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Secretive Christian group at heart of D.C. politics ready for its close-up in Netflix docuseries

"The Family" puts the spotlight on the enigmatic Fellowship Foundation, the Christian group behind the National Prayer Breakfast.
Image: Sen. James Lankford, President Donald Trump and Sen. Christopher Coons pray during the National Prayer Breakfast in Washington on Feb. 7, 2019.
Sen. James Lankford, President Donald Trump and Sen. Christopher Coons pray during the National Prayer Breakfast in Washington on Feb. 7, 2019.Brendan Smialowski / AFP - Getty Images file

A secretive organization that has courted political leaders and built international influence while undermining the constitutional division of the church and the state in the process is at the center of a new five-episode documentary series called “The Family.”

Since 1953, the National Prayer Breakfast has remained a fixture in American politics that has boasted attendance by every president since Dwight D. Eisenhower on the first Thursday of every February. It has been hyped as an opportunity for the political elite of Washington, D.C., and visiting international dignitaries to put aside partisan differences and reflect on a higher purpose.

While the annual event is purportedly hosted by members of Congress, it is actually organized and run by an evangelical Christian organization called The Fellowship Foundation, or "The Family," as it is referred to internally by its members.

The series, which debuts on Netflix on Friday, takes a look at the group that operates with its own higher purpose — quietly building its influence on global politics "in the name of Jesus."

"The Fellowship isn't about faith and it spreads very little. It's about power," said Jeff Sharlet, whose books, "The Family: The Secret Fundamentalism at the Heart of American Power," and "C Street: The Fundamentalist Threat to American Democracy," inspired the Netflix series.

"Internally, it is spoken of primarily as a 'recruiting device' with which to draw 'key men' into smaller prayer cells to 'meet Jesus man to man,'” according to Sharlet. "Practically, the Prayer Breakfast has functioned from the very beginning as an unregistered lobbying festival."

The Fellowship Foundation did not return an NBC News request for comment, and a publicist linked to the group previously also declined to respond.

The Family leader Doug Coe meets with then-President Ronald Reagan and First Lady Nancy Reagan.Courtesy of Netflix

Abraham Vereide started the first iteration of the Fellowship in Seattle in 1935 when he hosted 19 business leaders with the aim of crushing organized labor. However, using the Prayer Breakfast as a discreet Christian recruiting platform was perfected under longtime leader Doug Coe, who was considered one of the most powerful influencers in the Beltway before his death in 2017.

The Prayer Breakfast isn't the only way the Fellowship has infiltrated the highest levels of the U.S. government.

Documents have also tied the group to a D.C. residence, dubbed “C Street” for the street on which it is located, which provided low-cost housing for prominent legislators before news stories spurred by Sharlet's book drew attention to its violation of congressional gift regulations.

"There is simply a great deal of hypocrisy, partiality, favoritism in D.C., (which are) all things Jesus' life and teachings directly oppose," Douglas Hampton, a former associate of the Fellowship, said by email.

"It's become about power and position, not (public service) and what's best for others,” he said.

Hampton came to the group in the mid-1990s as a staffer of then-Republican Congressman John Ensign from Nevada. He would leave both the Fellowship and his position with Ensign, after the then-senator was exposed for having an extramarital affair with Hampton's wife.

But despite all of that, Hampton, who was recruited into the group at a golf tournament, credits Coe with enriching his life spiritually.

"His teachings on Jesus compelled men to hear what was being shared, compelled me," Hampton said by email.

"One of Doug Coe's beliefs was that if you lifted up the name of Jesus, that God would draw people in, all sorts of people from all over the world — thus the National Prayer Breakfast — that people would have a desire to learn and embrace the teachings of Jesus and come to Washington to support the breakfast."

Unlike most traditional evangelical Christian groups, which prioritize mobilizing as large a base as possible, the "Family" strategically keeps its membership purposely exclusive.

"It’s so different than our popular impression of the Christian right, it's different than the image of the sweaty pulpit pounders," said "The Family" director Jesse Moss. "Those are mass movements, this is the opposite of that.

"Doug Coe very intentionally took the group underground. There was a recognition that they could do their best work anonymously."

Citing 2006 documents, Sharlet estimates the number of dedicated organizers who handle recruitment at just 350. Those organizers, however, have built a network of prayer cells that the late Christian Right leader Chuck Colson pegged at 20,000-strong, calling it, "a veritable underground of Christ's men all through government."

Sometimes that has meant aligning with politicians who stray from Jesus' example. In 2009, former South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford gave a press conference outside of C Street emphasizing his religious pedigree upon resurfacing after disappearing from his state for days to visit a mistress in Argentina.

South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford addresses the press outside the C Street residence in Washington in 2009. Courtesy of Netflix

So, while President Donald Trump may not have the most pious of track records, Sharlet says the Family has embraced the unique opportunity provided by the most fundamentalist Cabinet in recent American history to advocate evangelical policy.

"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 explained.

"The fact that Trump, with his "art of the deal," is especially well-prepared to embrace this transactional theology — Trump puts the Christian Right's people in power in return of their support — seals the deal."

Jeff Sharlet in a scene from 'The Family'Courtesy of Netflix

The reach of the Fellowship has extended well beyond the confines of Washington. Politicians and businessmen affiliated with the group have met to pray and parlay with the likes of the late Libyan strongman Moammar Gadhafi, Indonesian despot Suharto and Haitian dictator Papa Doc Duvalier, Sharlet said.

Moss points to the episode of "The Family" that chronicles the more recent international trips made by politicians tied to the group to proselytize Christian policy, such as Rep. Robert Aderholt's on-the-ground campaigning for a strict anti-LGBTQ law in Romania.

"Everyone has an agenda, and not everyone is welcome — only the significant," Hampton said.