For nearly 70 years, and even in this moment of surging Christian nationalism, Democrats and Republicans have set aside their differences once a year to join in an event for fellowship and reconciliation: The National Prayer Breakfast.
The breakfast and the secretive religious group behind the scenes, popularly known as The Family, have been the subject of scandal over the years. Most notably, journalist Jeff Sharlet exposed the group’s theocratic, anti-labor origins, and revealed The Family’s role in Ugandan capital punishment legislation for gay people. More recently, the FBI caught Russian operatives using the breakfast to pursue back-channel connections with U.S. politicians.
But despite its dealings with international powers, The Family still enjoys the invisibility to which it attributes its influence. We’ve never had a full accounting of who works for The Family or even just who gets to attend the National Prayer Breakfast, let alone who decides. Until now.
Earlier this year, The Young Turks obtained a list of the 4465 people invited to the 2016 National Prayer Breakfast. The document identifies guest connections to The Family and names virtually everyone who works for The Family, as well as numerous volunteers and allies. It also identifies which Family insiders submitted each invitee’s name.
Since then, TYT has been researching individuals named in that document and in others (including a list of 2018 breakfast attendees obtained last month). With assistance from organizations including the international journalism collective Bellingcat, the Military Religious Freedom Foundation, and the Global Network of Rainbow Catholics, TYT is assembling what amounts to an x-ray of The Family, and a map of its connections and endeavors around the world.
Although more remains to be learned, we can now draw some conclusions and begin reporting on what we are finding. (This is an ongoing project and we invite journalists and advocacy groups to contact us if they are interested in conducting research of their own.)
The prayer breakfast is, we’ve been told, an ecumenical, nonpartisan event for leaders of every stripe, run by prayer groups in the House and Senate. None of that is true.
The National Prayer Breakfast (NPB) is not run by Congress. The Family controls it, uses the breakfast for its own ends, and can do so thanks to the bipartisan fiction maintained by its remaining Democratic allies. (Democratic protectiveness of the breakfast may have its roots in the weekly congressional prayer meetings, which appear, like the breakfast, to offer members moments of genuine bonding and connection.)
Only a few congressional Democrats are even tangentially involved in the NPB. A handful of congressional Republicans play significant roles. But the breakfast itself is overwhelmingly a production of The Family. The event’s only significant financial backer is a well-known, right-wing theocrat.
The Family’s congressional defenders have served up portraits of the NPB that could never be refuted because they wouldn’t release the invitation list. (It has never been clear why an event ostensibly produced by Congress would be shrouded in such profound secrecy.)
Sen. Chris Coons (D-DE), The Family’s most prominent Democrat, said earlier this year that the breakfast “has brought together religious, political, and cultural leaders from all over the world.” But many attendees are not leaders at all; they are fellow travelers and friends of The Family. Others springboard off the breakfast to build anti-LGBTQ, anti-democratic networks in their home countries. International media portray the breakfast invitations as coming from Congress or the president, boosting the standing of the Family-allied politicians who get invited.
It’s not just Democrats perpetuating this. The Family operates in a penumbra of secrecy formed by the overlap of lax IRS disclosure laws and law-enforcement squeamishness about scrutinizing organizations appearing remotely religious.
And Coons’ implied diversity doesn’t apply to the delegations of guests from multiple countries. The breakfast is neither nonpartisan, nor ecumenical. The politics of the breakfast – its attendees and those who choose them – are a far cry from Coons’ claim. For instance, of the 20 individuals who invited the most guests in 2016, TYT was able to assess the politics of 13 – using voter registrations and political donations as gauges. Of those 13, only one was a Democrat: Grace Nelson, a former Family board member and wife of former Sen. Bill Nelson (D-FL). The top five inviters whose politics could be ascertained were all Republicans.
The Republicans who got to pick the most attendees are overwhelmingly Trump supporters. Their ranks range from a Chick-fil-A franchisee (who invited 38 guests) to former Gov. David Beasley (R-SC), a Trump supporter later appointed by Trump to run the UN’s World Food Programme. Many Family insiders are now actively supporting Trump’s election lies, the Christian nationalist movement undergirding those lies, and the movement’s leaders.
Two of the top inviters had no U.S. political footprint because they don’t live in America. One of them has ties to theocratic, anti-LGBTQ organizations. He got to invite 30 people to the 2016 breakfast.
The invitation list categorizes 253 invitees as non-entertainment media. Those invitees include a lot of local Washington, DC, on-air people -- even for traffic and weather. But the political media are overwhelmingly conservative: The Daily Caller, The Blaze, the Washington Times, Newsmax, the Weekly Standard, the Washington Examiner CEO’s assistant, Rush and David Limbaugh, Stephen Hayes, Laura Ingraham, etc.
Five media people are specifically noted on the list as Fox News (TYT identified at least 22 others connected to Fox News). Democratic media figures invited are likely to have appeared on Fox. CNN is mentioned in connection to one guest; MSNBC not at all.
Invited writers from mainstream outlets are often conservative pundits or cover a religion beat. Liberal and progressive names seldom appear, even from major outlets, let alone progressive media counterparts to the Daily Caller or the Blaze.
Sitting members of Congress are automatically invited, but of former members, The Family invited 20 Democrats and 38 Republicans, almost twice as many, plus former Democrat Joe Lieberman.
The invitation list reflects recurring religious discrimination, too. In nations TYT has looked at, a clear pattern emerges among who gets to choose the guests and, not surprisingly, among the guests they invite.
Christianity is favored over non-Christianity, Protestantism over Catholicism, and evangelicalism over non-evangelicalism. Non-evangelical leaders are vastly outnumbered by evangelical non-leaders.
What the documents do not show is intentional discrimination. If anything, The Family appears un-strategic in its operations, at times to its own detriment. The autonomy its associates enjoy mirrors the laissez-faire economic philosophies that helped give rise to The Family.
This makes it difficult to infer intent or to apply sweeping generalities to The Family or the breakfast. The organization is relational; if you’re friends with a Family insider, you might get an invite. Disparities in who gets invited arise less from a conscious plan and more from the vagaries of who becomes friends with someone inside The Family. Which, of course, is a textbook recipe for systemic bias. In some cases, invitations also appear to be tied to whether invitees might provide financial support for Family associates (who raise their own funds that are then administered by The Family).
It can be startling at times to come across the online ministries of Family associates. In blog posts and videos, they project inclusivity, joy, and distinctly un-Trumpian gentleness, humor, and even vulnerability.
They seldom resemble servants of an angry God or the cartoons of televangelism. The modest fundraising conducted by Family associates appears largely untouched by modern marketing. By any measure, they appear genuine in their compassion and desire to do good. They “have a heart for Africa,” many say. Some literally spend their lives overseas in conditions materially wanting but spiritually rewarding. They dedicate themselves to helping others.
But their compassion is intuitive, not strategic. Few are experts or rely on experts to determine the best way to do the most good. God leads them.
As it turns out, God seldom leads them to assist the elderly or the sick. More often, Family missionaries are led to help those whose responses happen to be the most rewarding.
So you will find Family associates working with impoverished children or remote villages in Africa, southeast Asia, or Latin America. They build schools and they teach. Typically they teach lessons premised on belief in Jesus. If you believe Jesus is the answer to all problems, after all, what solution would not include Jesus?
Kids are taught English, for instance, by learning songs about how Jesus loves them. They learn the language, but also the love…as The Family sees it. It’s a love based on surrender, accepting God’s will and Biblical authority – including condemnation of homosexuality and even, for some, the subordination of women. The Family’s students learn to speak that language, too, overseas and at Christian schools where scholarships take them here in the U.S.
Because how unsatisfying would it be to make the world a better place by doing volunteer accounting in the back office of some bureaucratic (but effective and professionally run) monolith with exacting, quantitative standards? Family associates can be found instead at the low-profile, sometimes one-person nonprofits that proliferate on the IRS website like weeds in a vast orchard of Christian charities.
Some Family members have anonymous benefactors, wealthy enough to support mission work that jibes with their political inclinations. The politics matter, because The Family tasks its missionaries to bond with the leaders of their host nations – leaders who know full well, as Sharlet documented, that these bright-eyed missionaries have the ears of the Americans who hold the wallets and bombs of the U.S. government. These missionaries use their access to local leaders to help stand up miniature versions of both the prayer breakfast and The Family – iterations that share or even exceed the homophobic or theocratic leanings of their model.
Ironically, one could argue that The Family does not use its influence enough. In accordance with their famous slogan of “Jesus Plus Nothing,” The Family asks little of the leaders they minister. As we’ll report, The Family enjoys proximity to local and national leaders that entails virtually no accountability for their political decisions and accepts virtually any policy that can be seen as Jesus-based.
To The Family, accountability starts with Jesus; they seldom champion the checks-and-balances accountability that transparency brings. As one source close to The Family told me, its leaders might counsel a senator to work on his marriage, but remain silent on matters such as encouraging violent upheaval of American democracy. During a conversation with notorious Republican operative Lee Atwater, Doug Coe, the late Family leader, reportedly condemned adultery only when pressed.
And so these smiling missionaries, even those preaching inclusivity and love for sinners and enemies, end up arm in arm with unsmiling politicians feverish to squeeze voting rights, or reproductive rights. A smaller group inside the ranks of The Family flares with anger when LGBTQ rights are framed as an affront to religious freedom.
Historically, The Family’s rationale for serving leaders unconditionally is that reducing evil means engaging with it. Who needs prayer more, after all, than the worst among us?
As Rep. Thomas Suozzi (D-NY), another Family ally, said this year, “the Prayer Breakfast reminds us to both love our neighbors and even the more challenging love our enemies.” It was an irrefutable defense right up until we could check whether The Family engages its own enemies as fervently as it engages the enemies of others.
Now, however, Suozzi’s high-minded aspirations are hard to reconcile with the 2016 invitation list. The names present, and those omitted, suggest that enemies of human rights may come and break bread, but enemies of Republicans get left out in the cold.
The Revs. Al Sharpton, Jesse Jackson, and William Barber – some of America’s top religious leaders on the left – are all absent from the 2016 invitation list. Business leaders, however, appear in abundance (although yesteryear’s captains of industry have been replaced by today’s regional managers of industry).
Non-religious leaders who advocate for the disenfranchised are hard to come by. The late AFL-CIO chief Richard Trumka, invited by Beasley, was one of the rare labor leaders on the list.
Still, participating Democrats claim the breakfast somehow can foster reconciliation, regardless of the short supply there of LGBTQ people, socialists, and baby-killers with whom to reconcile. “After a very divisive time in our nation’s history,” Coons said in February, “it’s my hope that this year’s breakfast offers Americans of all faiths and backgrounds the strength and courage to unite as a nation and tackle the challenges we face together.”
Except now we know that Americans of all faiths and backgrounds aren’t at the breakfast. In fact, as our first report will show, the breakfast – and some Family leaders – helped fuel our current divisions. And their secret work today is at the heart of the challenges we now face.