It started, as many things do, with God.
It was early in the new millennium and Jeff Sharlet, as he recounts in the Netflix docuseries The Family, was a writer living in New York City and working on a book — “trying to understand all the different ideas of Jesus.” Soon after 9/11, Sharlet connected with a longtime friend whose family feared he had been sucked into the tide of a “cult,” moving across the country and leaving his future behind. They requested of Sharlet: See how he’s doing.
Sharlet learned from this friend about a little-known and apparently beguiling Christian sect — decentralized but devout — that supported “men who are chosen by God for leadership.” The men, according to Sharlet, described themselves as “followers of Jesus” instead of as Christians.
It was a group that Sharlet, in time, would join himself: an “undercover” experience that formed first the basis of a 2003 magazine article, then a 2008 book and its 2010 sequel and now a five-part Netflix docuseries, The Family, which premiered on Friday.
“They will accuse me of betraying their trust and, in a fundamental way, I did: They want to be a secret, invisible organization. I wrote two books about them. But this story is no longer just about my experience,” Sharlet says in the series (previewed above; a full response from the group is at the bottom of this article).
What The Family grapples with and tries to illuminate is the same fundamental question that has hinged on the group’s intense privacy for years: What do its members really want, and are they presenting their truest face to the world?
The organization is 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. It sponsors only one public activity: the annual National Prayer Breakfast, customarily attended by every president.
“I wish I could say more about it,” President Ronald Reagan said in 1985, according to The New York Times, “but it’s working precisely because it is private.”
The group has been known by multiple names, including The Fellowship, The Fellowship Foundation and International Foundation, and for decades it reportedly did not have any discernible footprint: no obvious spokesman, no website, no public office, no contact number. (A website now exists.)
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 annual 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.
Ed Meese, a former U.S. attorney general under President Reagan, told The New Yorker in 2010 that the Fellowship 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.”
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The group has made national headlines in recent years largely to do with its confidentiality, its conservative members and a boarding home-like residence it owned in Washington, D.C., linked to several high-profile Republican lawmakers when some of them were embroiled in personal scandals.
“We’re not being secretive,” Doug Coe, the group’s de facto head for decades until his 2017 death, 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 told The New Yorker, casting himself as an open heart on a mission of healing through prayerful connection with people in need around the world.
Others saw 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.
David Kuo, a former adviser to President George W. Bush, previously told Sharlet: “The Fellowship’s reach into governments around the world is almost impossible to overstate or even grasp.”
The Family‘s director, Jesse Moss, says the series isn’t a jeremiad, exactly, about the group’s place in the world. Like Sharlet — who is a central figure in the documentary, where he serves as a kind of narrator and where his memories of his time in the group are dramatized with actors such as James Cromwell — Moss says he was interested in exploration, not sandbagging. But as he learned more, he also wanted to expose. Among the group’s critics in the series are other Christians who take issue with the sect’s particular beliefs and methods.
“If there were good deeds, that work should be reported or recorded, but we would not hold back if there were critical things to say and tough questions to ask,” Moss tells PEOPLE, describing his intent.
He, like Sharlet, takes a flinty-eyed view of the group’s work, its conservative members and its professed intentions; and he says The Family has a noir-like journey into darkness and understanding.
“Is it just ‘Jesus plus nothing’?” Moss says, referring to one distillation of the group’s beliefs. “Or is there something else?”
“What’s unsettling,” he says, “is to see faith, out of cynicism or naïveté, become a vehicle for what appears to be the accumulation of power — for the sake of what, I’m not sure.”
Both Sharlet and The New Yorker described how Fellowship members used their relationships to advance a diplomatic agenda, including in 2001 brokering a meeting between two African leaders and in another instance lobbying against an anti-gay bill in Uganda.
“You ask me, ‘What’s the relevance of the story today?’ It’s not overblown to say that democracy is under threat, I think, and the institutions of democracy are under attack,” Moss says.
“I feel that there’s great value in demanding transparency from our elected officials,” he tells PEOPLE, “and holding an organization like The Family — The Fellowship — to account …. If they’re working toward a God-led governance around the world, I think we should know.”
Sharlet’s work, which Moss used as a jumping off point for his own further reporting in the docuseries, sounds somewhat like a conspiracy theory, by a certain view, Moss acknowledges.
He’s “not an alarmist,” he says. And he says The Family is not about the group’s religious convictions on their own. It’s about political power and how the members’ particular faith, hidden from the world, facilitates that.
“My feeling is it’s some pretty dark times and — it’s not The Handmaid’s Tale, but there’s a dystopian future that looms near the horizon and is The Fellowship working toward that or working to keep us away from it?” Moss says. “I’ll trust the audience to make their own conclusions.”
In a statement to PEOPLE, The Fellowship said it had been misunderstood. (Past and present members participated in the series, after initial reluctance, according to Moss.)
“Though the Netflix docudrama series mischaracterizes the work of the Fellowship and attempts to portray people of faith in a bad light, we are encouraged by how often viewers are introduced to, and challenged by, the person and principles of Jesus, which are at the core of our mission and message,” the group said. “Perhaps they will also better understand the integrity and transformational impact of this informal network to encourage everyone in a spirit of friendship and reconciliation to love God with all their heart, soul and mind, and to love their neighbor as themselves.”
• With reporting by RACHEL DeSANTIS