A coalition of religious and secular groups is calling on Pres. Joe Biden and Congress to end their involvement with the National Prayer Breakfast, a private event used by its secretive sponsor to foster right-wing networking around the globe.
The ask – in the form of a letter signed by numerous organizations and individuals – represents a significant escalation in the number and scope of people opposed to political participation in the annual event. The letter was expected to go out Tuesday, according to the Freedom From Religion Foundation (FFRF), which spearheaded it.
Based on the signatories, past opposition to the breakfast by secular groups is now growing to include organizations representing religious leaders, the LGBTQ+ community, and Black organizations. More than one leader cited historic public pressure on Black politicians to engage in public displays of religiosity.
In addition to Biden and the Congress generally, some of the letter’s signatories told TYT they would like to see public support from the Congressional Black Caucus and the Congressional Freethought Caucus. The FFRF last month told TYT it was lobbying members of Congress to drop the breakfast, and some of those signing on to the new letter said they’re doing similar lobbying, as well.
Signatories include the Council for Global Equality, the Bayard Rustin Liberation Initiative, Black Nonbelievers, American Atheists, and the American Humanist Association. Organization leaders who spoke to TYT about their reasons for signing the leader included four Black leaders, two of them gay men of the cloth.
Some cited TYT’s reporting about the National Prayer Breakfast sponsor, a private and secretive Christian group called the Fellowship Foundation and known popularly as The Family. Some cited journalist Jeff Sharlet’s definitive book, “The Family,” and his revelations about The Family’s ties to anti-LGBTQ death-penalty legislation in Uganda.
Others took issue with the fundamental conflict of official involvement in a prayer breakfast, a longstanding issue for secular groups. Recent revelations about The Family’s work – and how it uses prayer breakfasts – have expanded such historic concerns beyond the secular world to include racism, anti-LGBTQ bias, anti-choice bias, and misogyny, igniting activism against the breakfast from a broader coalition of groups.
The Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol and mounting awareness of white Christian nationalism has also swelled the ranks of those willing to call out proponents of theocracy, even those clad in benign vestments. A Council for Global Equality representative called the breakfast “a playground for white Christian nationalists.”
The National Prayer Breakfast is traditionally staged in Washington the first Thursday of each February. While the main event is streamed live, the Family also holds four days of ancillary, closed-door events at which the religious and political leanings of its leaders are more openly indulged.
TYT previously revealed that The Family used such side events to radicalize MyPillow CEO Mike Lindell and to protect Guatemala’s evangelical, anti-LGBTQ president from prosecutors. The “Take Care, Tim” blog surfaced video of Rep. Tim Walberg (R-MI) at the Ukrainian National Prayer Breakfast praising such events for steeling then-Pres. Donald Trump’s opposition to abortion and same-sex marriage.
With fewer Democrats willing to associate themselves with the event every year, The Family’s most prominent Democratic advocate, Sen. Chris Coons (D-DE), has become increasingly isolated in his defense of the event. Then-Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA), a past headliner, did not attend in 2022. Sen. Tim Kaine (D-VA) told TYT in a statement beforehand that he wouldn’t be a part of it.
Coons reportedly claimed that the 2022 National Prayer Breakfast (NPB) would represent a “reset” of the event. But this year’s NPB shows every sign of maintaining the Family’s secrecy. The event has not been publicly announced and The Family has never disclosed the guest list nor who compiles it.
Last year, the White House kept Biden’s participation low-key, withholding details and rationales about his planned participation beforehand. The White House only revealed his involvement four days before, in its weekly planning itinerary for the media.
Similarly, this year the White House has not responded to TYT’s request for comment about Biden’s potential participation, or about the FFRF letter. Biden reportedly is close to Coons, a fellow Delawarean.
More breakfast opponents, however, are speaking openly about the role that a dwindling handful of Democrats plays facilitating The Family’s work.
Democratic participation, American Atheists Vice President Alison Gill said, “gives a false legitimacy” to the private event. She said, “We’ve been working with partner organizations at the national level to be clear and to ask Democrats not to participate so that they don’t legitimize this organization or this message as being bipartisan, as being American policy.”
Gill added that the breakfast is not the only instance of putatively bipartisan prayer events roping in Democrats to the benefit of right-wing causes. American Atheists is focusing on state-level issues, and Gill said some states have prayer caucuses “furthering this specific Christian nationalist agenda. And Democrats that participate really help to legitimize that.”
As with the breakfasts, Gill said, the state-level caucuses go beyond prayer to policy. “What they do, we've seen as a tactic, is get like the one Democrat participant to introduce pretty extreme legislation … to make it seem like it's mainstream.”
American Humanist Association (AHA) Executive Director Nadya Dutchin told TYT that the “conflation” of church and state at the breakfast is “antithetical to everything that we stand for and, I think, that most American people stand for.” But Dutchin also said the “really insidious nature of the prayer breakfast” has “start[ed] to materialize.”
During the Obama administration, Sharlet’s reporting revealed The Family’s role in the genesis of Ugandan legislation that included capital punishment for LGBTQ+ people. More recently, TYT has revealed how Democratic participation in the breakfast and its overseas affiliates has helped bolster and build anti-LGBTQ networks in Ukraine and Guatemala, among other places.
But for one opponent of political participation in the breakfast, the history goes back further. And it’s personal.
The Rev. Jason Carson Wilson, founder of the Bayard Rustin Liberation Initiative, says he was six years old when he first got his call to the ministry, and first knew he was gay.
Not many years later, the young Wilson – raised in a conservative evangelical church – encountered coverage of the National Prayer Breakfast on television. He was also watching reports about the start of the AIDS crisis. But not just on TV news. On “things like the 700 Club, I was really exposed to those types of views.”
And so, Wilson says, “For me, it’s always been, frankly, as a gay man, a triggering event, even watching it on TV, particularly because of its connection with really stirring, or fomenting the demonization of LGBTQ people, particularly during this moment at which they were the most targeted, already being tormented by watching people die.”
The FFRF’s organizing of the letter is the first time the Bayard Rustin Liberation Initiative has taken a public stand on the National Prayer Breakfast. “Those feelings that I had as a young person have stuck with me,” Wilson said. “And I think that is what drives me to take this opportunity to speak out against this.”
Another Black, gay man of faith opposing the breakfast is Bishop Joseph Tolton of The Fellowship of Affirming Ministries, also the founder of Interconnected Justice and the faith engagement coordinator for the Council for Global Equality, a coalition of LGBTI human rights organizations that focuses on U.S. foreign policy. The CGE is a signatory to the letter.
Tolton called the breakfast “a playground for white Christian nationalists to connect and to further promote their agenda, which makes it such a dangerous event because they lure members of Congress into the event.”
Tolton said, “there’s a global economy of highly conservative Christianity sliding toward dominionist ideology [and] it is financed mostly by folks from the United States and from the West.” (As TYT revealed, the breakfast’s predominant donor is anti-LGBTQ evangelist Franklin Graham.)
Tolton called this “a diabolical effort to create nations that adopt the law of God, or the law of Christ, as the law of the nation.”
Here in the U.S. Tolton said, conservatives are “saying out loud the parts they used to whisper, which is that they do want to see the country really establish Christianity as our national religion.”
He said, “That platform is anti-gay, it's anti-woman, it's anti-black. They certainly also want to have an economic system that reinforces our continuation of drifting toward being a clear oligarchy.”
Tolton also said that anti-LGBTQ tactics nurtured in the friendly soil of countries like Uganda, where he oversees a ministry, are now taking root here in the U.S. The U.S., in other words, is not immune from the actions its Christian nationalist financiers fund overseas.
In Uganda, for instance, Tolton said, “the [way] to push back against and to crush LGBTQ advocacy is to suggest that gay folks are in the business of recruiting children into homosexuality.”
He said that, “Over the last two years, the community has been terrorized and threatened.”
Despite the absurdity of homosexual recruitment, Tolton said, that idea “got lots of traction in Uganda, but now it’s happening in America, where they’re not calling them recruiters, but it’s the same idea of the language that they use in America … grooming.”
Tolton said, “These things are deeply connected and the prayer breakfast is a real vehicle that reinforces these connections, which is a terrible thing.” (As TYT reported last year, the 2022 Ugandan National Prayer Breakfast was an open rally, including Family allies, to resist western pressure for LGBTQ+ tolerance.)
While European LGTBQ+ organizations have been openly critical of prayer breakfasts in the past, this year marks the first since the Ugandan scandal that the breakfast’s anti-LGBTQ+ component is also driving domestic U.S. opposition.
The AHA’s Dutchin said, “The prayer breakfast has a huge and strong anti-LGBTQ component.”
Gill said, “It’s leading to the export of Christian nationalism across the world: An anti-LGBTQ and anti-civil rights agenda… And I think that’s been further exposed.”
Wilson, who’s also a minister with the United Church of Christ, says he founded the Bayard Rustin Liberation Initiative to advocate for LGTBQ+ people of color, with a focus on economic justice. According to Wilson, “This breakfast has served as a space that has connected certain, shall we say, power brokers here in the United States with, for example, homophobic lawmakers.”
Wilson said he joined the coalition signing the letter because, “in the context of this breakfast, [prayer] is a sacred act that has become weaponized.” In addition to LGBTQ+ issues, Wilson also tied the National Prayer Breakfast to rhetoric about “individuals who need a helping hand from safety-net programs that are demonized because they need that help.”
Several signatories told TYT that the prayer breakfast has specific political implications for the Black community, and that Black members of Congress are more vulnerable to pressure to attend.
Mandisa Thomas, founder and president of Black Nonbelievers, told TYT that although Black members of Congress “are very well educated [and] are very intelligent, they can still be swayed by either their constituency or by their own personal belief into thinking that this prayer breakfast is something that is just, not necessarily harmless, but that brings people together.”
She added, “So, yes, I do think that there are extenuating circumstances that could influence Black legislators to go along with it, and, yes, we do have to talk about that.”
Thomas said that this was the first year that Black Nonbelievers has been involved in opposing the breakfast. “This is very important to us,” she said. The breakfast “basically embodies white supremacy, especially from a religious perspective, which does impact racial justice.”
Separation of church and state, Thomas said, impacts not only racial but economic justice, which “people of color, particularly Black communities, are disproportionately affected by.”
She said, “It is important for us to discuss from our perspective how the National Prayer Breakfast is…problematic, and also the initiatives [of] the sponsor organization and the harm that they have caused around the world, even on the continent of Africa.”
Dutchin, who is not only Black but the first woman and the first person of color to lead the AHA, said she sees pressure on Black politicians to exhibit religiosity. She said, “The outcomes of the breakfast and of other engagement like that are absolutely antithetical and harmful to the well-being of Black people and Brown people and other marginalized communities.”
Addressing claims that the breakfast is a unifying event, Tolton pointed to the fact that the breakfast has virtually no presence in the black church. “The black church at large is not particularly connected to the fellowship or the prayer breakfast,” Tolton said. “And I think that there's a real reason for that that should make someone very curious and suspicious.” (TYT previously revealed that even nationally known Black religious leaders on the left were not invited.)
A number of signatories said the Jan. 6 attack has raised the stakes for opposing anything inclined toward theocracy or white Christian nationalism. (TYT previously reported that some leaders of The Family backed the Big Lie.)
Dutchin said the breakfast conflates Christian beliefs with constitutional values “and contributes to growing Christian nationalistic sentiment.” Referring to Christians, religious minorities, and secular people, Dutchin said, “We all need to be banding together in this moment and working against this rising wave of toxic Christian nationalism.”
Today, Gill said, “People are more willing to call out when people move beyond just conservative Christianity into this type of ideological, Christian nationalism.”
According to Wilson, “This prayer breakfast on such a national stage really flies against our constitutional commitment to the separation of church and state.”
Dutchin said she hopes to get public statements from Congressional Freethought Caucus members to raise awareness about the nature of the breakfast. She said AHA will likely talk to caucus co-founders Reps. Jared Huffman (D-CA) or Jamie Raskin (D-MD). “We’re hoping that one of them will weigh in,” she said.
Gill said that American Atheists and the FFRF, as well as “several” other partners, within the last year or so began discussing “how we could take a more active stance in opposing” the breakfast.
“It’s become more and more evident, as years go by, what this actually is,” Gill said. “The fact that this is an organization running it that has an agenda, and it’s spreading a message, was cloaked by the fact that it was more bipartisan” in previous years.
It’s not just reporting by TYT and others that has helped clarify the breakfast’s nature, Gill said. “Also it was the fact that we’re seeing more Democrats withdraw from it.”
She said, “Now it’s sort of become synonymous with this Christian nationalist agenda, so it becomes easier and more important that we unmask it.” And the mounting evidence of anti-LGBTQ+ work, she said, might make opponents of the breakfast “more willing to speak out and less fearful that they’ll be branded as anti-religious.”
Wilson, with the Bayard Rustin Liberation Initiative, said it’s been well-documented that the breakfast is “predominantly” a space for political networking. He said he would invite breakfast participants to “ponder, or – frankly, pun intended – pray about whether or not the act of prayer should be connected to or used to build political power.”
Tolton said the Council for Global Equality has the U.S. government’s ear and is working to educate lawmakers “on a case by case basis” about the dynamic between global LGBTQ+ rights and the prayer breakfast. “They perceive that it's benign and – particularly as Democrats, I think – that it's a good way to establish, you know, credibility with some of your religious constituents.”
Much like Dutchin hopes to get the Congressional Freethought Caucus involved, Tolton has his eye on another group of members. “One of the entities that I think could really play an interesting role here is the Congressional Black Caucus, because for years they have been pro-LGBTQ, they've been far ahead of their constituents and certainly the black church.”
He said, “I think that there's a real opportunity for the Congressional Black Caucus to be in conversation with black pastors and black leaders about why [the National Prayer Breakfast] is such a dangerous initiative.”
The danger, Tolton said, is that “it is the intention of those that facilitate the prayer breakfast to ultimately move us toward establishment“ of a religious state. “Our opponents mean business,” he said. “And, obviously, so do we.”
Jonathan Larsen is TYT’s managing editor. You can find him on Twitter @JTLarsen.