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.
One of the top people putting together the National Prayer Breakfast guest list for decades has been a longtime executive at Chick-fil-A, the controversial fast-food chain run by a conservative Christian family, TYT has learned.
A company spokesperson confirmed that Tim Burchfield, a Chick-fil-A franchise owner/operator and executive since 1983, has been involved with the National Prayer Breakfast for more than two decades. The event is marketed as ecumenical and nonpartisan, but internal documents show that the breakfast's organizers and guest list are overwhelmingly evangelical conservatives.
Two European advocacy organizations warned this year that right-wing foes of LGBTQ and reproductive rights are using prayer breakfasts to advance their legislative and political agendas. They are doing so, the LGBTQ groups said, with unwitting aid from liberals unaware of who's really involved and how they're using the events to build their networks.
That appears to be the case with the U.S. National Prayer Breakfast, which presents the president and members of Congress as hosts, but conceals the identities of the Family insiders who actually draw up the guest list.
One internal Family document shows that Burchfield was one of the top 10 individuals who submitted guest names for the 2016 breakfast. Like Burchfield himself, his guests were overwhelmingly Republican. Many gave money to anti-LGBTQ candidates and promoters of the false claim that the 2020 election was stolen.
Revelations by journalist Jeff Sharlet and others show a growing pattern of the National Prayer Breakfast functioning as a de facto convention for religious conservatives. A source close to The Family says the organization's relational style — relying on friendships to drive breakfast invitations — inherently limits the range and diversity of guests.
While some Democrats in Congress still lend their names to the event — bolstering the fiction that it's semi-official, nonpartisan and ecumenical — Family guest lists for the 2016 and 2018 breakfasts skew dramatically toward religious conservatives. LGBTQ and reproductive-rights leaders are virtually absent, as are even nationally known religious leaders on the left.
The annual event has served a key role in creating or elevating right-wing icons such as Ben Carson and Mike Lindell.
And Chick-fil-A is not the only right-wing Christian entity with secret ties to the breakfast. TYT recently revealed that the only direct donor to the four-day breakfast event is superstar evangelist Franklin Graham, through the two anti-LGBTQ nonprofit organizations he runs. The Family's biggest known donor overall is Mountaire Poultry CEO Ron Cameron, a GOP mega-donor whose CFO helps oversee the breakfast and sits on the Family's board of directors, including as its president until 2017.
In an emailed statement to TYT, Chick-fil-A said the company is not involved in the National Prayer Breakfast, but gave some details about Burchfield's role. The statement said:
Tim served in a volunteer, non-partisan capacity for more than 20 years coordinating guests for The National Prayer Breakfast from the state of Tennessee. Each state has a representative that coordinates the invites for the national prayer breakfast that serve in the exact same role as Tim. Invitees over the course of more than 20 years spanned the political spectrum and none of them were personally his guests. He no longer serves in this capacity. Neither The Chick-fil-A Foundation nor Chick-fil-A Inc., are involved in the National Prayer Breakfast.
We cannot speak to Tim's personal philanthropic efforts but no donations to the Fellowship Foundation or National Prayer Breakfast were made from his local Chick-fil-A restaurant or from Chick-fil-A, Inc.
Several of Chick-fil-A's claims are contradicted by The Family's internal documents. In response to follow-up questions, however, a Chick-fil-A spokesperson responded, "We have nothing further to add."
Despite Chick-fil-A's claim that it's not involved, the documents show that two CFA executives other than Burchfield also attended the 2016 National Prayer Breakfast. One of them, director of corporate communications Greg Thompson, is listed as submitting his own name to be invited, with a Georgia designation. The source said that means Thompson was involved with The Family's breakfast team in Georgia, where Chick-fil-A is headquartered.
Also, congressional travel forms show that Burchfield, Thompson and members of Thompson's family were part of a 2013 U.S. delegation to Guatemala that included former South Carolina Gov. David Beasley, Rep. Robert Aderholt, R-Ala., and then-Rep. Randy Hultgren, R-Ill. Aderholt and Hultgren's travel was paid for by the Fellowship Foundation, The Family's legal entity. The trip was to attend Guatemala's National Prayer Breakfast; both Aderholt and Hultgren are longtime Family insiders. As TYT recently reported, Beasley's work for The Family has included building international networks of like-minded Christians.
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According to one public account, Chick-fil-A founder Truett Cathy attended the U.S. National Prayer Breakfast in 2004.
Although Chick-fil-A said Burchfield no longer serves in his capacity as a state coordinator, his current status with The Family is unclear.
In 2016, he invited 38 people to the National Prayer Breakfast. In February 2017, an official with the anti-LGBTQ organization Con Mi Hijos No Te Metas (Don't Mess With My Children) posted on Facebook from that year's National Prayer Breakfast, "Thank you so much Timothy Lynn Burchfield for making it all happen and our friends from The Fellowship."
As recently as 2018, Burchfield submitted at least 19 guest names for attendance at the main National Prayer Breakfast event.
The source close to The Family said that regardless of Burchfield's official capacity, his ties to The Family mean that, even today, "if he wanted to invite one [or] 10 people, he could. It's not dependent on 'serving in that capacity.'"
Although Tennessee is only the 16th most populous state, only eight Family insiders invited more guests individually (rather than as part of internal Family teams) than Burchfield did to the 2016 breakfast.
And despite Chick-fil-A's assertion that Burchfield's role in the breakfast is not personal, many of his guests share his politics, religious leanings and, in some cases institutional affiliations. "The idea that Tim didn't personally invite guests to the NPB over the years is ridiculous," the source said.
In fact, despite the suggestion that Burchfield was impersonally coordinating guests from Tennessee, many of his guests were not even from the U.S. At least a third came from Guatemala, where Chick-fil-A acknowledged Burchfield had traveled on company business, saying that serving people there "has become a passion for him."
Chick-fil-A's claim that Burchfield's guests span the political spectrum isn't supported by federal donation records and public information about those guests. His Guatemalan guests do not have campaign-donation records, but of Burchfield's 35 guests from the U.S.:
- 16 have supported Republican politicians publicly or financially,
- Five have supported the lie that Donald Trump won the 2020 election, or have donated to politicians promoting that lie, and
- Only two have ever donated to federal Democratic candidates.
The two Democratic donors include one who backed then-candidate Barack Obama in 2008 and hasn't donated to a Democrat since. The other is a lawyer who made a single Democratic donation — to a former Tennessee judge running in a Virginia primary — and almost a dozen Republican donations.
Not a single 2016 or 2018 guest of Burchfield has given money to a Democratic presidential candidate in almost 13 years. Out of all of Burchfield's guests, TYT was able to identify only one, a Guatemalan politician, who had publicly advocated for LGBTQ rights.
Based on his own donations and public statements, Burchfield's deeply conservative politics align with those of most of his guests.
In a recent interview with a Tennessee podcast, he criticized his former employers, the wealthy Belgian family that owns the Food Lion grocery chain. "They were socialists," Burchfield says. "Probably some of the most dishonorable people I've ever run into."
Despite The Family and Chick-fil-A championing religious freedom elsewhere, Burchfield is comfortable making his workers conform to his religious beliefs. "We're straightforward with the people who work for us: This is a business run on Biblical principles, and we'd like you to follow them," he says. "Don't have to be a believer, we'd just like you to follow them. We get zero pushback."
Discussing immigration, Burchfield says Tennessee has "probably a million undocumented illegals." (One recent estimate put the number at 128,000.) Referring to the federal government taking undocumented immigrants to various states, Burchfield said, "Thank goodness none here, but ... we're gonna have to deal with that." Although Burchfield holds no public office, he added, "I'll be playing a part in that when it happens." He did not elaborate on that and did not respond to emailed questions. (Chick-fil-A's spokesperson said the company had consulted with Burchfield about its response but would not clarify whether it was speaking on his behalf.)
As an old friend of former Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam, Burchfield has been politically active in the Republican Party for years. Haslam appointed Burchfield to serve on a board dealing with labor issues, and Burchfield was a finance committee member and county chair for the gubernatorial campaign of former Rep. Zach Wamp, R-Tenn., a Family insider who once called homosexuality a "sickness" and now helps oversee the breakfast.
In 2018, campaign filings show, Burchfield donated Chick-fil-A catering valued at $1,000 to the gubernatorial campaign of current Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee. After one year in office, Lee signed into law a ban on abortions after six weeks. Lee has also restricted the rights of LGBTQ people and same-sex couples seeking to adopt children.
Adoption is a common issue for Family insiders. A number of them are involved with international adoption charities — some of which proselytize to children and discriminate against LGBTQ would-be adopters. Burchfield sits on the board of Serving Orphans Worldwide, a member of the Christian Alliance of Orphanages, which cheered this summer's Supreme Court ruling permitting anti-LGBTQ discrimination by orphanages.
Serving Orphans Worldwide has ties to Church of God World Mission and supports its orphanages financially. The Church of God statement of values is explicitly anti-LGBTQ.
Burchfield's donations go beyond politics. He's also a financial backer of Milligan College, which prohibits same-sex relationships and recently fired an LGBTQ professor.
Burchfield has not only served on the president's advisory board at Milligan but, in 2016, invited a member of Milligan's board to the National Prayer Breakfast. And while Nashville got plenty of invitations, Tennessee's next three largest cities — Memphis, Knoxville and Chattanooga — only got three invitations each that year. Johnson City, where Burchfield has his Chick-fil-A, got five invitations and nearby Kingsport got 10.
One Burchfield guest, a "compassionate conservative" and Kingsport columnist, lamented Trump's style, but cheered his policies. On the other hand, another Burchfield guest, Kingsport's former mayor, looks up to Trump. Others have championed the Big Lie on social media, going so far as to call Sen. Marsha Blackburn, R-Tenn., a "traitor."
Another Burchfield guest, Stacie Caraway, is a singer who performs alongside anti-LGBTQ preachers. Caraway has been a featured headliner at Billy Graham's crusades and the Chattanooga Prayer Breakfast, which hosts speakers such as David Barton and the board chair of Hobby Lobby. She's also a regular on cruises organized by anti-LGBTQ preacher Charles Stanley.
In her day job, Caraway is an attorney whose specialties include "religious accommodation" and employment law. As a lawyer, Caraway advises companies on matters such as how to deny unemployment benefits to people. One "encouraging note" during the pandemic, Caraway wrote, was that companies could fire people whose only justification for refusing to come to work was fear of getting COVID.
As far as the general public knew, guests at the 2016 National Prayer Breakfast were invited not by Burchfield and other Family insiders, but by members of Congress, who let their names be used on the letterhead of the official notification each guest received of their attendance. While Republicans have generally sided with the political stances of Burchfield and Chick-fil-A, most Democrats are ostensibly LGBTQ allies.
The Democratic co-chairs for the 2016 and 2018 breakfasts were Reps. Juan Vargas, D-Calif., and Charlie Crist, D-Fla. Vargas also headlined September's Ukrainian National Prayer Breakfast in Kyiv, organized by anti-LGBTQ political leaders there, and has refused to discuss his support for The Family's network-building.
After TYT's reporting on anti-LGBTQ guests and Family support for the Big Lie, Reps. Crist and Ann Kirkpatrick, D-Ariz., along with former Rep. Janice Hahn, D-Calif., distanced themselves from the National Prayer Breakfast. Reps. Ro Khanna, D-Calif., and Ted Lieu, D-Calif., had done so earlier, in response to the Maria Butina scandal.
The Freedom from Religion Foundation last month called on members of Congress to stop participating. "[N]ew records and reporting are exposing the shadowy, secretive nature of the agents behind this event," said FFRF director of strategic response Andrew Seidel. "Smart politicians ought to look at that steady flow and wonder, 'What's next?' Because it's not going to be good."
But a handful of Democrats continue to support both the NPB and the conceit that it's a semi-official event. Democratic Family stalwarts who still lend their names to the event, such as the 2021 co-chairs, Sen. Chris Coons of Delaware and Rep. Tom Suozzi of New York, continue to maintain their silence about how The Family runs the breakfast, and to what ends.
If Chick-fil-A is not officially involved in the National Prayer Breakfast, the company has a long history of other ties to the religious right. Through its nonprofits, the company and its owners have given millions of dollars to groups that oppose LGBTQ rights.
When that support appeared to be softening in 2019, Franklin Graham called Chick-fil-A CEO Dan Cathy. "Dan was very clear that they have not bowed down to anyone's demands," Graham tweeted afterward. "They haven't changed who they are or what they believe."
More from TYT on "The Family" and the National Prayer Breakfast: