So who's bankrolling the National Prayer Breakfast? Evangelical superstar Franklin Graham

"Nonpartisan" congressional event excludes LGBTQ leaders and builds networks for the global right. Now we know why

Published October 13, 2021 5:30AM (EDT)

Franklin Graham (LOGAN CYRUS/AFP via Getty Images)
Franklin Graham (LOGAN CYRUS/AFP via Getty Images)

This article originally appeared at The Young Turks. Used by permission.

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One of a series about the Fellowship Foundation, the secretive religious group that runs the National Prayer Breakfast and is popularly known as The Family. This series is based on Family documents obtained by TYT, including lists of breakfast guests and who invited them.

Although the National Prayer Breakfast bills itself as nonpartisan and ecumenical, its sole benefactor is anything but: Franklin Graham.

The son of breakfast co-founder Billy Graham, Franklin Graham is openly anti-LGBTQ, anti-Islamic and partisan. He is also, according to a source close to The Family, the only source of revenue for the NPB aside from ticket sales.

Graham singlehandedly enabled The Family to keep its breakfast operations intact this year. Because the 2021 breakfast was remote due to COVID, The Family had zero revenues from guest registration fees.

Although the source estimated the total at only $100,000 a year, they said that's "serious money" for a nonprofit endeavor such as the NPB. Graham, the source said, "is providing an amount of support that, arguably without it, the breakfast has trouble making it work."

The source said the funding doubled in 2016, and that Graham told the Family that it was due to a new presidential administration coming in. The source said they didn't know whether Graham did this before or after Trump's election.

Family documents obtained by TYT show that Graham and his nonprofit organizations have been allowed to invite guests to the annual breakfast, which is billed as a convening of global leaders. Graham's guests range from his family members to an anti-LGBTQ cause célèbre to lobbyists and fundraisers from his charities.

None of the source's claims about Graham and the breakfast were disputed by Graham, The Family or the three men who ran the breakfast in 2016, the year the donations doubled.

Publicly available IRS records are consistent with the source's account. Graham runs two massive organizations that have disclosed funding The Family's legal entity, the Fellowship Foundation, according to filings made available online by ProPublica.

Like Graham, both organizations have ample records of anti-LGBTQ discrimination. The breakfast, which purports to be run by Congress, also discriminates against LGBTQ people, as TYT has previously reported, largely excluding LGBTQ leaders and activists, and serving as a hub and spawning ground for global right-wing networks opposed to abortion and LGBTQ rights.

Forbidden Colours, an LGBTQ advocacy group, warned congressional Democrats last month in an intelligence brief that their participation in prayer breakfasts lends credibility to far-right movements. The European Parliamentary Forum on Sexual and Reproductive Rights reported this summer that right-wing activists are staging prayer breakfasts to help expand their networks.

Franklin Graham and U.S. Senate Chaplain Barry Black at the 2017 National Prayer Breakfast. (Image: Screengrab of tweet by Franklin Graham.)

The two groups that Graham runs are Samaritan's Purse, one of the world's largest relief organizations, and the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association (BGEA).

The European parliamentary report called the BGEA one of the top 10 organizations responsible for "the lion's share of US anti-gender activism in Europe," spending tens of millions of dollars there from undisclosed donors, openDemocracy found. The BGEA website says the organization considers marriage to be exclusively between "one genetic male and one genetic female" and human life to begin at conception.

Unlike the BGEA, which focuses on evangelizing Graham's brand of Protestantism, Samaritan's Purse is a relief organization. However, its "primary mission" is to share the gospel of Jesus Christ. So it too weaves far-right views in with aid for the needy.

Samaritan's Purse employees, for instance, must reject same-sex marriage. In 2012, Samaritan's Purse spent more than $150,000 opposing a marriage-equality measure in North Carolina.

Samaritan's Purse filings up through 2019 show repeated annual donations to The Family. The BGEA changed its legal status in 2014, calling itself a church, and so no longer has to disclose its filings, but previous records show that it, too, gave to The Family.

For years, the BGEA tax filings included $20,000 earmarked for the NPB, and reported that the organization attends the breakfast "on behalf of the ministry." Samaritan's Purse gave the same amount annually, bumping it up to $25,000 in 2015 and then, in 2016, doubling that amount to $50,000, which it has given every year since.

According to the source, the BGEA also doubled its donations in 2016. The source's claim could not be verified since BGEA filings no longer being public, but the BGEA did not dispute it. (The Family, BGEA and Samaritan's Purse all did not respond to TYT's requests for comment.)

The Samaritan's Purse tax filing says the charity's purpose is to help "victims of war, poverty, natural disasters, disease and famine with the purpose of sharing God's love through his son, Jesus Christ." Its donations to The Family are labeled as "Christian education."

The source, however, told TYT that both organizations sent their donations together, explicitly for the National Prayer Breakfast.

The Family's congressional allies, including a handful of Democrats, say the purpose of the breakfast is to pray together and pursue reconciliation. Graham tells a different story.

"Everybody in that room has the same agenda," Graham told The New Yorker in 2018. "They're wanting to be able to rub elbows with somebody that they normally couldn't rub elbows with."

Graham's money allows The Family to protect its relationships with some of those people. According to the source, Graham's donations ensure that Family leaders don't have to raise the cost of tickets or hit up rich donors for yet another expense.

The source said the breakfast had run short in previous years and people in the office said they didn't want to go hat-in-hand to rich Family donors to keep the breakfast in the black. One of The Family's biggest known donors is Ron Cameron, a well-known Republican megadonor. The source said Cameron would likely have been the first stop in such circumstances. And not just because of his wallet.

Cameron was a past board member of The Family's legal entity, the Fellowship Foundation. On top of that, the chief financial officer at Cameron's poultry company was also The Family's chief budget overseer for the breakfast. Mountaire Poultry CFO W. Dabbs Cavin was also, at the time, board president of the Fellowship Foundation.

The other two Family insiders running the breakfast were former South Carolina governor David Beasley, a Trump supporter whom Trump later appointed to run the UN World Food Programme, and Brandon Cloud, previously a Maryland Democratic Party official. The source said they did not know Cloud's current political stance, but his LinkedIn profile says he no longer works for The Family. Neither Cloud nor Cavin responded to requests for comment.

Graham's money not only helps The Family avoid taxing Cameron's financial patience, it keeps down registration fees for thousands of its breakfast guests. Although The Family likes to portray the breakfast as a congregation of diverse leaders, many attendees are not leaders at all, but loyal evangelical foot soldiers. For some, registration fees upward of $500 per person — plus travel and lodging — already prove prohibitive.

It's not clear why Graham would keep his support for the breakfast secret, but much about The Family is purposely made fuzzy, as journalist Jeff Sharlet has reported, to facilitate the organization's ability to build and maintain personal relationships with people in power. As TYT has reported, although the official letters to guests come from a congressional host committee, some members have no idea who's being invited in their name.

That's especially true of Democrats. As TYT previously reported, the Family insiders who invite the most guests are overwhelmingly Republican. Two Democratic members of the 2016 host committee said they didn't know who had been invited. Even a Democratic Family insider, lobbyist and former Kansas congressman Jim Slattery, said he was unaware of who gets invited.

But creating a public impression of equal Democratic involvement helps The Family portray the breakfast as nonpartisan. That's what Forbidden Colours warned Democrats about in its intelligence brief, which specifically claimed that 2016 breakfast co-chair Rep. Juan Vargas, D-Calif., had been "misled" about Ukraine's prayer breakfast.

After the first National Prayer Breakfast of the Trump presidency, the BGEA cited Vargas' attendance in a post claiming that politics take "a backseat" at the breakfast. The post went on to praise Trump's breakfast remarks for his defense of religious liberty — a common right-wing rallying cry used to justify anti-LGBTQ speech and discrimination.

And while The Family and its congressional allies try to persuade people that the breakfast is ecumenical, Graham at times seems to forget his lines. Graham has cited Democratic congressional participation as proof that Christian politicians are better for America than non-Christian politicians. "If Christians in Congress can get together," Graham said to Fox News about the National Prayer Breakfast in 2018, "it tells us we need more Christians in politics … and if there were more Christians, they would come together and work … for the American people." Fox's hosts agreed.

Even the breakfast's origins are recounted differently, depending on the narrator and the audience they're addressing. The Family's website claims the breakfast was created by members of congressional prayer groups to help President Dwight Eisenhower. Billy Graham is not mentioned. The BGEA site more accurately discloses Billy Graham's role — with no suggestion that the impetus for the breakfast came from congressional prayer groups.

As Sharlet has discussed, Eisenhower agreed only reluctantly to attend the first NPB — at least in part due to the political debt he owed the elder Graham.

Today, Franklin Graham's nonprofit tax filings don't do much to clarify the true nature of the present-day breakfast. The BGEA no longer releases theirs. Samaritan's Purse filings say its donations to the International Foundation (another name used by the Fellowship Foundation) are for "Christian education."

One obvious reason for Samaritan's Purse and the BGEA to support the National Prayer Breakfast could simply be to sustain the legacy of Graham's father.

Billy Graham had deep, longstanding ties to The Family. In addition to his work with Family founder Abraham Vereide — a right-wing, free-market, Norwegian immigrant and minister — the elder Graham had a long personal relationship with Vereide's successor, Doug Coe. (Graham's long-time spokesperson, A. Larry Ross, is also The Family's spokesperson and board member, and was one of several Family insiders involved in radicalizing Big Lie promoter Mike Lindell.)

Unlike his father, Franklin Graham is more overtly political, and less invested in ministering to both parties. One source close to The Family suggested that Graham's fire-and-brimstone approach is even out of step with The Family's ostensible interest in reaching out beyond evangelical Protestantism.

But it's conceivable that Graham hoped the breakfast would help knit frayed ties between Trump and evangelicals. The 2016 campaign brought one revelation after another about the millionaire TV star assaulting women, bragging about it, and betraying an utter lack of interest in genuine religiosity.

Nevertheless, Graham was an early supporter of Trump. In 2011, Graham said Trump might be his preferred Republican candidate in 2012, embracing Trump's false claim that Barack Obama had not been born in the United States. The following year, Trump began giving money to both the BGEA and Samaritan's Purse.

It was at some point after Trump locked down the Republican nomination that Graham doubled his breakfast donations. Breakfast leaders later told others that Graham had said it was to cover any additional expenses related to having a new president in office. The source, however, said they did not know whether Graham conveyed this to the breakfast leadership before or after the general election.

With Trump in the White House, Graham went on Fox to discuss the 2018 National Prayer Breakfast. He used the event to promote Trump and slam Obama.

Although Graham has little involvement with The Family, his organizations do engage with the National Prayer Breakfast. Graham gets to bring members of his family and nonprofit executives to the event.

Graham guests have included Kelvin Cochran, who attended the breakfast in 2016. Cochran had been fired as Atlanta's fire chief the previous year, after writing and distributing to employees a book that opposed same-sex marriage and compared LGBTQ sex to pederasty and bestiality.

Some of the executives from Graham's charities who get to attend hold leadership positions related to fundraising and government lobbying. One Graham guest in 2018 was a senior vice president of wealth management at Truist Bank who also sat on the board of Samaritan's Purse.

Samaritan's Purse employees have also been given speaking slots at the breakfast — which includes days of events that, unlike the presidential speech, never get aired on C-SPAN. One Samaritan's Purse speaker, Dr. Kent Brantly, was a celebrity in his own right after contracting ebola while treating victims of the epidemic in Liberia. (Samaritan's Purse later cited Brantly's work as part of an amicus brief defending the right to discriminate against LGBTQ job applicants.)

Brantly's boss at Samaritan's Purse, Dr. Lance Plyler, spoke at the 2019 NPB. Later that year, Plyler returned to his previous employer, Liberty University, calling the two organizations "incredibly like-minded" and saying that "medicine is an incredible tool for the sake of the Gospel."

And despite the BGEA's claim that the National Prayer Breakfast is nonpolitical — a fiction abetted by congressional Democratic participation — the right wing uses the event every year like clockwork to attack any Democratic president who speaks there as insufficiently religious. Graham himself does it.

In 2015, even after Obama praised Graham's employee who fell ill treating ebola patients, Graham hit back at Obama's speech for daring to remind people of historic Christian violence. Graham used the remarks as grist for an attack on Islam, which then became grist for a Breitbart attack on Obama.

Earlier this year, President Biden delivered remarks at the breakfast remotely, via pre-recorded video, even though Family leaders helped bankroll the Big Lie. Despite the implied insult to America's 30 million nonbelievers, Biden gave the breakfast what it wanted, saying the way for the country to unify was through "faith."

Even that, however, wasn't enough for the breakfast's patron. Graham made headlines in religious circles, criticizing Biden for not saying "God."

With additional research by TYT News Assistant Zoltan Lucas and TYT Investigates Intern Jamia Zarzuela.

By Jonathan Larsen

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

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