One of a series about the Fellowship Foundation, the secretive religious group that runs the National Prayer Breakfast and is popularly known as The Family. This series is based on Family documents obtained by TYT, including lists of breakfast guests and who invited them.
The Freedom From Religion Foundation (FFRF) is once again lobbying members of Congress not to participate in the National Prayer Breakfast, held annually in early February, TYT has learned.
The FFRF is holding and seeking meetings with congressional staff of recent participants to brief them on how the organization behind the breakfast uses the event to build right-wing networks and oppose LGBTQ and reproductive rights in the U.S. and around the world.
The breakfast is run by the Fellowship Foundation, a secretive Christian group popularly known as The Family. Its role in Ugandan death penalty legislation targeting LGBTQ people was covered during the Obama administration by a number of journalists, notably writer Jeff Sharlet, whose books about The Family formed the basis for a recent Netflix documentary series.
Since then, TYT has revealed more about The Family’s activities, based in part on internal National Prayer Breakfast (NPB) guest lists obtained by TYT.
As TYT has reported, The Family boosts right-wing allies overseas by providing members of Congress for their events, helping those allies draw their country’s power players and establish themselves as conduits to American power. Simultaneously, The Family secretly allows those same allies overseas to build their influence by letting them choose who from their country gets to attend the U.S. event, where they can also network with political heavyweights.
A Family insider, for instance, explicitly boosted the political career of anti-LGBTQ boxer Manny Pacquiao to media in the Philippines. Pacquiao's breakfast invitation, the coverage implied, constituted congressional recognition of his importance. As TYT revealed, however, the invite was part of The Family's networking.
In a statement to TYT this weekend, FFRF Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor called the event and its organizers “incubators for Christian nationalist beliefs,” saying they have “fostered hate" against LGBTQ people. The Family maintains that it and the breakfast are nonpartisan.
TYT has reported how specific Democratic members of Congress – unwittingly or otherwise – aided The Family and its right-wing allies abroad. A number of LGBTQ advocates have issued warnings that participating in the breakfasts helps boost an international network of right-wing Christians.
One European group, responding to TYT’s reporting, distributed an intelligence brief to members of the House LGBTQ+ Equality Caucus last year, saying members of Congress were being duped. Democrats have increasingly shied away from the breakfast as these reports have accumulated.
After TYT learned that Pres. Joe Biden would attend the 2022 breakfast, the Secular Coalition for America released a statement saying, “It is deeply disappointing to see our elected officials legitimize this event, we strongly urge them to reconsider their involvement.”
Interfaith Alliance’s president, Rabbi Jack Moline, told TYT, “the socially conservative agenda promoted by the sponsors ought to make those committed to diversity, equity and inclusion think twice about lending their names and titles to this set of events.”
After being shown guest lists from prior years, Moline called it “remarkable… [that] there seemed to be no cohort of Jews, leaders or otherwise… [and] no renowned scholars or pundits from the community.” The breakfast is ostensibly non-sectarian. The First Amendment prohibits Congress from respecting an establishment of religion.
Last February’s event – scaled down in light of COVID – saw significant dropoff in Democratic participation. TYT reported beforehand that Sen. Tim Kaine (D-VA) would not attend. Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA), a past mainstay – but also a staunch LGBTQ ally – was also a no-show.
In addition, while past invitations have listed a roughly equal number of Democratic and Republican “honorary” hosts, last year’s House members included 11 Republicans, more than twice the five Democrats willing to lend their names to the event.
Still, a handful of Democrats – especially Sen. Chris Coons (D-DE) – continue to facilitate The Family’s work.
Biden – whose Senate seat is now held by Coons – has continued to participate. The White House and other Democrats have kept their participation low profile, despite the event’s ostensible purpose of unifying people without regard to faith.
Both the White House and honorary co-host Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY), for instance, asked by TYT about their participation in the February 2022 breakfast, never disclosed it, and barely acknowledged it to the general public until just a few days beforehand. The Family, meanwhile, was given advance notice of their participation and disseminated it to its inner circle before the White House notified the press.
As TYT revealed last year, anti-LGBTQ crusader Franklin Graham is the NPB’s primary financial backer. GOP megadonor Ronnie Cameron, too, has given millions to The Family. Cameron and other Family leaders backed the Big Lie after the 2020 election, as TYT reported.
Democrats known to have aided The Family’s work building right-wing networks overseas include Rep. Juan Vargas (D-CA) and former Rep. Janice Hahn (D-CA).
As TYT reported last year, Vargas helped draw attendees to the 2021 Ukrainian National Prayer Breakfast run by anti-LGBTQ leader Pavlo Unguryan. That event led to a number of right-wing, anti-LGBTQ activists mainstreaming their image by associating themselves with Vargas.
Unguryan was not merely a Ukrainian organizer, but was secretly part of The Family’s work organizing the Washington, DC, breakfast – sending out invitations under the names of congressional Republicans and Democrats alike to a number of fellow anti-LGBTQ politicians.
Vargas and half a dozen other Democrats disappeared from The Family’s 2022 invitation letter masthead in the wake of TYT reports on how their participation bolstered The Family’s right-wing network and causes.
For her part, Hahn was a key element of The Family’s work establishing an evangelical power base in Guatemala. Her attendance at a prayer breakfast there helped elevate a Family ally to the point that he was named ambassador to the U.S. by evangelical Pres. Jimmy Morales.
As TYT and others reported, that ambassador’s new connections proved vital in Morales’s quest to stop a UN anti-corruption task force before it could prosecute him for campaign-finance violations. Senate allies in The Family used the Helsinki Commission to splinter the previous bipartisan support for the task force, without revealing their Family ties to Morales.
More recently, the same Ugandans tied to The Family who more than a decade ago pursued anti-LGBTQ capital punishment there, are still using their annual prayer breakfast to rally anti-LGBTQ sentiment. As TYT reported just two months ago, Pres. Yoweri Museveniwas just one of several speakers urging the nation to reject western pressure for LGBTQ tolerance.
In the U.S., Democrats participating in the 2022 NPB included Sens. Gillibrand, the co-chair; and Coons; as well as then-new Senator Raphael Warnock (D-GA), a reverend; Sen. Robert Casey (D-PA); Sen. Maggie Hassan (D-NH); Senate Maj. Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY); and Sen. Angus King (I-ME), who caucuses with Democrats.
Kaine was listed as a member of the “Honorary Senate Committee” even after distancing himself from the event in his statement to TYT.
The few House members who lent their names to the 2022 breakfast were Reps. Lou Correa (D-CA), Conor Lamb (D-PA), Frank Mrvan (D-IN), Bobby Scott (D-VA), and Tom Suozzi (D-NY). Rep. Lucy McBath (D-GA) gave a reading.
One reason Democrats may not be aware of how the breakfasts are used is that the organizers calibrate explicit right-wing content in sync with the host country’s politics.
While Uganda put anti-LGBTQ remarks at center stage, for instance, overt right-wing Christian remarks by Rep. Tim Walberg (R-MI) in 2019 were captured on camera not at the main event, but at a side event for insiders.
In the U.S., such discussions are even more discreet, held at closed-door “breakout sessions.” No cameras.
It was at one of these secret sessions, TYT revealed last year, that MyPillow CEO Mike Lindell was cultivated by Family leaders at the 2016 National Prayer Breakfast. Another right-wing icon who was given a high profile by breakfast organizers was Ben Carson, whose shots at Obama during the 2013 NPB ignited political momentum that led to a presidential campaign and a cabinet seat during the Trump administration.
In her statement to TYT, Gaylor said, “The Freedom from Religion Foundation remains committed to opposing the National Prayer Breakfast, which is a relic of the Cold War era that should be discontinued. The breakfast, and its hosting organization, the Fellowship Foundation, are incubators for Christian nationalist beliefs. It has historically fostered hate against LGBTQ individuals, accommodated dictators such as [Russian Pres. Vladimir] Putin and Papa Doc [François Duvalier of Haiti], and would-be dictators at home."
Referring to then-Pres. Donald Trump's attacks on Democrats at the 2020 breakfast, Gaylor said, "Trump used the event to promote Christian nationalism and was met with tremendous enthusiasm. The breakfast is not the bi-partisan bonhomie event that it purports to be. It has an extremely checkered past and we are calling on public officials of goodwill to boycott it.”
Early this year, source close to The Family told TYT, “Many of the Dems enjoy and value the time together [at the breakfast].” However, the source said, Democrats “do not fully understand the wider activities or their implications.”
Asked how they would explain those implications to participating Democrats, the source said, “Have them read your reporting.”
Jonathan Larsen is TYT’s managing editor. You can find him on Twitter @JTLarsen.