News & Politics

The Director of Netflix’s “The Family” Talks About the Secretive Virginia Group at the Center of His Docuseries

The Fellowship is as influential as it is mysterious.

The National Prayer Breakfast. Photo provided by Netflix.

Tucked at the end of a winding block in Arlington’s Woodmont neighborhood, hidden by rows of ample foliage, sits a stately white mansion known to neighbors and passersby as the Cedars. What many don’t realize is that this is the home of the Fellowship Foundation, a secretive religious group whose influence on right-wing politicians has inspired conspiracy theories and a great deal of speculation.

Now the shadowy group is the subject of a much-discussed Netflix docudrama called The Family. In the five-part series, director Jesse Moss—building on years of research from reporter Jeff Sharlet—digs into what, exactly, this 84-year-old Christian group does and what its appeal is to current members such as Iowa Senator Chuck Grassley. The Fellowship Foundation is best known for hosting the annual National Prayer Breakfast, and it also operates what’s known as the C Street House on Capitol Hill, where dozens of Congressmen lived nearly rent-free in the early 2000s. But its broader influence has long remained somewhat mysterious. We talked to Moss about how he went about researching the series and how the Fellowship operates.

You were able to talk to some members of the Fellowship. How did you approach them?

When this project first started, I sent the Fellowship a long letter where I outlined what I was doing. I let them know I would like to come visit in person, come to the Cedars, interview them about [then-leader] Doug Coe and the founding of the movement. Naturally, they wrote back saying, “No, we don’t talk to the media and we really never have, and we do out best work invisibly.” But, you know, we persist. I talked to them unofficially and eventually I was able to go to the Prayer Breakfast in 2018, even though I couldn’t film. 

I think we finally convinced them that this was a real and credible project and that we were committed to having real conversations with people. I was really set on hearing not just from critics but the organization itself, its supporters. I didn’t go in with an agenda or an ax to grind, and I had a bigger set of questions that transcended the fellowship.

How did the Fellowship do such a good job of hiding in plain sight for all those years? 

When we think of the conventional Christian Right who tend to be embroiled in scandal, they seem to want nothing but the limelight and that’s where so much of our attention has gone. Their political projects have always been easily measured, whether through the lobbying for abortion or religious freedom on Capitol Hill. The Fellowship plays a longer game. Their work isn’t measurable in those traditional metrics. This is why it’s been hard to track them, why they’ve escaped attention. 

They’ve done the most of this “hiding in plain sight” at the National Prayer Breakfast, which is presented as being put on by members of Congress, but it’s really the Fellowship, who make it an Evangelical event. They want to bring people into a closer relationship with their understanding of Jesus, but it’s also a very particular understanding of Jesus. They don’t make their involvement known. They were always happy to leave it that way. 

The Fellowship released a response to the series, which wasn’t very happy with the program. Do you want to comment on that? 

People are going to have different interpretations of faith and theology. But if there are facts that we got wrong, if they no longer have a relationship with C Street, for instance, I would like to know. They told me they didn’t, but if you look at the tax returns on the building, they do. If there are facts that they want to take issue with, fine. I think the film provides them with very substantial room to present their point of view and they do it. We have strong, articulate, powerful voices who explain their faith to the viewer. And we also include the critics, and it was our responsibility as journalists to do so. 

The outside of the Cedars. Photo provided by Netflix.

Do you think the series will shift how the Fellowship operates in DC? 

Well, they’ve revamped their website. So they’re changing their outward-facing, but limited, public face. They’ve definitely anticipated people asking more questions once the series came out. They say they’re committed to changing the Prayer Breakfast, after the Maria Butina scandal [the accused Russian agent was an attendee], but I’m not sure how they’ll do that. 

I think people who go to the National Prayer Breakfast now, if they have questions, they’ll discover the conversation we’re having publicly about the Fellowship. Scrutiny around Congressional travel that the Fellowship pays for is definitely warranted, along with their efforts to advance a conservative social agenda internationally in alliance with other Christian-right organizations. Will they fundamentally change how they operate? Will their theology adapt? Whoever fills Doug Coe’s shoes and becomes the new leader of the organization, will they take the organization in a different direction? I don’t know. 

The mystery of C Street remains. Are members of Congress living there? Do we deserve to know? I’d like to know. I want to respect members of Congress and their privacy, and I can only assume now the house is not a low-market rent, but is it still a rooming house for Christian congressmen? The Fellowship told me that they don’t have any relationship to C Street, but they didn’t answer the question of who lives there and whether or not members of Congress live there.

Kalina Newman
Editorial Fellow

Kalina Newman is an editorial fellow for Washingtonian. Previously, she covered metro news for the Boston Globe. Her work has appeared in ARLnow, DCist, and the Washington City Paper. Kalina graduated from Boston University in 2019 with a degree in journalism.