The new organization running the National Prayer Breakfast has deep ties to the controversial group that used to run it, according to documents including an email that a former Republican member of Congress sent to TYT apparently inadvertently.
As TYT first reported last week, the Fellowship Foundation, the legal entity of the secretive Christian group known as The Family, is no longer running the National Prayer Breakfast. Starting Thursday, the breakfast will be split into two events.
On Capitol Hill, Pres. Joe Biden, administration officials and members of Congress will convene with very tight “plus one” restrictions. Former Sen. Mark Pryor (D-AL), board president of the newly formed organization running the event, predicted about 250 people attending.
Simultaneously, at the Washington Hilton, more than 1000 Family insiders and their guests will gather as they have every year except 2021 and 2022 – but without the access they used to have to powerful politicians.
“Concerns over prayer breakfast lead Congress to take it over,” the Associated Press reported. But Family documents show otherwise.
And an email from former Rep. Zach Wamp (R-TN) confirms that, althrough there are schisms between those running their respective events, the secret connections are real and his goal as one of The Family members running the Capitol Hill event is to preserve them.
That said, Wamp also alludes to a potential schism between the two factions. Family insiders, Wamp writes, accuse leaders of the new event of “throwing us under the bus” and are “upset” about public remarks made about the split by Sen. Chris Coons (D-DE), one of The Family’s few Democratic defenders.
Wamp is one member of the new National Prayer Breakfast Foundation board that Pryor is leading. The email Wamp sent to TYT appears to have been intended for Pryor, after TYT wrote to Pryor – copying Wamp and other board members – requesting comment for this story. Wamp did not immediately respond when TYT wrote to him Tuesday night to ask whether he stands by the remarks in his email.
In that message, Wamp confirms that the two groups are linked, seeks to protect that link, and urges Pryor to embrace the same lack of transparency that has made The Family both controversial and a repeated target for journalists.
Wamp also denigrates TYT’s reporting, without specifying any errors in it.
Last week, after TYT revealed that the prayer breakfast was being split in two, Pryor spoke with TYT for about an hour about the new event and its new foundation. Wamp’s email suggests that he pressed Pryor not to speak with TYT.
“I made it very clear you would be wise to not speak to this group,” Wamp writes. “You have zero obligation to get in the weeds with these snakes. They aren’t honorable so it’s very unfair to you and us.”
In that interview, Pryor revealed that the board had decided the new event would not accept donations from controversial individuals on the right or the left. When asked about two past Family backers in specific, Pryor confirmed that anti-LGBTQ evangelist Franklin Graham and GOP megadonor Ronnie Cameron were not supporting the new event.
Making a case for Pryor not to respond to TYT’s followup inquiries, Wamp referred to other media coverage of Coons.
Wamp didn’t specify which remarks by Coons had raised hackles, but Coons told the Associated Press, “Some questions had been raised about our ability as members of Congress to say that we knew exactly how it was being organized, who was being invited, how it was being funded. Many of us who’d been in leadership roles really couldn’t answer those questions.”
In his email to Pryor, Wamp suggested that Coons’s comments to the media were dishonoring the late Doug Coe, The Family’s longtime leader. “The ‘Fellowship’ members are already upset about Sen Coons [sic] comments and what they see as defaming of the Coe legacy,” Wamp wrote.
Pryor previously told TYT he thought that Coe “wanted to see this happen.” (Coe’s son David, according to a source close to The Family, “refers to Chris Coons as a socialist, but like his friend.”)
Apparently confirming that The Family and the new board are in communication, Wamp added, “Heard today ‘the new group is just throwing us under the bus’.”
One reason to maintain secrecy and not respond, Wamp suggested, was that the board leading the new prayer breakfast wants to preserve unity with The Family. Wamp says that, “More stories and more slander will only lead to more division.”
Wamp also suggested that TYT’s request for comment by a deadline of any time Tuesday night was disingenuous. “There is no ‘deadline’,” Wamp wrote. “Don’t be bullied by the far right or the far left please.”
Pryor had not responded as of Wednesday morning. Although he said in last week’s interview that he would provide additional information, he has yet to answer subsequent emails following up.
In the interview last week, when asked about the new board’s ties to The Family, Pryor said it’s “just not the case” that the new board is solely people associated with The Family operating as a new legal entity. “I’m trying to think of who all you’d be referring to there.”
Meet the New Board…
Some of the new board members are open about their connections to The Family. The new foundation even has a website listing board members and biographical information, a step The Family has yet to take (although it does comply with federal disclosure requirements regarding its tax filings).
Three of the ten board members explicitly cite their ties to The Family or the National Prayer Breakfast: Caroline Aderholt, wife of longtime Family insider Rep. Robert Aderholt (R-AL); Max Finberg, a former aide to longtime Family insider former Rep. Tony Hall (D-OH); and Grace Nelson, wife of NASA Administrator and former Sen. Bill Nelson (D-FL).
Board member Stan Holmes says in his bio that “He has been connected to the US Senate and House Prayer Breakfast Groups since 1981.” Those groups were started by The Family, but Holmes has also been intimately involved with the National Prayer Breakfast and with some of its international spinoffs.
Although his bio identifies him as president and CEO of a nonprofit called the Core Fellowship Foundation, an internal Family spreadsheet obtained by TYT lists Holmes as a Family “associate,” meaning that The Family served as an administrative clearinghouse, overseeing Holmes’s ministry and managing some financial matters.
In fact, Holmes’s status as a Family associate was in the public record as early as 2009. The Chattanooga Times Free-Press reported that year that Holmes and Wamp worked together on the National Prayer Breakfast.
In 2021, the source close to The Family told TYT that Holmes “used to be the Zach Wamp of the prayer breakfast for a while, one of the little team that was doing the day-to-day” work.
The same spreadsheets show that, over the years, Holmes has submitted dozens of guests for invitation to the National Prayer Breakfast, including anti-LGBTQ leaders.
In 2016, for instance, Holmes is listed as having invited four separate leaders and staff from Focus on the Family, including Vice Presidents Kurt Leander and Tim Goeglein (a former George W. Bush aide), and President Jim Daly, who was submitted for an invitation by Holmes along with former Gov. David Beasley (R-SC), a longtime Family leader who was appointed by then-Pres. Donald Trump to run the UN’s World Food Programme.
Holmes has also figured into some of TYT’s previous reporting on The Family. He and Beasley were two of The Family’s four point people for Russia in 2016, notoriously attended by Russian operatives Maria Butina and her handler, Alexander Torshin, whose ties to The Family go back to at least 2006.
Excerpt from internal Fellowship Foundation document listing its National Prayer Breakfast point persons for the Commonwealth of Independent States, which includes former Soviet republics.
Holmes was also close to former Rep. Jeff Fortenberry (R-NE), who was convicted last year of lying about campaign donations and also made misleading public statements downplaying The Family's ties to a Christian charity, In Defense of Christianity (IDC), involved those illegal donations. Holmes was an emeritus board member of the IDC.
In 2021, a source close to The Family told TYT that Fortenberry’s chief of staff had been “Fully brought into the NPB by Stan,” and only got his position with Fortenberry due to his connection to Holmes.
And Holmes is not the only member of the new prayer breakfast board tied to the IDC. Former Rep. Randy Hultgren (R-IL) sits on the new breakfast board and, along with two other Family insiders, served on IDC’s Congressional Advisory Board.
Hultgren’s Family activities, too, have been documented by TYT and others. Both Hultgren and Rep. Aderholt were instrumental in early Family efforts to help out a Guatemalan ally who ultimately became ambassador to the U.S. As TYT revealed, that ambassador, Manuel Espina, worked with Family allies in Congress to destroy a UN anti-corruption task force before it could prosecute then-Pres. Jimmy Morales for alleged campaign-finance violations.
The Family has also paid for Hultgren, an opponent of LGBTQ rights, to travel overseas. One trip included a stay at a hotel owned by Dagfinn Høybråten, a member of Norway’s parliament whose party opposes same-sex adoption and marriage.
But the new prayer breakfast board isn’t all Republicans. Federal Election Commission records and other documents back up Pryor’s claim that the board was intended to reflect partisan symmetry, even if none of the Democrats are as progressive as the Republicans are conservative. (Pryor says the board was picked by about 20 members of Congress, but wouldn’t say whether The Family submitted their names or disclosed their ties to The Family.)
Two of the Democratic members of the new board account for a significant proportion of past National Prayer Breakfast invitations, including a number that broke from the guest list’s prevailing ideological and demographic patterns.
Both Grace Nelson and Dr. Barbara Williams-Skinner have invited dozens of guests to the National Prayer Breakfast in past years. Nelson has had a particular emphasis on inviting women leaders. Some of their guests are supporters of LGBTQ+ rights, according to various news reports.
Williams-Skinner’s invitations have gone to leaders of a non-denominational church and, at least one year, former NAACP President Ben Jealous.
Even the few Family Democrats, however, have also invited guests who may help The Family expand its connections. The 2016 invitation list identifies Prince Charles-Louis de Merode, one of Grace Nelson’s guests, as “working to initiate Belgian parliamentary prayer group.”
And despite their Democratic bona fides, some of their guests don’t always reflect a commitment to democratic values.
Nelson’s guests included Paul Kagame, now entering his 23rd year as Rwanda’s autocratic president. She also invited Andre Apaid, a Haitian businessman who was active in the coup that overthrew Pres. Jean-Bertrand Aristide.
And in contrast to their Republican Family counterparts filling the breakfast tables with opponents of LGBTQ+ rights (or defenders of the “religious freedom” to deny those rights), the Family Democrats now on the board of the new breakfast seldom brought in LGBTQ+ advocates, even religious ones, to the breakfasts of years past.
Williams-Skinner, for instance, teamed up with Coe in 2016 to invite the Rev. Samuel Rodriguez, one of Donald Trump’s faith advisors. Williams-Skinner’s own website identifies her past work in conjunction with the National Prayer Breakfast and names her as co-founder of the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation Prayer Breakfast.
Williams-Skinner is one of two Black members of the new prayer breakfast board. The other, Carlos Austin, does not appear to have been an especially active or high-profile figure within The Family.
Internal Family spreadsheets indicate that Austin was invited at least twice to the National Prayer Breakfast. Both times his name was submitted to the guest list by Mark Powers, longtime aide to former Sen. Jim Inhofe (R-OK), a Family insider.
Former Sen. Heidi Heitkamp (D-ND) is also on the new National Prayer Breakfast Foundation board. She reportedly served on the breakfast’s “honorary” congressional host committee in 2015.
Heitkamp’s name, along with others on the invitation, helped make it appear as though Manny Pacquiao, the anti-LGBTQ+ former boxer and now-politician, was being invited by members of Congress, rather than by The Family. At that breakfast, Heitkamp was seated at a table with a North Dakota pastor, three guests from Africa, Family insider Mounzer Fatfat, and Hultgren’s Norwegian host, Høybråten.
Even before Wamp’s email, TYT’s reporting had raised concerns that the breakfast split might be geographical only – leaving the possibility that Family insiders at both events could still use the occasion to continue their past work of facilitating controversial connections and pursuing The Family’s goals.
As TYT has reported, for instance, the breakfast was a key component in the radicalization of MyPillow CEO Mike Lindell.
Responding to TYT’s previous report about the new foundation’s ties to The Family, author Jeff Sharlet, the definitive chronicler of the group’s history, told the Religion News Service (RNS), “the change appears largely cosmetic.”
Annie Laurie Gaylor, co-president of the Freedom From Religion Foundation, which has lobbied against the breakfast, told RNS “it does look as though the creation of a new entity to sponsor the prayer breakfast is essentially a subterfuge, because the folks running the NPB Foundation are all connected with the Fellowship.”
Judging by general-interest coverage of the split, however, The Family's subterfuge appears to be largely successful so far. Ironically, the same news outlets now reporting that Congress runs the breakfast have for decades covered the event as if it were already being run by Congress.
And Aderholt, among others, is said to have been one of those invested in fostering the false impression in the past that Congress was running the show. It was Aderholt, as TYT reported previously, who got “pissed” when Coons and Sen. Jim Lankford (R-OK) got a recommendation from the Ethics Committee (which they run) to remove the Great Seal of the United States from breakfast communications.
Coons’s public remarks about struggling to get answers from The Family about the breakfast suggest that Congress has not, in fact, been running the event. And if politicians are truly running the new event, there’s nothing to prevent them from joining the board themselves.
According to Brendan Fischer, previously with the Campaign Legal Center and now deputy executive director of the watchdog group Documented, members of Congress are free to join nonprofit boards as long as they refrain from activities in conflict with their congressional work and disclose their position along with any compensation. But no members are on the new breakfast board, and Pryor has declined to identify any current members involved in it.
Wamp himself, a former resident of The Family’s C Street facility, has publicly defended the secrecy that Coe instilled as part of The Family’s ethos. In 2021, the source close to The Family told TYT about how Wamp came to be tapped for his breakfast work by Coe’s two sons, David and Tim, and their colleague, Marty Sherman.
“Zach was Tim, David, and Marty's longest-tenured and closest disciple, if you will, over their career of working with members,” the source said. So when it came time to consider who should replace Coe overseeing the breakfast, they wanted Wamp, rather than Beasley, the former governor.
“Beasley had too much standing for them to be able to direct him,” the source said. “They knew Zach maybe a little better, but they also knew that they could guide Zach if they chose to… Zach is going to constantly look for guidance to those guys. And he did.”
Jonathan Larsen is TYT’s managing editor. You can find him on Twitter @JTLarsen.