The Family is dropping the National Prayer Breakfast.
The secretive Christian group formally known as the Fellowship Foundation announced in a statement today that it will no longer be involved in the controversial annual Washington DC ritual it started 70 years ago.
The event will now be run by a new nonprofit, the National Prayer Breakfast Foundation, and will no longer include the thousands of guests whose ranks have included dictators and Russian operatives – some of whom used the breakfast to gain unvetted access to the president and members of Congress.
TYT first reported on Monday that the president, members of Congress and their personal guests will convene at one event next week, while The Family and its international guests gather, as they have for years, miles away at the Washington Hilton, but now without the opportunity to mingle before and after with elected U.S. officials. On Tuesday, that was confirmed in a statement by former Sen. Mark Pryor (D-AR).
“Unlike previous years,” says Pryor, president of the new foundation’s board, ”international guests were not invited” to the event where Pres. Joe Biden will speak.
The website for the new foundation lists Reps. Lucy McBath (D-GA) and Tim Walberg (R-MI) as this year’s co-chairs, but no other members of Congress are named. In years past, The Family got members of both parties to lend their names – and implied imprimatur – to the invitations, which Family insiders from the U.S. and overseas could then share with their benefactors, friends, and allies, expanding their networks.
Walberg is one of the Republican Family insiders who have used prayer breakfasts to promote their political ends and he has praised their effectiveness. In Ukraine, for instance, Walberg credited the breakfasts for steeling Pres. Donald Trump’s opposition to reproductive and LGBTQ+ rights.
As TYT revealed, MyPillow CEO Mike Lindell’s radicalization by Family insiders involved the National Prayer Breakfast and its side events. TYT also exposed how Family insiders – including Republican senators – used the prayer breakfasts as part of their successful efforts to shield Guatemalan Pres. Jimmy Morales, an evangelical foe of reproductive and LGBTQ+ rights, from a UN anti-corruption task force.
In the aftermath of those and other reports, a number of high-profile Democrats dropped the National Prayer Breakfast last year. Sens. Sherrod Brown (D-OH) and Tim Kaine (D-VA) told TYT they would not attend. Then-Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) also turned out to be a no-show, and the House Democratic contingent was notably diminished from past years.
Reps. Ro Khanna (D-CA) and Ted Lieu (D-CA) had dropped the event even earlier, in response to TYT reporting regarding Russian operative Maria Butina, who used the prayer breakfast for right-wing networking. (TYT later revealed the identity of Butina’s breakfast host, a Chick-fil-A executive and longtime breakfast leader.)
The Family’s work has included traditional charitable activities such as funding orphanages and feeding the hungry (former Gov. David Beasley (R-SC), a Family insider, was named by Trump to head the World Food Programme). But The Family’s guiding principles include embedding religion in everything. And that mix of faith and works has been prominent in scandals that cast shadows over the breakfast and its spinoffs.
Most notably, journalist Jeff Sharlet identified ties between The Family and anti-LGBTQ+ capital punishment legislation in Uganda. (Those ties appeared to persist at Uganda’s 2022 prayer breakfast). Sharlet’s work on The Family included two books and a recent Netflix documentary series, which some Family insiders have seen as unfair portraits.
The Family has also been the subject of scrutiny for its role in a number of sex scandals involving its congressional members. And The Family has been caught up or at least adjacent to a number of financial scandals.
In one, The Family got funds from a designated terror organization, a scandal in which Family insider Rep. Mark Siljander (R-MI) pleaded guilty to federal charges. More recently, TYT revealed how Family insiders were tied to a Christian nonprofit at the heart of convicted Rep. Jeff Fortenberry’s (D-NV) illegal campaign donations, which he sought to cover up.
The breakfast itself, an event The Family has promoted as unifying, has been used openly to advance right-wing causes on multiple occasions. Dr. Ben Carson became a conservative cause celebre using his remarks to attack Pres. Barack Obama. Mother Teresa assailed pro-choice nations and politicians. Pres. Donald Trump vilified Democrats and took a swipe at Sen. Mitt Romney (R-UT). They all got applause.
The revelation that anti-LGBTQ+ evangelical leader Franklin Graham was a secret backer of the breakfast did not help the breakfast’s advocates. And, in recent years, secular groups revived their efforts opposing the prayer breakfast, both for the closed-door politicking and for the commingling of religion and government. The Freedom From Religion Foundation earlier this month led a coalition of secular, clergy, LGBTQ+ and Black civil rights leaders calling on Pres. Joe Biden and other politicians not to participate.
Despite the lobbying, the scandals, and dwindling Democratic participation, Pryor’s statement says the split emerged from discussions begun ten years ago in the weekly prayer groups that meet in the Senate and the House.
“For over a decade,” Pryor says, “they have discussed the need to establish a new foundation that will have only one purpose, hosting the annual National Prayer Breakfast while following Congressional ethical standards.” (That timing is borne out by Google, which first cached the new foundation’s URL ten years ago.)
The issue of congressional ethics is not new to the event. Sen. Chris Coons (D-DE), The Family’s most visible Democratic ally, was said to have sought, along with Sen. James Lankford (R-OK), Ethics Committee guidance, after the Butina scandal, on The Family’s practice of using the Great Seal of the United States on its invitations
When COVID shut down the in-person breakfast (the 2021 event was entirely virtual), unnamed members of Congress organized “a working group to fulfill this longtime vision,” Pryor said, of establishing a new, separate foundation.
Despite the ostensible leadership of the congressional prayer groups, however, the board of the new foundation consists solely of people connected to The Family. In addition to Pryor, three others are former members of Congress: Sen. Heidi Heitkamp (D-ND), now director of the University of Chicago’s Institute of Politics; Rep. Randy Hultgren (R-IL), now president of the Illinois Bankers Association; and Rep. Zach Wamp (R-TN), now a consultant.
Grace Nelson – a past Family board member and the wife of former Sen. Bill Nelson (D-FL), who now runs NASA – is also on the National Prayer Breakfast Foundation board. So is Caroline Aderholt, the wife of longtime Family insider Rep. Robert Aderholt (R-AL), who was said to have opposed dropping the Great Seal and was caught up in Family headlines of his own – Ukraine lobbying scandals, in which he met with questionable figures on trips paid for by The Family.
A source close to The Family said that all the new foundation's board members “have been involved in the background of the breakfast for a long time.” The source said they “probably don’t have issues” with how the breakfast has run in the past.
How well the organizational split can achieve its ethical goals remains to be seen, especially given the common DNA the two boards share. But even total success would likely not satisfy critics of the event’s intrinsic conflation of church and state.
The new foundation, for instance, retains The Family’s sectarian focus. The breakfast is ostensibly non-sectarian, but has always put Jesus at the center.
The new foundation’s website says, “The vision of the National Prayer Breakfast Foundation is to promote and share the idea of gathering together in the Spirit of Jesus of Nazareth, adopted by the Senate and House Prayer Breakfast Groups in the United States Congress.”
According to the source, everyone on the new board is Christian.
Jonathan Larsen is TYT’s managing editor. You can find him on Twitter @JTLarsen.