I wish I had contacted him: Bob was very forthcoming with details that present a more complicated, and, frankly, hopeful picture. Bob wrote a response to the broadcast that he shared with “Fresh Air” and with some associates in Uganda. He raised a number of important concerns and offered more detail on his involvement. But rather than duke it out, Bob invited me to his Arlington, Virginia home and spent the better part of an afternoon discussing my interpretation of events and his experience of them. We agreed that the first step was a statement making clear Bob’s opposition to the bill. Moreover, Bob adds “I know of no one involved in Uganda with the Fellowship here in America, including the most conservative among them, that supports such things as killing homosexuals or draconian reporting requirements, much less has gone over to Uganda to push such positions.”

That’s very, very good news. The Fellowship prefers to avoid the limelight; Bob has forsaken that to make clear his position and that of his American associates: The Fellowship, AKA the Family, opposes the Ugandan Anti-Homosexuality Bill.

Bob also asked me to clarify – and correct – some misperceptions. I’m glad to do so. First, Bob was troubled by my identification of him on “Fresh Air” as a former Ford official, which he felt implied right-wing affiliations. I didn’t think so – Ford hasn’t exactly gone down in history as a right-winger, and I mentioned it only to establish that Bob was not just some ordinary businessmen, as Fellowship leader Doug Coe’s account of his work** suggests (inaccurately, as Bob gladly concedes). It would have been better to say a former government official, or a former Ford and Carter official. Even that might have been selling Bob short – his career as a consumer advocate is long and impressive. While the Fellowship has historically been majority conservative, it has – as I note in my book – always included liberals. Bob is in that tradition. Over the course of the afternoon he shared with me his experience working with the Fellowship in Burundi, Rwanda, and South Africa. While I may take issue with the Fellowship’s behind-the-scenes approach, there’s no denying that in each of these cases Bob and his associates were working toward extremely admirable ends, and that in the case of Burundi Bob’s efforts helped make the difference that brought a truce to that country’s warring factions. Bob did what he did with the best of intentions, and, in several instances, achieved the best of outcomes. Continue reading “The Fellowship (aka The Family) Opposes Uganda’s Anti-Homosexuality Bill: Guest post by Jeff Sharlet”

Is The Family behind the Anti-Homosexuality Bill?

Last week on NPR’s Fresh Air, Jeff Sharlet reported that The Fellowship Foundation (aka The Family) supports an organization in Uganda called Cornerstone Development which, according to Sharlet, is linked with the main government officials behind the Anti-Homosexuality Bill 2009. Is this accurate?

According to their IRS 990 tax forms, the Fellowship Foundation indeed does support Cornerstone Foundation in Uganda. Less clear is what, if any, relationship exists between Cornerstone and the authors and supporters of the Anti-Homosexuality Bill. On the recent NPR program, author Sharlet linked Cornerstone with the prime sponsor of the Anti-Homosexuality Bill, David Bahati and Minister of Ethics and Integrity Nsaba Buturo. However, a review of the Cornerstone website finds no references to either David Bahati or Nsaba Buturo. There is one 2007 news report which links Bahati to the Ugandan prayer breakfast (held in October of each year) and is ambiguous about a relationship to the African Youth Leadership Forum. The AYLF is a program conducted by Cornerstone.

Even though Mr. Sharlet did not say the Family was behind the bill, some blame the Fellowship Foundation and Cornerstone for the bill. In contrast, as the result of my investigation thus far, I do not believe that Cornerstone Development is behind the bill or supports it.  And I am aware of one prominent associate of the Fellowship Foundation who opposes the bill. More on that in a later post.

To explore these issues, I spoke via email with the Director of Cornerstone Development, Tim Kreutter.  Mr. Kreutter has lived in Africa most of his life and oversees a staff of about 150 people.

When asked about the Anti-Homosexuality Bill, 2009, he told me that Cornerstone “had zero input on that bill.” Furthermore, Mr. Kreutter pointed out that Cornerstone has intervened in death penalty situations, saying: 

In particular, we are opposed to the death penalty under all circumstances and have played a part in working to stay all executions here for the last 10 years or so.

Kreutter also explained that the sponsor of the Anti-Homosexuality Bill, David Bahati and the outspoken government minister who supports it, Nsaba Buturo, currently have no involvement in Cornerstone programs. As noted, a review of their website confirms this statement.

Regarding Bahati’s involvement in the Africa Youth Leadership Forum, Mr. Kreutter pointed out that the forum that day included three Ugandan politicians: Cecilia Ogwal, Mugisha Muntu and David Bahati. Ogwal is involved in the Uganda People’s Congress Party of former Pres. Milton Obote, Muntu is a major opposition leader of the Forum for Democratic Change Party and a likely Presidential candidate in the next elections and then Bahati is a loyal ruling party member. I should also point out that the Deputy Secretary for International and Regional Affairs of the Forum for Democratic Change, Anne Mugisha (no relation to Muntu), opposes the bill.

As Mr. Sharlet noted, it seems clear that the Fellowship Foundation is quite active in Uganda (as are many other Western interests) in several ways.  However, it seems to me that the Cornerstone Development organization is doing some good things with youth and does not appear to be behind the recent Anti-Homosexuality Bill. Rather, Kreutter advocates a different policy, saying:

I believe that means loving them [gays] just as we are called to do for all ‘our neighbors’ and for me personally that means seeing them as my brother…or my sister – created in the image of God our father – despite their sexual orientation.

There are US influences to be found, however, and I will report more on those in future posts. I have already reported on one American influence  which I will discuss more in an upcoming post. Also, there are internal factors at work independent of Western influence. See Anne Mugisha’s post today for one such possibility. 

Stay tuned…