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.

Remembering Doug Coe

With the advent of The Family documentary mini-series (based on a book by Jeff Sharlet) on Netflix starting next Wednesday August 9, there will be renewed interest in Doug Coe. Coe was the leader of the Fellowship Foundation for many years before his death in 2017. Although he wasn’t the founder, he did as much as anyone to shape the Fellowship into the organization it is today.

In 2009, I emerged as a vocal opponent of the Ugandan Anti-Homosexuality Bill and more broadly criminalization of homosexuality worldwide. Author Jeff Sharlet initially made the connection between the bill and the Fellowship. Because Ugandan members of the Fellowship and Prayer Breakfast movement were the main supporters of the bill in Uganda, the Fellowship leaders in the U.S. had to decide whether to take a public position on the matter.

Although there were many U.S. influences on the Ugandan legislators, the Fellowship leaders were divided about how to oppose the bill. Some wanted to quietly persuade the Ugandan people to withdraw, while others favored a more active, vocal opposition. However, taking a public position meant increasing public awareness of the organization. This went against the organization’s historical pattern.

For awhile, those favoring more transparency won out and I was invited to interview several Fellowship members including Ambassador Andrew Young, Representative Tony Hall, and Coe.  My write up of the Coe 2010 prayer breakfast interview where he condemned the bill and criminalization was published by Christianity Today.

David Bahati, the parliamentarian who co-introduced the Ugandan bill, later said that the American leaders betrayed him and really wanted the bill to succeed. I think Bahati interpreted the initial silence of some Fellowship leaders as support. However, I believe Doug Coe and other Fellowship leaders were sincere when they spoke with me at the 2010 National Prayer Breakfast.

The series begins next Wednesday August 9. Over the five episodes, I will post more information I have about the Fellowship including links to speeches of Coe’s which he allowed to upload to my Youtube account which had not been previously posted.  The trailer for the series is below.

The Family: A Documentary Series on the Fellowship Foundation Starts August 9 on Netflix

On August 9, Netflix will roll out a documentary series based on Jeff Sharlet’s book The Family: The Secret Fundamentalism at the Heart of American Power. I was interviewed for this series and will appear in one of the episodes. My part of the picture relates to my work against Uganda’s Anti-Homosexuality Bill from 2009 to 2015. You can watch a trailer of the series below:

As part of my efforts against the Ugandan legislation, I attended the 2010 National Prayer Breakfast at the invitation of The Family (Fellowship Foundation). While there, I conducted one of four interviews with Fellowship Foundation leader, the late Douglas Coe. It was published in 2010 in Christianity Today.

Coe died last year and there has been some struggle for leadership. The Fellowship has been in the news  to due to their connection Russian agent Maria Butina. I will add  on the series as it progresses.

Prior articles on the Uganda Anti-Homosexuality Bill can be viewed here. 

More recent articles on the Fellowship Foundation, including the case of Russian agent Maria Butina can be viewed here and here.

The New Yorker almost reports on Uganda’s Anti-Homosexuality Bill

The New Yorker published online an article on The Fellowship, titled “Frat House for Jesus: The entity behind C street.”

The article is lengthy and I need to read it more thoroughly before I give an assessment of the completeness of the reporting but I am not encouraged by the author’s treatment of Uganda’s Anti-Homosexuality Bill:

Hunter brought Yoweri Kaguta Museveni, the former African rebel who became Uganda’s President, and other key Ugandan leaders into prayer groups. When Uganda’s Parliament took up a bill last year that would have punished some homosexual acts with death, Hunter and his friends in the Fellowship felt they had the standing to urge the proposed measure’s defeat. Museveni appointed a commission that studied the matter and then recommended that the bill be withdrawn.

That’s it. While Peter Boyer’s purpose was to report on the Fellowship – in advance of Jeff Sharlet’s new book on the subject coming out soon – he could have at least mentioned that the bill was not withdrawn and that the mover of the bill is a main figure in the Ugandan prayer breakfast movement (The Fellowship).

This paragraph makes it seems as though the bill is history because of the American opposition from the Fellowship. If anything, the American and Ugandan prayer breakfast groups are still at odds over the proper policy regarding the bill. The bill is still alive in committee with Fellowship associate and Ugandan member of Parliament, David Bahati, still advocating the application of Leviticus in Ugandan law.

Let me hasten to add that the American Fellowship group woke up about the issue after Jeff Sharlet reported that David Bahati was a Ugandan associate. From that time, Fellowship associate and spokesperson Bob Hunter’s opposition has been strong and unwavering. Spiritual leader Doug Coe spoke out against the bill. The February national breakfast committee would not have allowed Bahati to attend. And Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton used their National Prayer Breakfast speeches to blast the Ugandan bill by name.

However, Boyer glossed over this history and current reality (did he talk to anyone in Uganda?) and the reader is left with the impression that the bill has been withdrawn or defeated because the American Fellowship used their “standing.” The American Fellowship group has used their influence but the Ugandan Fellowship group has not responded by withdrawing or urging defeat of the bill. My contacts tell me that the situation is no different than when I was at the National Prayer Breakfast in February and many of the Ugandan delegation were in favor of the bill.

Given this treatment of the Uganda situation in the New Yorker piece, I urge a cautious reading of the rest of the article.

For more on the current status of the AHB, see this post and most recently here.

Straight man’s burden – Jeff Sharlet in Harpers

In the current issue of Harpers, Jeff Sharlet provides glimpses of his trip to Uganda, reporting there in April and May. It has been out to subscribers for a week or so but here is a very brief part of the introduction provided by Harpers in conjunction with The Investigative Fund. I have seen the entire piece and it is a vivid description of time spent with several of the main movers of the Anti-Homosexuality Bill. If you have access to Harpers, read it. It begins:

A young man who called himself Blessed had agreed to meet me in front of the Speke Hotel, the oldest in Kampala, Uganda’s capital, but he wsa late, very late, adn I had no way to contact him. Emailing me from a café, he’s said he didn’t have a phone; calling from a pay phone, he’d said he didn’t have a watch. The friends who’d put me in touch with him said he didn’t have an address. I’d see a picture of him: he had a long neck, a narrow face, and a broad smile that made him look both kind and a little sly. I wanted to talk to him precisely because he was hard to find, because he was gay, and because he was on the run.

On October 14, 2009, a Ugandan member of parliament named David Bahati introduced legislation called the Anti-Homosexuality Bill. Among its provisions: up to three years in prison for failure to report a homosexual; seven years for “promotion”; life imprisonment for a single homosexual act; and for “aggravated homosexuality” (which includes gay sex while HIV-positive, gay sex with a disabled person, or, if you’re a recidivist, gay sex with anyone — marking the criminal as a “serial offender”), death. As of this writing the bill has yet to pass, despite near unanimous support in Parliament. But the violence has been building, a crackling fury not yet quite a fire: beatings, disappearances, “corrective” rapes of lesbians, blacklists in a national tabloid, vigilante squads and church crusades, preachers calling out “homos” in their own pews.

It was Blessed’s pastor, a celebrity with an American following who had outed him. “Am being hunted by my family at the moment,” he’d written in an email apologizing for his inability to commit to dinner plans. “Am moving place to place now.” Then, in case I didn’t understand: “They want to kill me.”

To read the complete article, pick up the September 2010 issue of Harper’s.

Jeff Sharlet on The Economist’s report about Uganda’s Anti-Homosexuality Bill

On July 1, The Economist published an article regarding Uganda’s Anti-Homosexuality Bill. Cleverly titled, Slain by the Spirit, the article offered some parts truth and some parts falsehood to craft a misleading narrative about the current status of the bill. For instance in a paragraph on the Anti-Homosexuality Bill, the writer said:

A Ugandan Pentecostal preacher, Martin Ssempa, for instance, has mined a rich seam of homophobia in Uganda to help build up his standing. He and other Pentecostals pushed for the tabling of an anti-homosexuality bill in the Ugandan parliament, which advocates spying on gays and proscribes imprisonment for sodomy.

This section is true. Martin Ssempa, Julius Oyet and Stephen Langa did push for the Anti-Homosexuality Bill, prior to the bill’s introduction. However, making the narrative misleading is the following sentence.

Earlier versions of the law called for the death penalty in some instances.

There is only one version of the bill. It has not been amended. This morning, I asked Parliamentary researcher, Charles Tuhaise, if there was any truth to the rumor that the bill had been amended. He said, “To the best of my knowledge, these rumours are unfounded.” Tuhaise further elaborated that “committees have no mandate to amend a Bill, but to present their proposals to the House in a report read by the Committee Chair.” The Anti-Homosexuality Bill is currently in committee and has not been scheduled for a second reading.

Further unraveling the Economist piece, journalist Jeff Sharlet offers additional facts and fresh reporting with this guest post.

The strange moves of The Economist

Jeff Sharlet

The reverence with which so many upper-middle class Americans read The Economist has always puzzled me. There’s much to admire about the magazine, but it generally performs the same function as Newsweek, boiling down events into centrist conventional wisdom, facts be damned. A report in the July 3, 2010 issue, “The religious right in east Africa: Slain by the spirit,” is a case in point. I’ve been reporting on the religious right anti-gay movement in Uganda from here in the U.S. and from Kampala for nine months now, so I’m in a good position to see The Economist’s strange moves; I wonder what I’d make of the article that follows it, on Somalia’s elections, if I were as informed on that story. But one needn’t have expertise to debunk The Economist’s report; a Google search would do it, especially if you landed, as you likely would, on the well-documented blogs of gay activist Jim Burroway or evangelical scholar Warren Throckmorton.

The biggest error is The Economist’s declaration that the bill no longer calls for the death penalty. That’s propaganda put out by the bill’s defenders. In fact, as I learned by asking the bill’s author, Ugandan Member of Parliament David Bahati, it does. (I’ll be publishing those interviews in my forthcoming book, C Street.) Bahati acknowledges that the death penalty may drop out of the final version; but it hasn’t yet, and it’s dangerous for The Economist to say as much.

Just as dangerous — and puzzling — is The Economist’s contention that “support for the anti-homosexuality bill in the Ugandan parliament has fallen away after Mr. Ssempa and other preachers accused a rival Pentecostal, Robert Kayanja, of sodomy.” Does a plummy accent excuse Economist writers from fact checking? Ssempa and “other preachers” — most notably Rev. Michael Kyazze and Rev. Moses Solomon Male, both of whom I interviewed at length — accused Kayanja of sodomy months before the bill was introduced. Indeed, it was those accusations, and banner headline articles such as “Kayanja Reveals His Homo Secrets” in the April 29, 2009 edition of the wildly popular Red Pepper tabloid that helped drive popular support for the bill. I haven’t been in Kampala since May 2010, but when I was there, I did not meet a single person who wasn’t gay who didn’t support some variation of the bill.

What’s holding it back is international pressure, not the assertion of The Economist’s imaginary centrist norms. And that’s a more complicated story, since the international pressure does take an awfully pushy form — Germany’s offer of $148 million, for instance, if Uganda promises to shelve the bill, Sweden’s threat of an end to aid if Uganda doesn’t. And then there are the folks I write about in C Street, the American “followers of Jesus” who empowered the bill’s author, Bahati, in the first place. The passage of the bill would be a disaster for them, since they’re so intimately linked to it (Bahati is the secretary of the Ugandan branch of the organization, and its other chief backer in government, ethics minister James Nsaba Buturo, is chairman). Some of them, such as Senator Jim Inhofe and Senator Tom Coburn, both of Oklahoma, have been preaching the anti-gay gospel for so long and with such venom that it’s hard to take their disavowals seriously. Others, such as activist Bob Hunter, seem genuinely horrified by the bill. They’ve been putting quiet pressure on the Ugandan government, “behind-the-scenes,” as Hunter describes his work.

If such pressure can prevent the genocide that’s been proposed in Uganda — the bill’s backers describe it as a first step toward the eradication of homosexuality altogether — I think it’s justified. But democratic? Not exactly. Of course, it’s in response to the anti-democratic style that has long defined American and European relations with postcolonial Africa, the purchase of policies amenable to the West with foreign aid, with few questions about who actually benefits from those funds. Usually, those policies have to do with the extraction of resources, the location of military bases, or “coalitions” (the terrible bombing that just killed 74 in Kampala was in response to Uganda’s role as a proxy force for the U.S. in Somalia and its troops in Iraq). Sometimes, it has to do with what in the West are called “socal issues,” i.e., basic public health, such as the pressure put on Uganda by American politicians to de-emphasize condoms as a response to HIV. This time, the pressure is on over a bill that is murderous — in the service of a homophobia that all sides in this debate admit didn’t exist in Uganda before America’s exportation of  its culture wars.

Not so, according to The Economist which sniffs disapprovingly at the tacky Pentecostals. “The influence of the American Christian Right is often overstated,” it declares (true, but it’s  still enormous).”Then there is the question of class… The cabal of civil servants, soldiers and businessmen who dominate the golf and social clubs of Nairobi and Kampala… are mostly Anglican and Roman Catholic and are unlikely to be swayed by the casting out of demons.” There is indeed a class issue, but it’s not as simple as that. The bill’s main backers, Bahati and Buturo, are Anglican, and their extremely anti-gay pastor is Archbishop Luke Orombi, linked to Falls Church Episcopal, one of the upper crustiest churches in America. Bahati and Buturo (both elites in every sense) both told me they believe in demons and connect them to homosexuality. If that doesn’t square with the Church of England familiar to Economist writers, perhaps they’d better do some more reporting before they declare that all is essentially well with the good men of golf clubs in charge.

CORRECTION – 7/20/10:

In “The Economist’s Strange Moves,” I made a clumsy move, myself, identifying Falls Church (Anglican) as an Episcopal congregation. It was, when I visited in 2002. But my friend the Rev. Michael Pipkin, Priest-in-Charge of the current Falls Church (Episcopal), writes: 

“three and a half years ago The Falls Church abandoned The Episcopal Church, attaching themselves to the Anglican Church of Nigeria over issues of Biblical Authority and Sexuality… in the process, they kicked out several of their members who wished to remain Episcopalian, and thus my congregation, The Falls Church (Episcopal) continued on in exile (worshipping across the street in a Presbyterian Church, waiting for a major property dispute to settle).  They are currently referring to themselves (somewhat inaccurately) as The Falls Church (Anglican), though the Archbishop of Canterbury and other “Anglican” groups have not recognized them.”

I recognize the irony of my mistake in a piece taking The Economist to task for its lack of fact checking. Sorry, Falls Churches. But the two main points stand unaltered: 1. The Economist’s suggestion that Anglicans don’t engage in spiritual war as culture war is absurd; 2. I was just writing a quickie blog post; The Economist is a major international magazine, and should have gotten it right the first time.
Ok, now I’ve made my correction. How about yours, Economist?
(End of article – My comments resume in italics below)

Thanks to Jeff for allowing me to post his reaction to the Economist article and this insight into the religious background of the backers of the bill. I should note that on some of the issues here, I have no settled opinion (e.g., Falls Church Episcopal) but agree with Jeff that the Economist article is irresponsible in suggesting that the death penalty has been removed from the bill. When I visited the National Prayer’s Breakfast’s African suite in February, several Ugandan backers of the bill told me that the death penalty would be removed when Parliament resumed session in the Spring. They mocked my concerns over it saying that the bill would be amended and that the bill would be softened. However, nothing has changed.

The focus on the death penalty is unfortunate. While the existance of the death penalty in the bill gets attention, exaggerated rumors of it’s removal lull bystanders into a sense that the situation is improving and all is well. Canyon Ridge Christian Church is a prominent illustration. Because Martin Ssempa says he no longer supports the inclusion of the death penalty, they view him now as if he never supported it, even though he did. Also, by touting Ssempa’s confusing stance as justification for maintaining their support for him, they imply that 20 years in a non-existent rehab facility is reasonable and humane improvement.

While I have no personal experience with Falls Church Episcopal, I should note that it, like Canyon Ridge Christian Church is a Willow Creek Association member church. Given the relationship between Luke Orombi and many American Episcopal churches, some of which are Willow Creek Association members, it becomes even more important that the WCA take a position on the Anti-Homosexuality Bill. The public position would not be to try to influence a foreign government. Providing leadership to member churches would be sufficient.

Prior posts by Jeff Sharlet:

The Fellowship (AKA The Family) opposes Uganda’s Anti-Homosexuality Bill

David Bahati: Lou Engle expressed support for Uganda’s Anti-Homosexuality Bill

Voice of America examines the Anti-Homosexuality Bill 2009, Part Two

The show features Bob Hunter, Jeff Sharlet and a call in from David Bahati. Must see TV.

A link to the mp4 is to come…

David Bahati called in to say that he was invited to the National Prayer Breakfast; this was passed over by the host. This has been denied by the organizers of the NPB as well as sources in Uganda. Then later in the show, Bob Hunter clarified the situation again and recommended that Bahati withdraw the Anti-Homosexuality Bill.

Voice of America program on Uganda Anti-Homosexuality Bill

Today, the Voice of America did a program on the Anti-Homosexuality Bill today featuring Jeff Sharlet, David Bahati, Matt Kavanagh and Olara A. Otunnu.

For now, it is downloadable, go give it a view…

NPR interviews Bob Hunter; repeats the Fellowship Foundation’s (aka The Family) opposition to Uganda’s Anti-Homosexuality Bill

Today, NPR’s Fresh Air featured an interview with former Ford and Carter administration official, Bob Hunter. An interview with Mr. Hunter was recently featured on this blog via a guest post by Jeff Sharlet.

The transcript is here and is interesting reading to say the least. Here is a little bit:

GROSS: Uganda now has anti-gay legislation before parliament that is really draconian. It would call for the death penalty for anyone who is gay who had HIV-AIDS, the death penalty for adults who have gay sex with minors, jail for anyone who fails to report a gay person within 24 hours if there’s been gay activity, life sentences for people in same-sex marriages, and this bill also calls for extraditing gay Ugandans living abroad so that they can be brought back to Uganda and be prosecuted.

What’s your opinion of that bill, being so close to the country of Uganda?

Mr. HUNTER: Well, my opinion is it’s a terrible bill and shouldn’t be adopted, and I believe no one that I know, in America particularly, and my close friends in Uganda, I know of no one who supports it in the Fellowship.

GROSS: Since you have so many connections in Uganda and since you know President Museveni and helped bring him to the National Prayer Breakfast in 1997, which is organized by the Fellowship – the Family – did you – have you spoken out to your connections in Uganda?

Mr. HUNTER: Oh yes. Definitely. In fact, when I first called them, and well, first was an email contact, they said, look, the guy who introduced the bill came to one of our prayer breakfasts and afterwards, in a private meeting he told us about the bill and we told him it was a bad idea. So even before the bill was introduced, members of the Fellowship had said you should reach out to other people before you do this. It’s, you know, be cautious. This is not a good idea. They did it in a very polite Ugandan way but the fact is they spoke out even before it was introduced.

Mr. Hunter then mentions Jeff Sharlet’s guest post and seems very keen to emphasize the Fellowship’s position on Uganda.

GROSS: Now, so these are statements that have been made in the United States. What about statements to Ugandans like calling up connections or calling up people who they have prayed with?

Mr. HUNTER: My understanding is there has been some connections. I know I have done it personally and talked to people who would be close to people in the decision-making process about our concerns, which is very unusual. You know, we never involve ourselves in these political things. That’s not our role. But this one became so, you know, hot that we decided – I decided that I should speak out, and then I found out they were already speaking out in Uganda.

I would say that, one other thing…

GROSS: Mm-hmm.

Mr. HUNTER: …and that is that Mr. Sharlet now recognizes that we had nothing to do with the anti-homosexual bill and has so said so in post by Warren Throckmorton.

You can listen to the entire interview here.

Video: Rachel Maddow Show covers the Fellowship Foundation’s opposition to Uganda’s Anti-Homosexuality Bill

I didn’t see the link so it will be hard for viewers to find it, but the guest post by Jeff Sharlet made the Rachel Maddow Show tonight. Have a look for yourself:

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As I note here, the prospects for the February, 2010 National Prayer Breakfast to be business as usual depends on what happens in Uganda over the next month or so.