The Freedom From Religion Foundation is greeting news of the upcoming National Prayer Breakfast’s longstanding host, The Fellowship, separating from the annual event with skepticism. The state/church watchdog had recently taken the lead in a coalition letter calling on members of Congress to boycott the event.
“We’re, of course, pleased that pressure by FFRF, journalists and a coalition of groups has discredited The Fellowship to the point where it became a liability as host of this event,” says Annie Laurie Gaylor, FFRF co-president. But the separation between The Fellowship and this new version of the prayer breakfast appears to be a subterfuge, Gaylor adds, with members of Congress who are connected with The Fellowship running the new group.
Gaylor says that FFRF’s basic concern remains: This is still an event involving the most powerful U.S. public officials endorsing religion.
“For decades, FFRF has protested the appearance of the National Prayer Breakfast being a quasi-governmental gathering, which pressures the president and Congress to put on a display of piety that sends a message that the United States is a Christian nation,” she remarks. “The National Prayer Breakfast Foundation has no business summoning the president or Congress to a religious event requiring a show of obeisance and partaking in private religious rituals.”
Yesterday, former U.S. Sen. Mark Pryor announced that the National Prayer Breakfast will become a “more intimate gathering between the Congress, the president, and those in his administration.” Pryor said the 70-year-old event will no longer be hosted by the controversial group he described as “the International Foundation,” but which is commonly known as The Family or The Fellowship.
The Fellowship was exposed as an elite network dedicated to a religion of power for the powerful, using “free-market fundamentalism” and “imperial ambition,” in the book, The Family: The Secret Fundamentalism at the Heart of American Power, by journalist Jeff Sharlet, first published in 2009, which was turned into a 2019 Netflix documentary. In recent years, the Christian Right group has been dogged by reporting on its ties to despots, anti-LGBTQ policies and other scandals.
Pryor’s announcement adds: “This is done in the spirit of the teachings of Jesus of Nazareth, who taught love, respect, reconciliation and forgiveness.” Although Pryor says “all faiths are welcome, and all faiths feel welcome,” FFRF calls Pryor tone-deaf for clearly signaling that Christianity is at the core of the event.
The new foundation’s website, according to TYT reporter Jonathan Larsen, emphasizes the Christian nature of the event, as well: “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, adopted by the Senate and House Prayer Breakfast Groups in the United States Congress.”
Pryor’s press statement points out that The Fellowship will now organize what it is calling “The Gathering” at the Washington Hilton Hotel, where it has traditionally hosted the National Prayer Breakfast. The new foundation will have “only one purpose, the hosting [of] the annual National Prayer Breakfast while following Congressional ethical standards,” he adds. The breakfast itself will take place this year at the Capitol Complex, and be reserved for House and Senate members only, plus a spouse, family member or constituent guest. Meanwhile, The Family will invite “leaders of the world” to pray, and “watch portions of the National Prayer Breakfast through live screening,” then carry on with their usual post-breakfast events to lobby and influence-peddle.
While Pryor insists that “The Gathering is legally separate from the National Prayer Breakfast and the National Prayer Breakfast Foundation,” Larsen notes that in fact the new National Prayer Breakfast Foundation board members are all connected to The Family.
Larsen reports that in addition to Pryor, the board will be run by Heidi Heitkamp, formerly a Democratic senator from North Dakota, Randy Hultgren, a former Republican representative from Illinois, and Zach Wamp, a former Republican representative from Tennessee. Grace Nelson, a former Family board member and wife of former Sen. Bill Nelson, who now runs NASA, will also join the National Prayer Breakfast Foundation board, along with Caroline Aderholt, spouse of “longtime Family insider” Rep. Robert Aderholt, R-Ala. Larsen reports that Aderholt got caught up in Ukraine lobbying scandals and met with dubious figures on Family-paid trips. Larsen quotes “a source close to The Family” saying that all of the board members are Christian and “have been involved in the background of the breakfast for a long time.”
Larsen’s report breaking the news on TYT website succinctly summarizes decades of ethical issues and scandals linked to the Fellowship, most recently including MyPillow CEO Mike Lindell’s “radicalization” at the National Prayer Breakfast and its related events; the networking at the prayer breakfast events by now-convicted Russian operative Maria Butina; and how Republican senators used the breakfasts to shield conservative evangelical Guatemalan President Jimmy Morales from a United Nations anti-corruption probe. Among the unsavory activities linked to The Fellowship and its breakfasts were U.S. evangelical attempts to implement capital punishment in Uganda for being LGBTQ. Larsen reports that The Family received funding from a designated terror organization in 2010, resulting in Family insider former Rep. Mark Siljander, R-Mich., pleading guilty to federal charges.
While the news of the reorganization shows a powerful attempt at damage control by backers of the National Prayer Breakfast, FFRF hopes that members of Congress will not be hoodwinked into showing up as lackeys of The Fellowship’s theocratic ambitions.
The Freedom From Religion Foundation is a national nonprofit organization with more than 39,000 members across the country. Our purposes are to protect the constitutional principle of separation between state and church, and to educate the public on matters relating to nontheism.