FFRF’s Mark on the Hill: How we won on the National Prayer Breakfast

Mark Dann

When I first started in the secular movement, if someone wanted me to take action on the National Prayer Breakfast, I used to quietly side-step the conversation. I knew our political hand was weak. If we made a stand against the breakfast, those efforts wouldn’t bear fruit. We’d be right, but we’d lose.

This year, things have changed.

For the first time in 70 years, the link between the Prayer Breakfast and its sponsor — the opaque Christian nationalist Fellowship Foundation (aka “The Family” or the “International Foundation”) — has been permanently severed. A new group, the National Prayer Breakfast Foundation, was created for the sole purpose of putting on the annual breakfast, and for ethical reasons is separated from The Family. And, the new organization took a larger step to remove Franklin Graham as a financial sponsor. That is the equivalent of the Walton family being removed from the Walmart board.

In this edition of FFRF’s Mark on the Hill, let’s talk about how we created this change and what the implications are for moving forward?

What is the National Prayer Breakfast?
The National Prayer Breakfast has been in existence since 1953, which is the same year Queen Elizabeth II ascended to the throne. The National Prayer Breakfast was a political juggernaut. Every president since Eisenhower lined up, venturing to some of D.C.’s biggest ballrooms to give Billy and then Franklin Graham an exclusive audience, speech and unprecedented access. The president would speak before a crowd of over 3,000 people, often composed of some of the leading Christian nationalists, and millions more would watch the president’s address on television. The breakfast solidified Billy Graham’s position as the pastor to the powerful, Christian prayer as the default belief system, and belief in Jesus as what binds all Americans together. The Prayer Breakfast was seen as unmovable and a consistent part of D.C. political life that both parties supported.

What’s so bad about the Prayer Breakfast?
The prevailing conventional wisdom in D.C. about the breakfast was that it was a big harmonious event where people could come together through prayer and overcome their political differences. It was dressed up to look like an official congressional event. Luckily, the secular community never bought into the conventional wisdom.

Cracks in the infallibility of the Prayer Breakfast started to appear in 2010 when the Fellowship Foundation was implicated in exporting LGBTQ hate to Uganda by pushing the “Kill the Gays” bill there, which was ultimately defeated. But that wasn’t enough for the breakfast to change.

In 2019, Jeff Sharlet’s documentary “The Family” appeared on Netflix and started to demask and demonstrate the grimy nature of the Fellowship Foundation, and how it openly embraced the idea of ministering to the powerful, endorsing a muscular vision of Christianity where Christ’s domain on earth could be brought about by embracing strongmen (Suharto of Indonesia, Siad Barre of Somalia, Jonas Savimbi of Angola, Artur da Costa e Silva of Brazil, Papa Doc Duvalier of Haiti). It explored how the Fellowship Foundation was constructed to oppose the New Deal and organized labor.

Then, more and more cracks began to appear, such as the FBI catching Maria Butina, an unregistered foreign agent with ties to Vladimir Putin, utilizing the breakfast to illegally “back channel” with American officials who attended the shindig. President Trump used the event in 2019 to promote discriminatory adoption practices; his comments were met with tremendous enthusiasm.

Finally, in 2021, Jonathan Larsen started writing and began to put all of the pieces about the Prayer Breakfast together with its international network, documenting how the breakfast was used as a nexus to export Christian dominionism. We finally had enough leverage to show members of Congress what the breakfast was really trying to do.

Our work in 2022
Our strategy for the 2022 National Prayer Breakfast was very clear: Lobby members of Congress who support the separation of state and church and show them how their involvement hurt LGBTQ rights, promoted Christian nationalism and undermined organized labor. The breakfast gets a lot of its power by being able to mask itself as a bipartisan event. If we dismantled that idea, we knew we could start to move an entity that previously couldn’t be moved.

Through our work, more and more members of Congress, such as Sens. Tim Kaine and Sherrod Brown, started to walk away from the breakfast. A true victory came when House Speaker Nancy Pelosi decided not to attend the breakfast in 2022 after years of participation. The 2022 National Prayer Breakfast had the lowest participation of members of Congress on record.

Bringing home a victory in 2023
Building on the momentum from 2022, we formed a coalition of like-minded organizations that could speak from their unique vantage points and fields of expertise about why the Prayer Breakfast is harmful. Joining us were our allies at American Atheists, American Humanists Association, Bayard Rustin Liberation Initiative, Black Nonbelievers, Council for Global Equality, Interconnected Justice, the Secular Coalition for America and TYT Action. We started to meet with the offices of members of Congress who had attended last year, have taken part in the breakfast in previous years, or who we thought might accept an invitation from The Family to attend. The press started to take notice of what we were doing.

Our coalition became larger when we sent a letter to Congress along with over 30 other organizations, as well as religious and secular leaders. What made this letter special is that it was the largest sign-on letter of religious and secular organizations, as well as other friends from the civil rights movement, in recent memory. A new point of leverage was that several elected officials from the Association of Secular Elected Officials joined the letter. In addition to our Hill activities, so many of you took the time to write to your members of Congress, or even better, called your congressional representative to voice your opinion on the Prayer Breakfast. Our Hill operation, grassroots action and attention in the press clearly got the attention of lawmakers who began to start raising critical questions about the breakfast and the Fellowship Foundation.

How victory came
Jonathan Larsen broke the story of changes to the Prayer Breakfast in January, one week before the event. The break between the National Prayer Breakfast and The Family means that Christian nationalists and dominionists will no longer be able to summon the U.S. president to appear at their annual conference and demand an exclusive address. They can now watch the same public broadcast as the rest of the world on C-SPAN. The days of Franklin Graham and other religious ideologues glaring up from the dais at the president during the Prayer Breakfast are over.

It is currently undeniable that the Fellowship Foundation is an organization that promotes Christian nationalism and dominionism. If an elected official, such as Sen. Amy Klobuchar, wants to engage the Fellowship Foundation and attend the two-day conference (reduced from four), she will be attending with the full knowledge she is supporting an organization with a Christian nationalist and dominionist agenda. The agenda of the Fellowship Foundation is not any different than any other Christian nationalist and dominionist organization, such as the Alliance Defending Freedom.

Finally, oligarchs who have used the breakfast in the past to gain influence will need to use normal and publicly reported lobbying channels to influence U.S. government officials and policy.

Conclusion and next steps
The National Prayer Breakfast has been greatly defanged. The idea that the jewel in the crown of Billy Graham’s ministry to the powerful would be downgraded was seen as impossible just a few years ago. Recent stories have emerged that some members of Congress are still using the Prayer Breakfast to promote Christian nationalism and those who share those beliefs. None the less, we hope that the new National Prayer Breakfast Foundation will honor its commitment to making its finances public and continue its separation from the Family. We would like to have a constructive dialogue with the new entity as the year progresses.

We have shown that the secular community, with religious allies and friends from the civil rights sphere, can accomplish reforms once thought to be impossible. If we follow a solid strategy, carefully choose our targets and work together, we can accomplish a lot of wonderful things going forward.

All the best,

Mark Dann
Director of Governmental Affairs
Freedom From Religion Foundation, Inc.

Freedom From Religion Foundation

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