Amid Controversy, the National Prayer Breakfast Scales Down

Pres. Joe Biden addresses the National Prayer Breakfast on Feb. 3, 2022, speaking for the first time from the Capitol Visitor Center.



Ed. note: The day after this story was published, a statement was issued giving more details about the breakfast changes. You can read TYT's coverage of that statement here.

The National Prayer Breakfast is making some big changes at the annual event next week, after a number of high-profile Democratic defections last year, TYT has learned.

A coalition of secular, religious, Black, and LGBTQ+ organizations earlier this month publicly asked Pres. Joe Biden and members of Congress not to attend, citing reporting by TYT and other outlets about the controversial event's sponsor, the Fellowship Foundation, also known as The Family. Some of those groups told TYT on Monday that they welcome the apparent changes, but continue to oppose official participation in the overtly religious tradition.

According to an invitation posted online but not publicized, this year’s breakfast program has been cut down from four days to two. The Family will apparently have far fewer of its secret, closed-door networking events in breakout rooms at the Washington Hilton before and after the breakfast.

And, unlike years past, this year The Family makes no attempt in its online invitation to imply that the breakfast is an official or even semi-official event.

The site has no official-looking seals or depictions of the Capitol and lists no congressional co-chairs or “honorary” members of Congress. In fact, the invitation itself doesn’t even call it the “National Prayer Breakfast,” referring to it as the “NPB Gathering.”

And a source that’s been close to The Family tells TYT that Biden will not deliver his address in person, at the Hilton, but will instead speak at the Capitol Visitor Center, as he did last year. Biden will gather there with members of Congress while The Family and its invitees watch remotely from the Washington Hilton, the source said.

Asked to confirm the new arrangements, former Rep. Jim Slattery (D-KS), a lobbyist and longtime Family insider, told TYT that a statement about the prayer breakfast would be released on Tuesday before the close of business. Slattery and former Rep. Zach Wamp (R-TN) are listed as contacts on the invitation website.

If The Family is, in fact, separating its guests from the politicians at its signature event, it would mark a significant turning point in the history of the breakfast, which dates back to the 1950s, when Christian leaders leveraged anti-Communist sentiment to inject explicit expressions of religiosity into American civic life. For a group openly dedicated to bringing Jesus into every aspect of one's life, including public service, it would almost be akin to separation of church and state.

The source said that keeping Family guests at the Hilton while the president and Congress convene elsewhere could “significantly” crimp the ability of Family insiders to offer potential invitees access to U.S. politicians. As TYT has reported, Family insiders used its breakfasts to build up an anti-LGBTQ+ network in eastern Europe and to protect an evangelical, anti-LGBTQ+ president in Guatemala from prosecution by a UN anti-corruption task force.

The White House is keeping secret its decision on why, where, and whether Biden will participate in next week’s prayer breakfast. In an unsigned email, the press office said, “There is nothing to share at this time,” adding that details about “potential events” would be emailed to the White House press list. (The Visitor Center’s public calendar as of Monday did not include the prayer breakfast.)

The White House did not respond to a followup email noting that invited officials in Bosnia-Herzegovina reportedly have reason to believe that Biden has already decided to participate.

Last year’s National Prayer Breakfast was similarly scaled down – Biden spoke at the Capitol Visitor Center -- but there were no parallel events at the Hilton. That was seen at least partially as a concession to COVID, which had made the 2021 event entirely virtual.

At the time, however, one of The Family’s few remaining champions on the left, Sen. Chris Coons (D-DE), said there was more to the changes than just COVID, reportedly calling the 2022 breakfast a “reset.” Coons said the smaller venue “allows us to focus on the original mission of the prayer breakfast, which was a much narrower engagement between Congress, the president, and some inspirational singers and speakers.”

The apparent changes suggest that The Family may have committed to the vision Coons outlined. (It was Coons, the source told TYT, who raised concerns about using the Great Seal of the United States on the invitation after Russian operative Maria Butina’s prayer breakfast activities came to light.)

Coons’s discussion of a breakfast reset followed a series of reports by TYT based on internal Family documents revealing details about three years worth of prayer breakfasts, including thousands of guest names, and the identities of Family insiders who got to choose them.

TYT reported, for instance, that Family insiders radicalized MyPillow CEO Mike Lindell religiously and politically, using the National Prayer Breakfast, and insinuated themselves into his charities, which then focused not on veterans and addicts but on evangelical causes. The Family also helped an anti-LGBTQ+ ally build his right-wing network in Ukraine by letting him hand out tickets to the breakfast – and by flying members of Congress, including Democratic Rep. Juan Vargas of California, to his own prayer breakfast in Kyiv.

By supplying congressional members of both parties to a startup prayer breakfast in Guatemala, The Family helped an ally there build his political network to the point that he became ambassador to the U.S., ultimately connecting Pres. Jimmy Morales with then-Pres. Donald Trump at the National Prayer Breakfast. Trump subsequently abandoned the UN anti-corruption task force investigating Morales, who then destroyed it, much to Biden’s dismay, forcing Guatemala’s former top prosecutor to flee the country.

TYT’s reporting about Ukraine led one European group, Forbidden Colours, to issue Democratic members of Congress a warning that participating in prayer breakfasts aids right-wing causes. A 2021 report by the European Parliamentary Forum on Reproductive and Sexual Rights found that “parliamentary prayer breakfasts, while superficially apolitical and multi-confessional, include speakers who echo extremist positions.”

Evangelical preacher Franklin Graham, a global leader of the movement against reproductive and sexual rights, was revealed by TYT that same year to be secretly bankrolling the U.S. National Prayer Breakfast. (Other Family insiders have included a billionaire GOP megadonor and other backers of the lie that Biden lost the 2020 election.)

Secular organizations, led by the Freedom From Religion Religion Foundation (FFRF) responded by lobbying against congressional involvement.

While a number of progressive House Democrats, including Reps. Ro Khanna (D-CA) and Ted Lieu (D-CA), had distanced themselves from the prayer breakfast in previous years, 2022 saw something close to an exodus from the breakfast by the caucus. Prominent Democrats who dropped the prayer breakfast last year included then-Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) and Sens. Tim Kaine (D-VA) and Sherrod Brown (D-OH).

A diverse group of religious and secular leaders on Monday praised the news of this year’s breakfast changes, but distinguished between two categories of opposition to the event: Political corruption, and the mingling of church and state.

In 2018, Kenneth Vogel and Elizabeth Dias of the New York Times reported that “the annual event has become an international influence-peddling bazaar, where foreign dignitaries, religious leaders, diplomats and lobbyists jockey for access to the highest reaches of American power.”

The new changes appear intended to shut down or at least limit that bazaar, drawing praise from breakfast critics who noted that their criticisms on secular grounds still stand.

Rob Boston, senior adviser at Americans United for Separation of Church and State, called the changes “good news,” but added, “The bad news is that the event is still going on at all.”

Boston said the event “amplifies Christian Nationalism [and] … is sponsored by a Christian Nationalist group and is usually saturated with Christian Nationalist rhetoric.”

Participation by members of Congress, Boston said, contributes to ”the un-democratic message that to be a good American, you must also be Christian. Everything the event represents is contrary to our country’s founding promise of the separation of church and state.”

American Atheists President Nick Fish took a similar tack, welcoming the changes while still finding fault with the event.

"Every additional bit of distance between this influence-peddling Establishment Clause violation and our elected officials is a step in the right direction," Fish told TYT.

Responding to the source's claim that Biden will not join The Family's guests, Fish said that "while I'm pleased to see that President Biden will not be directly addressing the National Prayer Breakfast this year, the fact remains that this event relies on the veneer of bipartisanship and interfaith dialog to disguise the extreme Christian Nationalist agenda of its backers and their anti-equality, anti-LGBTQ, anti-choice, and anti-democracy policies."

The Rev. Jason Carson Wilson, founding executive director of the Bayard Rustin Liberation Initiative, called the changes “welcome news.” He told TYT that, “The event has supported willful marginalization as a spiritual practice. And it's appropriated prayer to build and exercise political power to oppress.”

Black Nonbelievers founder and President Mandisa Thomas told TYT, "As more elected officials understand that state and church should always remain separate, the National Prayer Breakfast and its organizers must do the same."

American Humanist Association Executive Director Nadya Dutchin didn’t respond specifically to this year’s changes but reiterated prior criticisms. In a statement to TYT, Dutchin said, “All elected public officials should reject affiliation and participation in this event. The National Prayer Breakfast has a demonstrated history of undermining democratic values not just in the United States, but globally. This event and its organizers have supported international movements to target and dehumanize LGBTQ people and erode human rights for all.”

Alluding to the growing demographic of non-believing voters, Dutchin said, “Humanist voters will be watching closely and taking note of the elected officials who endorse this Christian supremacist image laundering event."

Annie Laurie Gaylor, co-president and co-founder of the Freedom From Religion Foundation, which organized the coalition of breakfast critics, also did not directly address the new changes in her statement to TYT. But Gaylor said she was “pleased” by dwindling congressional participation, calling the Fellowship Foundation “unsavory” and the breakfast “a nexus for white Christian nationalism, infiltration by Russian agents, and organized bigotry against the LGBTQ+ and labor communities.”

Gaylor’s request for Biden to drop the event was unchanged even in light of the new changes. “President Biden and other members of Congress who would never think of supporting a group known for its anti-LGBTQ campaigning unfortunately have excused it here in the name of religion,” she said.

“Such participation gives cover to the Christian fundamentalist organizers of the breakfast," Gaylor said. "It’s time President Biden follows the example of a growing number of congressional leaders, such as former Speaker Nancy Pelosi, and skips the breakfast entirely this year.”

Fish issued a similar rebuke to participating politicians. He said, "Any elected official who continues to attend or in any way legitimize the National Prayer Breakfast is giving their tacit approval to a movement that would like nothing more than to see their own religion given the force of law."

Jonathan Larsen is TYT’s managing editor. You can find him on Twitter @JTLarsen.