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Congress takes reins of prayer breakfast from secretive Christian evangelical group

President Joe Biden speaks at the National Prayer Breakfast, Thursday, Feb. 3, 2022, on Capitol Hill in Washington.
Patrick Semansky
President Joe Biden speaks at the National Prayer Breakfast, Thursday, Feb. 3, 2022, on Capitol Hill in Washington.

On its face, the National Prayer Breakfast is a serene, bipartisan event full of spiritual reflection.

But over the years, the breakfast has also been a source of controversy — full of shadowy fundraising, behind-the-scenes lobbying and even infiltration by a Russian spy.

So lawmakers now have taken it out of the hands of the secretive Christian evangelical group that has run it for decades — the International Foundation, also known as the Fellowship Foundation or "The Family," a name popularized in recent years by a book by the same name and a 2019 Netflix docuseries based on it.

It painted a picture of a clubby, closed-door group that had the ear of lots of Washington power players and bold-faced names without much transparency about their donors or agenda.

Rep. James Lankford, R-Okla., left, President Donald Trump, center, and Sen. Chris Coons, D-Del., pray during the National Prayer Breakfast, Thursday, Feb. 7, 2019, in Washington.
Evan Vucci / AP
Rep. James Lankford, R-Okla., left, President Donald Trump, center, and Sen. Chris Coons, D-Del., pray during the National Prayer Breakfast in 2019.

"When Sen. [James] Lankford, [R-Okla.], and I were co-chairs of the National Prayer Breakfast a number of years ago, there were a lot of questions raised about the finances, about who was invited, about how it was structured," said Sen. Chris Coons, D-Del., chairman of the Senate Ethics Committee and frequent participant in the prayer breakfast. "And we frankly had to admit, as co-chairs, we didn't know as much as we felt we should have."

With Coons' and several others' help, a new, nonprofit group was formed — the National Prayer Breakfast Foundation with the sole purpose of putting on the signature event. It's headed by former Democratic Sen. Mark Pryor of Arkansas, who said the first big change, in addition to the new legal status, is it will be smaller and more controlled.

"We expect there to be maybe 300 people in attendance as opposed to like 3,500 in years past," Pryor said. "So it's going to be just members and plus-ones. ... And hopefully it'll be a smaller, more intimate gathering."

The event is also being moved from a prominent Washington hotel to the U.S. Capitol complex. The changes will essentially wall off members of Congress from mixing with any unforeseen guests who present potential conflicts of interest — or worse.

But there are still questions about just how much the new group is a break from the old.

When did the National Prayer Breakfast begin and why?

It's been happening annually for 70 years.

Dwight Eisenhower in 1953 was the first president to attend one. He was convinced to be there by Billy Graham, the Christian evangelist. Eisenhower, not known as particularly outwardly religious, at one point in his presidency said the country was in need of a spiritual renewal.

He is responsible for adding "In God We Trust" to U.S. currency and "under God" to the Pledge of Allegiance as ways to combat the "Red Scare," or the perceived creeping rise of communism after World War II with the United States jockeying for prominence with the Soviet Union.

From then on, presidents have attended annually. Billy Graham and then his son, Franklin, also an evangelist, were in the ear of presidents for decades and increased their influence in Washington — as did "The Family."

What is "The Family"?

The group ran the prayer breakfast for decades, but the breakfast is just the tip of The Family's influence. It has a wide and international reach of elite friends, and unlike the televangelists seen on TV screens on Sundays, the Fellowship is deliberately cloistered.

"I wish I could say more about it, but it's working precisely because it is private," Republican President Ronald Reagan said in 1985 of his work with Doug Coe, the longtime leader of the Fellowship. Coe died in 2017.

The group has ties reaching from the highest to the lowest rungs of the federal government. Senators and members of Congress huddle with representatives of the group in a townhouse on Capitol Hill, known as the "C Street Center," among other places.

Members close to the group have said they reflect on the kind of week they are having and sometimes do Bible studies.

Much of what they discuss, though, by design, is not known.

And there have been concerns about The Family's access and questions about its agenda. The group has paid for overseas trips for members, been close in particular to GOP members, is linked to anti-LGBTQ+ initiatives and, in recent years, the Prayer Breakfast ballooned from a relatively small event into a multi-day affair that drew thousands and went beyond just prayer.

It served as a recruitment and networking event for the Fellowship and included plenty of guests from outside the U.S.

That included Maria Butina.

In 2018, the Department of Justice charged Butina with "conspiracy to act as an agent of the Russian Federation within the United States without prior notification."

In other words, the U.S. government said she was really a spy. She was arrested, convicted and served 15 months in federal prison. (When she got out, she began serving in the Russian parliament.)

The event had become unwieldy and it became difficult to keep tabs on who was coming and going and mixing with lawmakers.

Following some of the revelations, many Democrats stopped attending. Something had to change.

"I do think there were concerns raised and expressed by members of both parties, both houses, about a range of different issues," Coons said. "Some involved who were the invited guests. Some involved the book and a Netflix documentary that you referenced. Some just involved a lack of clarity from an ethics perspective about how the event was structured and organized."

It certainly doesn't mean the Fellowship's influence still won't be entrenched in Washington. It will continue to hold its own event at a D.C. hotel and will beam in the speeches of the event for the gathered audience.

Besides, in the dark is mostly how the group has operated for years.

What about the new group?

The National Prayer Breakfast Foundation, headed by Pryor, will be more tightly controlled by Congress, though it's not clear yet what the mechanism for that oversight will be exactly — or how or if the group will publicize its donors.

"We will be disclosing all of that once we get this one breakfast behind us," Pryor vowed, "but right now we're just not quite ready to do that, because first, we don't even know who all has given or will be giving right now. So we're still — that's a work in progress. But transparency is our aim there."

Pryor said to expect those disclosures in the next few weeks — after the breakfast — and that the group is "checking with [the] ethics [committees] constantly" to "make sure everything we do complies with all the ethical standards."

There is also a question of just how much of a break from the past the new foundation is, considering several of its board members have ties back to the Fellowship Foundation. That includes Stan Holmes, who is a board member of the Core Fellowship Foundation and has been involved with not just the National Prayer Breakfast but the House and Senate prayer breakfasts, which are closed to the public, for more than 40 years.

[O]ur annual Breakfast is an opportunity for Members of Congress to pray collectively for our nation, the President of the United States, and other national and international leaders in the spirit of love and reconciliation as Jesus of Nazareth taught 2,000 years ago.

"It seems a little bit de minimis," said Annie Laurie Gaylor, co-president of the Freedom From Religion Foundation, which pushes for clear lines of separation of church and state. She's been a chief critic of the breakfast. "The prayer breakfast planners decided they had to, quote unquote, separate it out from The Family, but it really isn't separated too much."

Pryor acknowledged "there are a handful of people who have been involved in the past, but the truth is, it's a new day for the National Prayer Breakfast and everybody's committed to continuing it, but continuing it with more transparency."

There has also been criticism of the new iteration of the breakfast because, even though Pryor and others say people of all faiths are welcome, it still seems to be very much rooted in Christian evangelicalism.

The new foundation's website, for example, notes in explaining the breakfast's purpose:

"...[O]ur annual Breakfast is an opportunity for Members of Congress to pray collectively for our nation, the President of the United States, and other national and international leaders in the spirit of love and reconciliation as Jesus of Nazareth taught 2,000 years ago. Every president, regardless of party or religious persuasion, has joined since. All faiths are welcome."

That doesn't give the impression of a non-denominational, interfaith event — and the tradition continues in the vein at a time when a growing number of Americans — about 30% — are identifying as religiously unaffiliated. A little less than two-thirds identify as Christian, down from 90% 50 years ago.

"[W]hat about the rest of us?" Gaylor asked, adding, "it sends a message of exclusion to non-Christians and especially the majority of nonbelievers."

Coons, though, said he is "confident" in Pryor's leadership and believes he "will ensure that there is transparency" in this new configuration.

"I think they struck the right balance," Coons said, "and that's a balance that delivers transparency and accountability to the members of Congress for this new foundation for a much smaller event."

The reforms put in place were enough for lawmakers like Sen. Tim Kaine, D-Va., who had boycotted the event for years in wake of the controversies, but will now attend.

A spokesperson for Kaine said in an emailed statement that the senator stopped going after 2016 because it had "become an entertainment and lobbying extravaganza," but it has "now been completely reformed to be an opportunity for members of Congress to gather with the president and vice president once a year to reflect upon the deeper meaning of our work."

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Domenico Montanaro is NPR's senior political editor/correspondent. Based in Washington, D.C., his work appears on air and online delivering analysis of the political climate in Washington and campaigns. He also helps edit political coverage.