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Inside The Family

Coons Vows Prayer Breakfast “Reset” as House Dems Bail

The Family's Democratic Defender Says the Breakfast Is Changing, but Signs of It Are Scarce

Sen. Chris Coons (D-DE) addresses the 2022 National Prayer Breakfast on Thursday.

 

(Image: Screengrab of Fellowship Foundation video.)

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.

According to Sen. Chris Coons (D-DE), Thursday’s National Prayer Breakfast was a “positive reset” for the controversial event. He also said The Family hopes to narrow the breakfast’s focus in the future.

After going virtual last year due to COVID, the breakfast – which typically draws more than 4000 people from around the world – was back to in-person this year, but limited to members of Congress, spouses, speakers, and performers. Previously, the event also included days of ancillary events and private “breakout sessions.”

Regardless of The Family’s intent to narrow, the event may be narrowing on its own. Only one House Democrat appeared in the roster of Thursday’s speeches and readings, and notably it wasn’t House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA), a mainstay of past breakfasts.

Only five House Democrats, compared to 11 Republicans, were listed in The Family’s “honorary House committee” for Thursday's event, down from last year.

While the parties were equally represented on this year’s “honorary Senate committee,” two Senate Democrats have now sworn off the breakfast. Sen. Sherrod Brown said on Tuesday, “Rather than attending a National Prayer Breakfast once a year, I meet weekly with a few of my colleagues to talk, reflect, and pray.” Sen. Tim Kaine (D-VA) dropped out in December.

The day before the breakfast, Coons discussed the event with Religion News Service. According to RNS, Coons said the event had been scaled down not merely due to COVID.

“I think this year is a positive reset that 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,” Coons said.

According to a White House press pool report, the 450-seat auditorium that hosted Thursday’s breakfast in the U.S. Capitol Visitor Center was “about ⅔ full." All 535 members of Congress, and their spouses, were invited, along with the program’s speakers and performers.

Other than scheduled speakers, the pool report noted “Lots of senators milling around and in seats,” naming specifically Sens. Mitch McConnell (R-KY), Rob Portman (R-OH), Amy Klobuchar (D-MN), Shelley Moore Capito (R-WV), Jim Lankford (R-OK), and Coons.

The presence of Rep. Conor Lamb (D-PA), one of the five House Democratic “hosts,” was also acknowledged from the stage. Rep. Lucy McBath (D-GA) delivered a short reading from The Bible.

Secular groups responded to Coons’s claims about a reformed breakfast with skepticism. Both Coons and a Family spokesperson have vowed changes before. And TYT has learned that even a secret, internal cleanup was recently undone.

According to a source close to The Family, they intentionally give the impression that the breakfast is a government event, an impression congressional allies do little to dispel. The invitation letter, for instance, has borne the Great Seal of the United States and listed “Representatives” and “Senators” as if they organize the breakfast.

In 2019, after the Russian scandal, the letterhead dropped the seal and members of Congress were now listed as “honorary” hosts. It reverted back to its previous form in 2020. Why the flip-flop?

According to the source, Coons and Lankford asked the Senate Ethics Committee to weigh in after the Maria Butina scandal. The committee recommended jettisoning the seal and clarifying that members of Congress don’t really run things; hence “honorary.”

When the Senate co-chairs removed the seal, “[Rep. Robert] Aderholt [R-AL] got all pissed about it,” the source said. Aderholt argued for keeping it on, despite the Ethics Committee recommendation.

Aderholt lost that battle the first year, but the co-chair positions switch chambers every year. So in 2020, it was Reps. John Moolenaar (R-MI) and Tom Suozzi (D-NY). The seal went back on.

According to the source, Aderholt felt that, “It's not about duping people… it just seems impressive and more official.”

NPB letterheads 2016-2019-2020 National Prayer Breakfast letters obtained by TYT from 2016, 2019, and 2020 show that the use of the Great Seal of the United States was briefly discontinued, but resumed again in 2020.

Seeming official and impressive isn't for the public’s benefit, however; the letters aren’t released publicly. The goal is to get powerful people from other countries in the seats. “It's… about getting a member of Parliament to be interested,” the source said. It’s not uncommon for media in other countries to report that local leaders were invited to the breakfast by “the president” or “Congress.”

The Family, the source said, understood that they could count on a lack of enforcement from the congressional ethics committees.

“The NPB organizers knew for years that it was problematic,” the source said. “They just thought, ‘Well, let’s keep using it until they tell us to stop.'”

Of course, the letter also wouldn’t seem as official if it were only Republicans. That would betray the event's lack of official standing. That’s why Democratic participation is so important – without them, the breakfast isn't just unofficial, now it's openly partisan.

Just before the 2019 breakfast, Family spokesperson and board member Larry Ross provided TYT with two documents he said the organization had approved, with new rules governing the breakfast itself and The Family’s conduct more broadly. The two one-page policy statements, however, described proscribed conduct without implementing checks and balances to ensure compliance.

The dates on the documents indicated that the new policies were approved in the months after Family insider Doug Burleigh became a public figure thanks to his dealings with Butina, the Russian operative later convicted of failing to register as a foreign agent. Specifically, the rules prohibit “any interactions for purpose of personal political or financial gain, with entities or persons that are [legally] prohibited, sanctionable, or registrable.”

It was unclear even at the time, however, whether this represented genuine change. One document said it was merely reinforcing “the longstanding commitment and practice of the Foundation to carry out all activities in a manner that demonstrates transparency, integrity, and compliance with all applicable laws and Foundation policies.”

Asked whether that spirit of transparency included revealing who approved the new policies, Ross said the documents spoke for themselves.

About a week later, Coons spoke with TYT for the only time, when a TYT freelancer approached him leaving the 2019 National Prayer Breakfast. Coons said he was not responsible for who attends, but said, “I do think the vetting for this year’s was done differently.”

Despite Ross’s and Coons’s claims about reforms prior to the 2019 breakfast, at least some old patterns have persisted.

For the last couple of years, The Family has prominently displayed on its breakfast website a picture from the 2019 breakfast. The picture shows Pres. Trump speaking and, further down the dais, Sen. Jacky Rosen (D-NV) sandwiched between a doctor from Samaritan’s Purse – the anti-LGBTQ organization run by Franklin Graham, who was secretly funding the breakfast – and Guatemalan Ambassador Manuel Espina, who The Family had groomed and plugged into its political network, which Espina had used to help kill a UN anti-corruption task force.

NPB website 2019 pic Espina Trump Excerpt from 2019 National Prayer Breakfast photo posted on The Family's websites.

It’s impossible to know what vetting is actually done, because neither The Family nor its allies in Congress will release the guest lists. TYT has not obtained the 2020 guest list, but a social media post by one European anti-LGBTQ leader indicates they attended that year.

Asked whether the 2019 policies yielded meaningful reform, the source close to The Family said, “Not in some huge institutional change.” After Butina, they said, “Everyone was gun-shy and careful and thinking things through more and scrutinizing more. But with time passing and then two years without inviting people, I would doubt it would be too meaningful.”

Nor are the changes evident in The Family’s other activities, or in its work abroad. Last September, two Family allies – Reps. Juan Vargas (D-CA) and Brian Fitzpatrick (R-PA) – flew to Ukraine to help out a prominent anti-LGBTQ organizer by headlining his spinoff of the prayer breakfast.

During the event, an analyst from the far-right group Ordo Iuris tweeted that her picture of Vargas and anti-LGBTQ breakfast organizer Pavlo Unguryan “shows that people from different countries, political and social environments can sit together and talk across the divide.” Asked whether any LGBTQ people were invited to the breakfast, the analyst did not provide any examples.

Family insider Jim Slattery, a former Democratic member of Congress who helped start the Ukrainian breakfast, told TYT he didn’t know whether any LGBTQ people were there. “But they should be,” he said.

Also last year, as MyPillow CEO Mike Lindell began pushing lies about the 2020 election, he was aided by Family insiders who were also involved in Lindell’s political and religious radicalization, utilizing the National Prayer Breakfast. Last year, a charity with deep, multiple ties to The Family was revealed to be at the heart of an illegal campaign-financing scandal that led to the indictment of Family insider Rep. Jeff Fortenberry.

This week’s “reset” of the breakfast also came only after a Democrat took the podium. Trump was allowed to use the forum for openly political purposes for four straight years.

The singer at Thursday’s breakfast said during a 2019 White House visit, “I’m so thankful to be part of this today and see what God’s doing in our White House… there’s so many good things happening out of this house. So many good things for the faith community.”

Even Coons’s suggestion about returning to the breakfast’s original mission doesn’t account for journalist Jeff Sharlet’s findings in The Family’s archives. In the course of two books and a Netflix mini-series, Sharlet has documented how The Family itself arose on a foundation of corporate Christian opposition to organized labor and the New Deal.

Freedom from Religion Foundation co-President and co-founder Annie Laurie Gaylor responded to Coons’s interview with RNS, saying:

“If Senator Coons wants a ‘genuine celebratory’ event and to build ‘real bridges of friendship,’ he shouldn’t be attending an exclusionary religious event that is hosted by a group with a dismal record of anti-LGBTQ bigotry, influence peddling and scandals. Unfortunately, Senator Coons misses these objections to the National Prayer Breakfast and its supporting organization, the Fellowship Foundation. If another organization had the Fellowship’s record, Coons wouldn’t go near it.

“If Senator Coons wants a unifying, celebratory event, he should leave religion out of it. Religion divides Americans, it does not unite us.”

Nick Fish, the president of American Atheists, tweeted Thursday that, “Even if he views it as a ‘reset,’ the moment another politician wanting to pander to Christian Nationalists comes into the presidency, they'll use Coons' words and Joe Biden's appearance as cover to legitimize their right wing, anti-LGBT influence peddling.”

Coons also said that every U.S. president has addressed the breakfast every year. But as Christianity Today has noted, at least one has skipped it. Instead of attending the breakfast one year, Pres. Harry Truman entered a Bible passage in his diary – "Be careful not to practice your righteousness in front of others" – and then watched the Washington Senators lose to the Yankees.

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

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