The National Prayer Breakfast, the annual event for thousands of lawmakers, foreign dignitaries, and lobbyists to gather in D.C. and pray for the unity of the country and the wisdom of its leaders, has experienced a schism.
This year, there will be two prayer breakfasts. The official prayer breakfast, which will accommodate a couple hundred people, will involve bagels and coffee shared among congresspeople and administration officials and their plus-ones.
It will be held on Thursday, Feb. 2, in an auditorium of the visitor center of the U.S. Capitol and is being billed as a return to the event’s humble roots. It will be run by a brand-new organization called the “National Prayer Breakfast Foundation” that isn’t nearly as controversial as the organization that ran the official prayer breakfast in the past. And this will be the breakfast at which President Biden is expected to speak.
The unofficial breakfast will be run by the same secretive, nondenominational religious group that used to run it for decades, and it will host more than 1,400 people. This “breakfast,” which is actually a two-day series of events, has been rebranded as “the Gathering,” but will take place in the Washington Hilton where the prayer breakfast has been held for decades. The actual breakfast part will still be a sit-down meal, which will be interrupted for a viewing of the president’s speech, streamed in from the official event.
So why the two different events? Did something … happen? Or have members of Congress just grown wise to the event’s awkward optics?
“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,” Sen. Chris Coons, a Democrat, told the Associated Press, of the old prayer breakfast. “Many of us who’d been in leadership roles really couldn’t answer those questions.”
For its entire 70-year history, the National Prayer Breakfast has been hosted by the mysterious International Foundation, or Fellowship Foundation, which is known colloquially as “The Family” or “The Fellowship.” The International Foundation is certainly controversial: It is the subject of two books by the investigative journalist Jeff Sharlet, as well as a five-part Netflix series based on those books, that allege the Family has used its powerful connections—and millions of dollars of secret donations—to spread Christian nationalism at home and abroad. The Family, Sharlet argues, is not just a secret organization of powerful Christians, but the most influential religious organization operating in U.S. politics.
But there’s also long been controversy around the event itself. At the most basic level, proponents of church-state separation have complained that the event’s very official-seeming nature amounts to a government endorsement of the idea that the U.S. is a Christian nation. A smaller “official” prayer breakfast won’t help with that critique, particularly as several of its board members have ties to the old group. But a smaller gathering does create greater distance from the leaders of the religious right who have come to be associated with the Family, including Franklin Graham, who has been one of the leading funders of the event. Sen. Mark Pryor, the new breakfast group’s board president, told The Young Turks network (TYT) that the board would not accept donations from Graham or any other controversial donors.
The traditional prayer breakfast is meant to be bipartisan, but speakers have increasingly used the event as a political soapbox. The author Eric Metaxas, now known as one of the leading voices of evangelical support for Donald Trump, spoke out against President Obama’s views of abortion in a prayer breakfast speech in 2012. Ben Carson did something similar, though on the topic of health care, the next year. Both Metaxas and Carson grew in prominence from those speeches. Mike Lindell, the My Pillow Guy who tried to help President Trump overthrow the 2020 election, claimed his relationship with Trump could be traced to meeting Carson at one of these events.
But political overtones may be the least of the breakfast’s problems.
A good one-third of those who attend the prayer breakfast each year (now, the unofficial one) come from outside the country. Sometimes, these guests are religious conservatives in their own countries. Sometimes, it seems, they’re security risks.
For example, according to a filing unsealed by the Justice Department in 2018, convicted Russian agent Maria Butina tried to use the 2017 National Prayer Breakfast to “establish a back channel of communication” between Americans and influential Russians, including business executives and advisers to President Vladimir Putin.
The filing revealed an email from that time in which Butina thanked an organizer for “the very private meeting that followed” the dinner. That same year, Russian politician and Putin ally Alexander Torshin also successfully set up a meeting with Trump prior to the prayer breakfast, before White House officials realized Torshin’s potential criminal background and canceled it. Some 60 Russians made plans to attend the event the following year, according to CNN. One Russian told the network he believed many were trying to prevent “their name [from] possibly appearing in future sanctions lists.”
“The Russians may have used this, of course,” Franklin Graham told the New Yorker in 2018, when discussing Butina’s indictment and the prayer breakfast. “I can tell you right now, everybody in that room has the same agenda. They’re wanting to be able to rub elbows with somebody that they normally couldn’t rub elbows with.”
“Listen, the gays, they do everything they can to get their politicians into office, and they have every right to do that,” he added. “And I’m just saying, we, as Christians, we have every right to have the Christian voice in office.”
In any event, no one is saying outright that the prayer breakfast has been cleaved in two because of the potential for foreign influence.
When asked by Slate why Congress was splitting with the Family on the breakfast, Republican Sen. James Lankford, the vice chairman of the Senate Ethics Committee, insisted the change was a matter of simple practicalities. “When you’re going to the Washington Hilton, that’s a long way across town to be able to get there and get back,” he said. “And most of the meetings we’ve got here—time is incredibly important to us. But it’s also keeping the heart of the prayer breakfast what it’s supposed to be about—that opportunity, like I said, for seven decades, to be able to get the House and the Senate and the president together in prayer.”
Lankford said that criticism of the event had actually stemmed from false rumors of out-of-control lobbying. But “when you get 2,000 people in Washington, D.C., there’s going to be a lobbyist in the room,” he said. “There’s no real controversy in the background on this.”
The new, official prayer breakfast certainly isn’t shying away from religious overtones: “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,” the new organization’s website declares. Participants “are united in believing that by looking to the life of Jesus, people of diverse backgrounds and beliefs can join together, encourage and promote forgiveness and reconciliation.”
The website further declares that “Since 1953, The National Prayer Breakfast has united leaders, friends, and attendees across the political spectrum for one, simple purpose—prayer.”
The National Prayer Breakfast initially emerged from a national movement of prayer breakfasts that began with a man named Abraham Vereide, a Methodist minister. According to Kevin M. Kruse, a historian at Princeton University, its origins were political from the start. Vereide had been part of a movement called Christian Libertarianism, which opposed the New Deal and labor radicalism and framed that opposition as a religious one. The first prayer breakfasts gathered business and political leaders to pray—but also to join together a coalition of anti-labor interests. In the 1940s, the prayer breakfasts took hold in D.C. with groups in both chambers. When President Eisenhower joined a Senate prayer breakfast, kicking off the tradition of presidential appearances, the national breakfast took its modern form.
“The group remained very influential in fostering Christian nationalism during this period,” Kruse said in a phone interview. “When Eisenhower comes to power, they start to do all these things that bring religion into the state: Religion is propping up the religious nationalism of Eisenhower. With other presidents—especially Democrats—it became much more bipartisan. But it still essentially was operating on the terms of its founding.”
As Kruse noted, religious traditions brought into civic life are hard to undo. Take the “under God” part of the Pledge of Allegiance, for example. So it’s not entirely surprising that the National Prayer Breakfast’s split only goes a half-step toward severing the federal government’s ties with the Family. No current members of Congress sit on the new organization’s board, but it does include a number of former members who have longstanding ties to the Fellowship.
On Wednesday, Jonathan Larson, the managing editor and executive producer of TYT Investigates, which has been reporting extensively on the National Prayer Breakfast changes, reported that he had accidentally been sent an email from former Rep. Zach Wamp, a member of the new National Prayer Breakfast Foundation board, making it clear there were still connections between the two groups. In that email, Wamp chastised Pryor, the new board’s president, for speaking with TYT.
“The ‘Fellowship’ members are already upset about Sen Coons comments and what they see as defaming of the Coe legacy,” Wamp wrote in the email, referring to Doug Coe, who was the Family’s leader until his death in 2017. “Heard today ‘the new group is just throwing us under the bus.’ ” It appears that the comments he’s referring to are ones Coons made to the Associated Press about “questions” around the event.
Others have insisted that the new event organizers are still in support of the (unofficial) Gathering. “So many of the members [of Congress] said that they wanted to make it a little bit more personal and a little more private, which is what it was intended for in the first place,” Mike Rounds, a co-chair of the 2022 prayer breakfast, told Slate, in an explanation of why the two events had split. “It was to the point where it was so large that they kind of felt lost in the whole big group.” But, he added, “The fact that they’re still going to have the Gathering is a good thing. We like that.”
John Fea, a historian at Messiah College in Mechanicsburg, Pennsylvania, specializing in American evangelicalism, said in a phone interview that he doesn’t believe that the new organizers were only concerned about size and logistics. “I do think people like Chris Coons and James Lankford saw what was happening and wanted to take control of this so it wasn’t so politically driven,” he said. “I think a lot of this has to do with Democrats being in control of the Senate and a Democrat in the presidency. It’s a good time to make this kind of change.”
Speaking of the Family, Fea said: “On one hand, they are like any other nonprofit ministry. They want to encourage people to know Jesus and to love Jesus. In many local chapters you see that. On the other hand, this is an organization with an express purpose of trying to influence Washington, of trying to influence the nation for their Christian right agenda. And historically, they’ve used this National Prayer Breakfast as a way of strengthening the network—the ties between these Christian right organizations to power.”
On Wednesday morning, at the Museum of the Bible in Washington, D.C., a Christian nationalist group led by Jim Garlow—a former member of Donald Trump’s Faith Advisory team—held a National Gathering for Prayer and Repentance. The $200-per-ticket event also featured Billy Graham’s daughter, Anne Graham Lotz; Tony Perkins, head of the Family Research Council; Michele Bachmann and Rep. Mike Johnson; and Trump prophet and Messianic Jewish minister Jonathan Cahn.
The event was clearly part of, or at least capitalizing on, the week of activity surrounding the Gathering. “These people at the Museum of the Bible, they are the MAGA faithful,” Fea said. “They believe the election was stolen, that Trump was God’s anointed … In the Trump era, with Jan. 6 and the disputed election and the way evangelicals sucked up to MAGA Christianity, we know the agenda of the prayer meeting is much more.”
“That’s really what it’s all about,” Fea said. The National Prayer Breakfast is “a major calendar event for the Christian right.”
Reporting contributed by Jim Newell.