The new Netflix series The Family, which premiered on August 9, is like a conspiracy theory come to life. Just listen to the premise.
There's an extremely secret Christian sect called the Fellowship that has a vast network of influence in countries around the world, but especially the United States. Each year, the Fellowship sponsors a three-day event called the National Prayer Breakfast, where world leaders gather to "pray" — and also to mingle and have high-level conversations.
No tin foil hat is needed. The Fellowship is completely real, and its prominence in international affairs comes down to one man: Douglas Coe, whose pops up over and over again in The Family. But who is he?
Wait — What is the Fellowship?
The Fellowship was founded in 1935 by Abraham Vereide, a Norwegian immigrant and traveling preacher. While living in Seattle, he gathered 19 businessmen and civic leaders for a "prayer breakfast." Really, though, they were searching for a leader — one person who could embody Vereide's idea that some people were "chosen" to rule. As Jeff Sharlet writes in his Harper's expose on the Fellowship, "They wanted to give Jesus a vessel, and so they asked God to raise up a leader."
It worked: Arthur Langlie, a city councilman who attended that meeting, was raised up to become mayor of Seattle and then governor of Washington, increasing the Fellowship's reach. Soon, other prayer breakfasts popped up around the country.
Vereide died in 1966. By the time Douglas Coe assumed control over the Fellowship in 1969, the organization had connections with the government. But Coe subsumed the group into secrecy, and in doing so, took it to new heights. Through the National Prayer Breakfast and off-the-record events, the Fellowship cultivates power.
"The Fellowship believes God uses who He wants, and that power itself is an indicator of who He has chosen — it's a theology of more power for the powerful," Sharlet tells NBC.
Who is Douglas Coe?
According to Sharlet in The Family, Coe was an "awkward guy [from] Oregon." Coe was born in October 1928 in Oregon. While studying at Willamette University, Coe became involved with youth ministries. His life took a turn after meeting Vereide on a visit to Salem, Oregon. By 1958, he was living in D.C. and working for Vereide, enmeshed in the Fellowship's gray area between church and state.
When Coe took over the Fellowship, he changed directions. "He’s the one who decided that the Family should be an off-the-record group, hidden and invisible," Sharlet says in the documentary.
So, Coe became one of the most important people in politics you hadn't heard of. Coe visited world capitals and invited leaders back to the Fellowship's headquarters in Arlington, VA, a mansion called the Cedars. Coe often traveled abroad with Congresspeople.
He cultivated connections with many presidents, from Dwight Eisenhower to Ronald Reagan to Bill Clinton. In her 2003 book Living History, Hillary Clinton called him “a genuinely loving spiritual mentor and guide to anyone, regardless of party or faith, who wants to deepen his or her relationship with God and offer the gift of service to others in need.” Controversially, Coe was also known to befriend dictators.
Sometimes, Coe got directly involved in international relations. In 2001, he brokered a peace deal between the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Rwanda by inviting the warring presidents to his home.
For the most part, Coe's dealings were done behind a curtain of secrecy. In 2005, Coe was named one of the most influential Evangelicals in America by Time Magazine. Coe was called a "stealth Billy Graham."
Where is Doug Coe now?
Coe died at the age of 88 in 2017. He left behind his wife, Janice, and their five children, 21 grandchildren, and 56 great-grandchildren. Many of this descendants are involved in the Fellowship. Coe's son-in-law, Dough Burleigh, is especially involved in bringing the National Prayer Breakfast to Russia.
‘What’s the deal with the Russian collusion?’ … I said boy there’s big-time collusion, it’s the Russians and Jesus, that’s the collusion,” Burleigh says in the documentary.
Both Sharlet's book and the ensuing Netflix documentary chipped away at Coe's fortress of secrecy. However, the Fellowship is still intact. Donald Trump spoke at the 2019 National Prayer Breakfast. According to The Family, Trump embodies Coe's idea of the "wolf king:" The leader is the most powerful of the bunch.
"Now at last Trump, the wolf king, has arrived at home. And it doesn’t matter that he’s a believer. The wolf king likes strength, and you’re going to put your strength alongside his," Sharlet tells Religion News.
Coe died one month after his "wolf king" took office.