Franklin Graham and GOP megadonor Ron Cameron aren’t funding the National Prayer Breakfast this year, former Sen. Mark Pryor (D-AR) tells TYT.
For years, Graham, an anti-LGBTQ+ evangelical leader, and Cameron, a Big Lie-supporting poultry magnate, had been financial backers of the annual Washington ritual and the Fellowship Foundation, which ran the event for 69 years.
Pryor’s disclosure came during an hour-long phone interview with TYT, during which Pryor – a former friend of the Fellowship’s late leader, Doug Coe – shared new details about the separation of the breakfast from the controversial group, declined to reveal other details, but suggested that more transparency – and change – will come to the breakfast with time.
Despite years of scandal surrounding both the breakfast and The Family (as the Fellowship is popularly known), Pryor said the impetus for the split arose more from an interest in mitigating procedural issues that members of Congress incurred navigating congressional ethics guidelines when they wanted to serve as honorary co-chairs or nominal hosts.
He also said that unnamed members of Congress expressed a desire for the annual event to reflect the intimacy and apolitical nature of the weekly prayer breakfasts in both chambers.
Pryor even said that Coe – who died in 2017 after years as a confidant to leaders in both parties – “wanted to see this happen.” On the other hand, Pryor also strived to emphasize the role of weekly House and Senate prayer breakfasts in running the breakfast, both before and after the split.
The history of both the weekly and annual prayer breakfasts, however, suggests The Family has been the driving force. And the presence of Family veterans on the board of the new foundation running the annual prayer breakfast has not allayed concerns about the new, spun-off breakfast. Pryor appeared to acknowledge those concerns, suggesting that the board, too, will change over time.
“My hope would be that your readers, your viewers would give us a little time here to demonstrate that this is different,” Pryor said.
As TYT first reported on Tuesday, The Family has spun off the breakfast, which will be held next Thursday. Going forward, a new legal entity, the National Prayer Breakfast (NPB) Foundation, will host the president and members of Congress for speeches and prayer on Capitol Hill.
The Family will still meet at the Washington Hilton, as usual. But on Thursday they’ll be watching Pres. Joe Biden on TV, and their guests will no longer get the opportunity, unvetted, to buttonhole the president or other U.S. officials backstage or in the so-called breakout sessions behind closed doors.
For years, Graham, a leader in global anti-LGBTQ+ movements, had secretly been the breakfast’s sole donor, with members of his nonprofits regulars at the breakfast. Cameron, a billionaire who has given The Family millions, served on The Family’s board and one of his company’s executives served as president. No more will the breakfast take funds from either of them, says Pryor, president of the new NPB Foundation’s board. The reason: They’re too conservative.
“For sure, they’re not in the mix for the 2023 breakfast at all,” Pryor says when asked about the two men. “I can say categorically that those two you mentioned are not contributing and they will not.”
Referring to the NPB Foundation’s board, Pryor said, “We just decided that we needed to be very neutral on the fundraising, and that we don't want any controversy around the fundraising. And both of those that you mentioned are affiliated with kind of conservative causes, I guess you can say. I think that's fair.”
Pryor characterized that decision as part of a broader effort to present a nonpartisan public face and thwart partisan agendas. “Candidly, just for optics, we don't want really conservative groups, or really liberal groups supporting it,” he said. “I don't know what's gonna happen in the future, but for right now, we're keeping it very, sort of, down the middle, if you will. And we're very cognizant of that. And, again, there are people out there with agendas, but we don't want any kind of agenda around the program other than what it was originally intended to be.”
According to Pryor, the board is striving for “some transparency, at least.” And while he declined to say how much Thursday’s event will cost, or who’s footing the bill, he said he would “go back to the board and see what everybody’s ready to disclose right now. … We’re still in the fundraising process.”
Pryor added that, “I think at some point you’ll know all that; let me just find out where we are and what the policy is gonna be.” After the breakfast is over, he said, “I think we’ll have some type of disclosure…I don’t know if we’re gonna really name specific people or more do it by type [of donor].”
Responding to TYT’s report that every member of the new board has ties to The Family, Pryor suggested that the challenges of launching the new event necessitated drawing on the experience of at least some people who had done it in the past.
“Remember, this is the first board and this is to get us launched and to get us going,” Pryor said. But he also implied an interest in bringing in new blood. “Everybody [on the board] has terms [of office] and people rotate off and others are rotated in. So it's like any board, there's gonna be some change over time and, you know, I think change is good. I think new ideas and new eyes on the same old thing is good.”
And Pryor also asked for patience. “Give us a year or two and see where we are.” The goal, he said, is to get the National Prayer Breakfast back to how it started.
“I think, for the House and Senate, they really wanted to return it back to its origins, get back to the roots of this, where it really was in the early days,” Pryor said. “It was the president and the Congress. And it was just a time for members of the House and Senate to pray for and with the president; maybe pray for his family; pray for the decisions that he had on his plate; pray for the administration, for the country, for the world.”
As critics have noted, however, history shows that the impetus for both the National Prayer Breakfast and the weekly congressional prayer sessions came not from members of Congress but from The Family, and founder Abraham Vereide, who intentionally embedded rich and powerful businessmen in his vision.
As Time magazine recounted, “In 1942 Vereide moved to Washington, D.C., where he started breakfast prayer groups for members of the House and the Senate.”
The first national prayer breakfast, then known as the Presidential Prayer Breakfast, wasn’t just held at a Hilton hotel, the Mayflower, hotelier Conrad Hilton was intimately involved.
As author Jeff Sharlet described in his book “The Family,” the definitive work on the group’s history, Vereide and The Family sought from the beginning to keep a low profile and let the events appear as the creations of others – U.S. politicians.
Even Pres. Dwight Eisenhower seemed surprised at how many people – not just politicians but businesspeople from around the country – showed up for the first one, in 1953. “I had an idea of coming over to see 20 or 25 or maybe 50 people,” Eisenhower told the audience of more than 400. “I had no idea that our host has such a party as this.”
It was decades before the general public had a better idea of that party. But at the beginning, the businesspeople constituted a fierce anti-labor coalition initially assembled by Vereide.
A picture of the 1956 breakfast shows Eisenhower with three senators – including Sen. Frank Carlson (R-KS), a Vereide friend who helped start the breakfast – and two business leaders. One is Hilton, a Republican businessman who would later be accused of violent, abusive behavior, and the other is Howard E. Butt, Jr., the Texas evangelical H.E.B. supermarket-chain heir and lay preacher.
“Over the decades,” Pryor says, “it’s grown and grown and grown and it’s become, for so many people, this wonderful gathering where they come from around the country, even around the world.” It’s now about 4000 people, almost ten times the size of the original event. And The Family has spun off prayer breakfasts in countries around the world.
Along the way, however, news accounts emerged of lobbyists using the event – and the private, intimate breakout sessions – to pursue relationships with powerful holders of purse strings in world capitals.
Sharlet and others began breaking specific stories, revealing The Family’s involvement with Ugandan lawmakers backing an anti-LGBTQ+ bill that included the death penalty. There were sex scandals. A criminal case involving money from a designated terror group.
The Family supported charitable works around the world. Its leaders and associates pursued private diplomacy, sometimes at the behest of or in quiet partnership with the State Department. But The Family’s hand rarely was seen in its successes, the peace accords and cease-fires.
When dictators, arms dealers, or lobbyists showed up at the National Prayer Breakfast, however, then The Family found itself in the spotlight.
And, as the country polarized, The Family’s insiders on the right moved further right, Democrats on the left moved away altogether, and a dwindling handful remained, struggling to hold the center.
But as Sharlet’s reporting presaged, The Family’s right wing was working overtime to use the breakfast to change the world in their God's image, while Democrats restricted their activities to serving up waffles.
The Guest List
Even publicly, the breakfast began to change. The Family chose – and elevated – right-wing speakers like radio host Eric Metaxas and future Republican presidential candidate Dr. Ben Carson.
The speeches became more overtly political – asymmetrically. While Democrats stuck to kumbaya scripts, Mother Teresa lectured Pres. Bill Clinton about abortion. Carson became a GOP celebrity for bashing Pres. Barack Obama. Pres. Donald Trump vowed to kill the Johnson Amendment (which, when enforced, bars churches from engaging in political speech while operating tax free). On the prayer breakfast podium, Trump rejected loving his enemies, and then attacked them.
After the 2020 elections, some Family leaders – including Cameron, the megadonor – even backed candidates who were pushing Trump’s election lies.
Behind the scenes, the right-wing rhetoric was matched by action. The FBI nailed Russian operative Maria Butina using the breakfast to build a network of conservative allies. The media identified the National Rifle Association as the nexus there, but as TYT reported, Butina’s handler, Alexander Torshin, had been a friend of The Family well before the NRA came along.
TYT has revealed multiple cases of Family insiders using prayer breakfasts to advance their political causes. They got MyPillow CEO Mike Lindell down on his knees before Jesus and Trump. They destroyed a UN task force before it could investigate the anti-LGBTQ+ president of Guatemala. They boosted an anti-LGBTQ+ political network in Ukraine (and were involved in the lobbying scandals there). Just last year, Uganda’s National Prayer Breakfast served as a rally to fortify the troops against Western pushes for tolerance.
Rep. Tim Walberg (R-MI) said on tape that prayer breakfasts were helping to get the job done, crediting them specifically as part of a Christian influence on Trump’s opposition to sexual and reproductive rights.
Pressed to name a single incident or scandal that influenced anyone’s interest in splitting off the breakfast, Pryor repeatedly demurred. He said he was unaware, for instance, of the revelations about Lindell, saying, “Wow, interesting,” but adding that he didn’t even know Lindell had attended.
Instead, Pryor says, discussions about doing the breakfast separately predated Sharlet’s 2008 book. Then, around 2010 or so, Pryor says, talk began of creating a new foundation. (Google’s cache shows a website was created not long after.)
When Pryor, then a senator, served as breakfast co-chair in 2013, for instance, he says, he asked whether the event was being run by a registered nonprofit, one focused solely on the breakfast. “I’ve always been a little concerned that we didn’t” have one, he said.
The most that Pryor will concede regarding the timing after Sharlet’s revelations is to say, “Let’s just say that there are several reasons why this made sense back then, and it probably should have been done back then.”
Without naming names, Pryor says “There were several of us that knew we needed to do better and, you know, I’ll take some responsibility for not just riding herd on that and making sure it got done back then.”
Two things happened more recently. Active lobbying against the breakfast resumed in force. And COVID hit.
Pryor says that the pandemic imposed something of a lull on the breakfast (it was held virtually in 2021 and with limited guests in 2022), giving its organizers a breather, time they could use to stand up the new National Prayer Breakfast Foundation. Just before the 2022 breakfast, Coons vowed a “reset.”
Filings show the nonprofit was incorporated on Oct. 7 last year.
But even in 2021, the Freedom From Religion Foundation (FFRF) and a growing coalition had begun flagging the revelations by Sharlet, TYT, and others to members of Congress.
Forbidden Colours, a European LGBTQ+ advocacy group, even sent members an intelligence brief citing TYT’s Ukraine reporting, warning that Democrats were being duped into aiding right-wing networking by giving the breakfast events a nonpartisan veneer.
Democratic participation began falling off. And, unlike years past, Democrats – already pilloried by the right as godless enemies of America – had nothing to lose by dropping the National Prayer Breakfast publicly.
Senators and House members alike told TYT they were out. Then, last year, Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA), whose religious faith is well known, simply didn’t show up. Neither did much of her caucus. (Rep. Lucy McBath (D-GA) is co-chairing this year, along with Walberg.)
Around the same time – late 2021 or early 2022, Pryor says – the congressional prayer groups approached him and asked him to participate in “sort of a working group” to spin off the breakfast.
For the first half of last year, he says, the working group was “talking through what a foundation would look like…what kind of people would serve on the board and how can we make sure that all the House and Senate ethics are completely squeaky clean.” He said “roughly 20 members” from both chambers, who he declined to identify, “have been involved in this process, either around the edges or very directly.”
With hundreds of revisions over the years to congressional ethics guidelines, Pryor said it had become a challenge to keep up. Whenever the guidelines change, he said, “like a lot of other institutions, they kind of grandfather in the National Prayer Breakfast. Not that anybody is doing anything wrong, but you get down in the weeds and you think, ‘This might not actually comply with the brand-new ethics law.’”
Instead, he said, they wanted to set up a system that comported with current guidelines and wouldn’t require repeated checks in the future. “So then we just know, in future years, we can just kind of follow the same pattern and never have a problem with it.”
The members worked in conjunction with the congressional ethics committees. “We wanted to make sure that the House and Senate Ethics [Committee] people were totally good with it,” Pryor said.
Asked whether there’s a conflict there, since staunch Family ally Sen. Chris Coons (D-DE) chairs the Senate Ethics Committee, Pryor said, “No, not really. I think Senator Coons can set aside any of his bias, or whatever he might have…he’s about as fair-minded a person as there can be.”
In fact, both top members of the Ethics Committee are longtime Family insiders. Sen. James Lankford (R-OK) is the ranking member.
As TYT reported, it was Coons and Lankford – breakfast co-chairs at the time – who asked the Senate Ethics Committee to weigh in on The Family’s use of the Great Seal of the United States. The Family dropped the seal, but Rep. Robert Aderholt (R-AL) “got all pissed about it,” a source said, and when House co-chairs took over the breakfast, the seal came back.
Pryor said the goal was to have an equal number of Republicans and Democrats working on the new breakfast. “I think we were very close… Democrats and Republicans all sort of had equal input.”
He said, “The idea is to keep [the breakfast] separate and keep it, I’ll use the term ‘squeaky-clean’ from any sort of legal and ethical or even really from perception challenges.”
And though he’s optimistic about the event, Pryor is somewhat pessimistic about the perception. He says, “I appreciate” news media “but you can’t have a conversation about religion in the news media. It’s just not the right place because a lot of the writers don’t get it and a lot of the readers don’t get it. You know what I mean?... Whatever you say can be misconstrued.”
To Pryor’s point, he had previously told TYT that the Associated Press opted not to report on his announcement of the split, suggesting a lack of appreciation for the event’s significance both on the global stage and to the breakfast’s fans and critics.
One of those critics, Sharlet, the journalist and writer, cast a cynical eye on the split and on Pryor’s veracity. In a statement shared with TYT, Sharlet offered a different explanation for splitting off the breakfast.
“All credit to Jonathan for the story, and the reporting that has probably more than anything pushed the Fellowship to do this,” Sharlet said.
Sharlet also said he’s cynical about the changes, and about Pryor. According to Sharlet, after his book came out – mentioning Pryor – Pryor’s office “called me to say that Pryor didn’t know Coe and they didn’t believe Pryor had ever spoken to me.” And Sharlet cast doubt on the integrity of the firewall between the two events, pointing out that the same breakout-session meetings can still take place before and after the presidential remarks.
Pryor, however, suggested that members of Congress aren’t interested in that aspect of the old breakfast. “Congress sort of wanted to reclaim it, if you will,” he said. “No disrespect or no lack of appreciation for anything that happened in the past, but they just wanted to hit the reset.”
Comparing the new event to The Family’s, Pryor said, “It’s gonna be very, very different than the Hilton breakfasts.” Using The Family’s d/b/a, Pryor added, “I have a lot of respect for the International Foundation, and I really appreciate them, but it’s gonna be very different.”
For one thing, he predicted attendance of only about 250 people – fewer even than the first breakfast. Members of Congress can bring only one guest each – a spouse or a constituent.
He estimated that half of the attending members were bringing a guest, and that 85% of those guests are spouses. Of the remaining guests, Pryor said, four are clergy.
Jonathan Larsen is TYT’s managing editor. You can find him on Twitter @JTLarsen.