Why do Democrats still support the Prayer Breakfast after its leaders backed Trump's election lies?

Since 1953, every U.S. president has addressed the National Prayer Breakfast. Will Joe Biden break the tradition?

By Jonathan Larsen
February 3, 2021 4:01PM (UTC)
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Pres. Trump at the 2019 National Prayer Breakfast, with co-chairs Sen. James Lankford (R-OK), who objected last week to electoral-vote counting, and, on the right, Sen. Chris Coons (D-DE). (Screengrab from C-SPAN video)

This article originally appeared on The Young Turks.

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Will President Biden and other Democrats participate in this week's National Prayer Breakfast? A given in past years, presidential attendance has taken on new weight this year in the aftermath of the Jan. 6 Capitol attack.

Run by the Fellowship Foundation, a secretive Christian group also known as The Family, the breakfast is traditionally held the first Thursday of February. Since 1953, every U.S. president has addressed the breakfast.

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This year's National Prayer Breakfast (NPB) will be virtual, but the White House isn't saying whether Biden will participate. Neither is The Family. A source who has been involved with the breakfast told TYT they believed Biden would pretape a video for the event.

If Biden does participate, it will represent a remarkable endorsement, less than a month after the Jan. 6 attack, of a group that includes leaders who supported Pres. Trump's election lies.

In addition, The Family keeps its finances and leadership secret. The group does not disclose its funders and has not released its most recent tax return, as required by law.

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Biden is in something of a political bind, however, the source suggested. "The headline if you don't [participate] will be that you're the first president that snubbed it. So just do the thing, or Fox News will go crazy. That's the leg up the breakfast always had."

And the breakfast was already controversial the last time Biden was in the White House. LGBTQ advocates protested Pres. Obama's appearance at the event. Other issues have arisen since, including Family sponsorship of congressional travel that included meetings with anti-LGBTQ leaders overseas.

Last month, TYT reported that Family leaders made campaign donations after Election Day to Trump and Republicans who were helping Trump convince millions of Americans that Biden stole the election. TYT has since identified donations from two more Family leaders.

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In addition, the Congressional Prayer Caucus, which is closely tied to the NPB, is dominated by Republicans who objected to Congress counting Electoral College votes and supported other efforts, such as a Texas lawsuit, to subvert Americans' vote. The caucus is run by Sen. James Lankford (R-OK), a returning co-chair of this year's NPB who only retracted his vote-counting objection after the attack.

Congressional Democrats have taken a hard line against Republicans and others who egged on the attack. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) has referred to "the enemy within." Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) rebuffed Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX).

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On Monday night, Ocasio-Cortez did a live video in which she gave a dramatic account of the Jan. 6 attack. Her video and remarks from other women in Congress reignited a national discussion about the seriousness of the attack and the gravity of the threat.

Twelve current Democratic members of Congress have signed off on using their names as "honorary" representatives and senators for Thursday's breakfast. TYT emailed all 12, asking them to address the Family donations and other reporting about The Family.

A spokesperson for Rep. Charlie Crist (D-FL) said in a statement, "The issues raised by this reporting deserve attention and answers." The statement described the breakfast as "an institution in Washington, one of the last bastions of bipartisan fellowship, where elected leaders can come together in worship. It would be very sad and disappointing if the organization were to fall into the hyper-partisan trap that's engulfed our national politics — to our nation's severe detriment."

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In a statement provided by Communications Director Daniel Gleick, Rep. Val Demings (D-FL) said, "I am providing the closing prayer this year because it gives me the opportunity to hopefully demonstrate what true love, inclusion, and compassion look like by my presence and my words. We must all do better. I pray my life is a light of hope and inspiration."

The other ten Democrats did not respond. Sen. Chris Coons (D-DE) and Rep. Tom Suozzi (D-NY) are listed as this year's Democratic co-chairs. The remaining Democrats who let their names be used for the event are Reps. Debbie Dingell (D-MI), Lisa Blunt Rochester (D-DE), Juan Vargas (D-CA), and Sens. Tom Carper (D-DE), Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY), Tim Kaine (D-VA), Amy Klobuchar (D-MN), and Joe Manchin (D-WV).

Pelosi, who spoke at last year's event, also did not respond to a request for comment.

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The source involved with the breakfast told TYT that they couldn't fault Biden if he participates. "Biden's been pushing on the religious language in the inaugural [speech]."

The source was more critical of those Democrats who let their names appear on the invitation. "There's a difference for me between [Biden] and the people that are lending their name and enabling."

One Democratic congressional staffer told TYT that their boss was asked to sign on, "because they've had a hard time getting Democrats."

And getting Democratic names is more than a symbolic gesture, according to Jeff Sharlet, a journalist whose work on The Family was the basis of a Netflix documentary series. In 2019, Sharlet told Esquire how a former member of The Family described the value of Democratic participation: "We felt we had more influence as long as we can keep a couple of Democrats in the fold," the former member told Sharlet. "And so we have access to everybody."

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The Rev. Rob Schenck, who said he attended last year's breakfast, told TYT, "I think [Democrats] should certainly be cautious enough to vet the whole event and its leadership and intentions as well as they would anything else that the president would associate himself with."

Schenck, a longtime national evangelical leader, said he remains conservative on some issues but voted for Biden and now considers himself politically independent. He said he has advocated for The Family to be more transparent.

Americans United for Separation of Church and State spokesperson Rob Boston also gave TYT a statement in response to recent reporting on The Family. Citing "recent discussions about the corrosive effects of white Christian nationalism participation in the Jan. 6 assault on the Capitol," Boston said, "this might be a good time for Democrats to reassess their attendance at the National Prayer Breakfast…It's time to cut this organization loose."

Last year, conservative columnist Cal Thomas responded to Trump's breakfast speech by suggesting, "Perhaps it is time to suspend this annual event."

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In that speech, Trump attacked Democrats as dishonest, corrupt, and hurting the country. Trump's subsequent remarks about his popularity and pro-life record drew laughter and applause from the NPB audience.

But Schenck told TYT that he wasn't even thinking about Trump when he said that the breakfast and the Fellowship Foundation are more partisan today.

For years, The Family was run by Doug Coe, who Schenck knew for some 20 years, until Coe's death in 2017. "During the Doug era they moved easily between the two [partisan] poles," Schenck recalled. "Sometimes it feels like the old Fellowship to me…But other times it looked like it was no longer hospitable for Democrats or liberals. So I wasn't quite sure: Was it getting captured?"

The breakfast source painted a similar picture. "We used to think we were nonpartisan: Democrats were welcome. I was like, yes, that's true in many respects, but now that Trump stuff's here, there's a lot laid bare that's typical Christian conservative. It's a conservative Republican thing."

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Even before Trump's first NPB speech, The Family apparently recognized the threat he posed to their image. As Coons revealed last year, "Several longtime organizers of the breakfast urged me [in 2017] to speak immediately following the president and to help sustain the tradition of an uplifting, bipartisan and nonsectarian breakfast."

(Coons in 2019 told TYT he was "concerned about the perception that it is a partisan event." Reps. Ro Khanna (D-CA) and Ted Lieu (D-CA) dropped the breakfast that same year.)

Both the NPB source and Schenck said the partisan shift predated Trump. Referring to a former Democratic congressman active in The Family, Schenck said, "I always read Tony Hall as kind of the anchor of sort of keeping them moderate…And then I saw him fade."

Then, Schenck said, "People like Eric Metaxas started coming around…I would see Ben Carson there." Both men would serve as a speaker at the annual event. (Carson later ran Trump's Housing and Urban Development Department, while Metaxas, a conservative author and radio host, has echoed and amplified Trump's lies about the election.)

"The old Fellowship crowd started buzzing about…Carson [and] Metaxas," Schenck said. "I would hear, like, 'Eric's an up-and-comer; he's a voice. Ben Carson is the person we need."

Both of their breakfast speeches struck partisan tones. "There was some negative reaction to each of those instances, but not enough to serve as a rebuke and a correction," Schenck said. "It continued on that track, and then, once Trump took the stage, I thought that was kind of it, completed it."

And Trump's speeches were not his only links to The Family.

One of Trump's biggest donors is Ron Cameron, a past Family board member who watched the 2018 election returns at the White House with Trump. Cameron has donated millions to Trump and PACs supporting Trump.

Last year, Cameron's poultry company, Mountaire, tried to bust its union, which was accusing the company of failing to protect workers from coronavirus. (Mountaire's CFO was president of The Family's board of directors until 2016 and continued to serve on the board.) Trump, of course, had forced America's meat-processing workers back on the job with what unions called inadequate protections.

Cameron has given millions of dollars to The Family via his nonprofit, the Jesus Fund, which is bankrolled by him and Mountaire.

After Cameron's donations were revealed by the Center for Responsive Politics, the Jesus Fund began to shift its money to the National Christian Foundation (NCF), a donor-directed fund which has been criticized for funneling donations anonymously to right-wing causes including some that have been labeled hate groups. As the Jesus Fund stopped funding The Family, NCF donations to The Family picked up.

In 2019, according to a tax filing provided to TYT by the NCF, it gave The Family just over $3 million, or about a quarter of its annual budget. Neither Cameron nor The Family have responded to prior inquiries about his current funding for the group.

Schenck said he did not know who funds The Family but did discuss it with Coe. In contrast to Schenck's model of a broad base of small donors, Coe "was like, 'We don't do it that way.'…I always felt they had a very small number of high-end donors."

The source of The Family's funding has been an issue in part because of how it uses its funds.

The Family has sponsored congressional travel including meetings with anti-LGBTQ and anti-semitic leaders overseas. Family-sponsored trips apparently ended several years ago after drawing public attention, but Ukrainian prayer groups associated with The Family appear to have picked up the slack, travel disclosure filings show.

In a 2019 video shared by a Michigan political blog, Rep. Tim Walberg (R-MI) told a Ukrainian prayer breakfast that marriage is between a man and a woman. Walberg is an honorary representative for this year's breakfast and vice chair of the Congressional Prayer Caucus Foundation (which received $28,750 from the NCF in 2019).

No such travel was disclosed last year, presumably due to the pandemic. "Not much been happening for the last year," Family member Claude "Mick" Kicklighter told TYT in a brief phone call.

(Kicklighter, a much-decorated military veteran and former Defense Department inspector general, told TYT he was "not in the epicenter" of The Family. He said he did not have time to speak further, but did not return a followup call.)

Doug Burleigh, The Family's Russia liaison, also appears in the 2019 video with Walberg. Burleigh, another Trump supporter, appears to have survived as a Family leader despite helping Maria Butina bring Russian guests to the breakfast and establish a back channel to Trump.

Burleigh, Cameron, Kicklighter, and other Family leaders, including at least one board member, all made donations after Election Day to Trump, Republican committees, and candidates bolstering Trump's election lies. Candidates who gave varying degrees of support to Trump's claims included Tommy Tuberville (D-AL), Sen. Tom Cotton (D-AK), and then-Sens. Kelly Loeffler (R-GA), David Perdue (R-GA).

Out of the 14 Republicans named as part of this year's breakfast, six objected to Congress counting some Biden votes. Three more announced their opposition beforehand but flipped after the attack.

Almost all of the 14 at some point gave credence to Trump's suggestion that election fraud swayed the results. Rep. Randy Weber (R-TX), for instance, said, "In violation of the Constitution and with full knowledge of mail-in voting vulnerabilities, state officials, activists, and Democrat-led lawsuits in numerous states opened our electoral processes to fraud and abuse."

Rep. French Hill (R-AL) notably took a stand against Trump, later pointing a finger at Trump for the violence.

One of the 14 Republicans, Senator Lankford, was one of the first senators to announce he would object to counting electoral votes. Lankford backed down after the attack and later apologized to his constituents of color for perpetuating "doubt on the validity of votes coming out of predominantly Black communities."

Lankford also heads up the Congressional Prayer Caucus, which has multiple members associated with both The Family and the NPB. Out of the caucus's 54 members, only a handful didn't object to the Electoral College count.

Lankford's office did not respond to a request for comment.

With additional research by TYT Investigates Intern Zoltan Lucas.


Jonathan Larsen

Jonathan Larsen is the managing editor and executive producer of TYT Investigates.

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