In the very first "new" iteration of the National Prayer Breakfast (NPB), Rep. Paul Gosar, R-Ariz., broke the rule limiting members of Congress to inviting either their spouse or a constituent. His office blamed Jesus for failing to check the address of his guest, former Arizona gubernatorial candidate Kari Lake.
The revamped NPB was held for the first time last month under the auspices of a new organization, which publicly announced new rules for attendance. In years past, the NPB has drawn controversy over lobbyists, dictators, and others with political agendas attending to connect with U.S. politicians shielded by a religious cloak from official vetting and media scrutiny.
The lack of enforcement of the new rule lends credence to the suggestion by journalist Jeff Sharlet, who has chronicled the group behind the breakfast, that the event's changes are "largely cosmetic." Before the changes, Democrats had begun to shun the event in the wake of reports about its use by right-wing networks opposed to LGBTQ+ and reproductive rights, as well as democratic norms.
Hours after the event, on former Donald Trump aide Steven Bannon's podcast, Lake rejected the prayer breakfast's signature theme of reconciliation and hinted at divine retribution for Pres. Joe Biden's "crimes."
Both Gosar and Lake have said Biden stole the election. They have defended the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the Capitol, which was motivated in part by Christian support for then-Pres. Trump. As TYT reported in 2021, Trump's election lies were supported by a number of leaders of The Family, the secretive Christian group that started the breakfast in 1953 and is still strongly tied to the "new" NPB.
The new event even gave center stage to a congressional election-denier as part of the proceedings.
And when told that Arizona state records list Lake as living outside Gosar's district, Gosar spokesperson Anthony Foti gave TYT the following statement: "Congressman Gosar and Kari Lake broke bread in the name of Christ. They prayed to Jesus for clarity, guidance and wisdom. At no time did Jesus ask where Kari Lake lived before accepting worship."
As in the past, the 2023 event was putatively non-sectarian. The website of the new board now running it describes the National Prayer Breakfast as uniting diverse faiths in the spirit of Jesus, but not as worshiping him. And the event did not take place at a church or other house of worship – it was held on Capitol Hill, at the Capitol Visitor's Center.
Foti did not respond when asked about Gosar's pattern of subordinating congressional rules to his religion. And Lake is not Gosar's first NPB guest to fit that pattern.
According to internal Family documents obtained by TYT, in 2016 Gosar invited a Catholic clerical guest who had made headlines less than two years prior for entering a congressional office and secretly taping an aide there. Nor is Gosar an aberration; the Family has a history of its leaders prioritizing their idea of Christianity over national laws and norms, including backing election deniers after the 2020 vote.
Ahead of the 2023 NPB, former Sen. Mark Pryor, D-Ark., the president of the new board running it, told TYT that one reason for the new guest restrictions was to make the event closer in spirit to the weekly prayer breakfasts held in each chamber of Congress. Pryor said those meetings are "just wonderful because everybody sort of checks the politics and the partisanship and all that stuff at the door."
The new board even decided not to accept funding from overtly political sources on either side of the spectrum. Pryor said that two conservative Christians tied to The Family – Franklin Graham and GOP megadonor Ron Cameron – were not backing the new event. The board has yet to make good, however, on Pryor's pledge of transparency about the event's new funders, who remain unknown.
The week before the NPB, Pryor said that most of this year's congressional guests were observing the intended spirit of the new event. He estimated that only half of the members of Congress were bringing any guest at all.
Of those guests, Pryor said, about 85% were spouses with "three or four, maybe" that were clergy.
But it was Lake who got headlines and a political boost from attending. Grid Politics Reporter Sophie Tatum called Lake's NPB appearance one of her "by-the-book moves to stay buzzworthy as a potential 2024 candidate."
With Gosar's invitation justifying her visit to the Capitol, Lake was pictured in the news and social media alongside national politicians such as House Majority Leader Steve Scalise, R-La. She also spoke with Reps. Kevin Hern, R-Okla., and Nicole Malliotakis, R-N.Y., at the event.
Afterward, Lake was "strolling the halls of Congress," prompting questions about her political future, and took a meeting with Sen. Marsha Blackburn, R-Tenn.
Lake also appeared after the breakfast on Bannon's podcast, telling him about the event. "We got some really big, big congressional heroes who were stopping to take pictures," she said.
Gosar's history suggests he has little problem with breaking the rules. He spoke with protest organizers prior to Jan. 6, 2021, reportedly dangling the prospect of pardons. On the day itself, Gosar Tweeted that Biden should concede, adding, "Don't make me come over there" above a picture of the crowd.
Afterward, Gosar said privately to Republicans, "On January 6th, 2021, I was the one who started the revolution in regards to accountability of elections."
Even before Trump was president, Gosar's National Prayer Breakfast activity suggested a consistent disregard for congressional norms and possibly the law. Gosar's guest at the 2016 prayer breakfast was Austin Quick, who's identified in an internal Family guest list as clergy.
The only apparent reason Gosar might have to invite Quick – who wasn't even from Gosar's state – was that Quick made headlines in October 2014, when he was identified as having entered an office of then-Rep. Cheri Bustos, D-Ill., and secretly – allegedly illegally – taped a staff worker there. At the time of the 2014 incident, Quick was wearing a clerical collar, but unbeknownst to the Bustos aide, Quick was also a former employee of the Tea Party candidate running against Bustos.
That Tea Party candidate, Bobby Schilling, initially cited privacy concerns when refusing to identify the man who had carried out the taping – which Schilling then used to attack Bustos. The aide, who soon resigned, identified Quick.
"'Reconciliation.' Uh, no."
Although the new prayer breakfast board says that looking to the life of Jesus can "encourage and promote forgiveness and reconciliation," Lake seemed immune to the effect.
Just hours afterward, she told Bannon, "I kept hearing 'reconciliation.' Uh, no."
Lake went on to suggest to her fellow election-denier that God might not forgive Biden. "We have a forgiving God," Lake said, "but we also have a God who enacts justice, right? Y'know, God's not all-forgiving. Sometimes you have to learn a little bit."
She added, "God may be forgiving, Jesus may be forgiving, but when it comes to Joe Biden and the crimes he's done against this country, I'm not forgiving."
Family insiders have a history of embracing right-wing causes célèbre who violate social norms that clash with their interpretation of Christianity. (Also in 2016, for instance, Franklin Graham invited an Atlanta public official fired for giving workers his book comparing LGBTQ sex to pederasty.)
It's not clear whether the new National Prayer Breakfast Foundation board would object to Gosar's violation of the rules. It's not even clear whether the new board did anything to enforce or police those rules, other than share them with media to promote the event and the ostensible reforms behind it.
Pryor has not responded to TYT's requests for comment since TYT published an email from former Rep. Zach Wamp, R-Tenn. – Pryor's fellow board member who ran the breakfast for The Family for years – in which Wamp pressured Pryor not to.
But even before this year's breakfast, a source close to The Family told TYT that the members of the new board, prayer breakfast veterans, had no major issues with the breakfast in its previous, controversial form under Wamp.
And the presence of Lake, an election-denier, at the Feb. 2 event likely would not be problematic to the new board, regardless of the rule-breaking. It's hard to object to an election denier in the audience after giving another one center stage at the event itself. And that's just what the board did.
One of only three congressional speakers at the Feb. 2 event was Rep. Tracey Mann, R-Kan., who even after the Jan. 6, 2021, Capitol attack voted against certifying legitimate state presidential votes. Mann has deep connections to The Family, including having worked for its affiliate, the National Student Leadership Forum, and served as an intern for Family insider Rep. Jerry Moran, R-Kan.
The Republican co-chair of the event was Rep. Tim Walberg, R-Mich., a full-throated advocate of Trump's election lies. (He has also praised prayer breakfasts for steeling Trump to oppose abortion and LGBTQ+ rights.)
Walberg's co-chair was Rep. Lucy McBath, D-Ga., one of the few Democrats to have stuck with the event even as its use as an anti-LGBTQ+ tool drew increasing scrutiny and criticism from groups representing a range of constituencies, secular and religious, LGBTQ+, and Black.
And maintaining a bipartisan veneer is vital to The Family's goals, as Sharlet has reported. It gives the event an official halo under which The Family can parade and elevate its friends and allies, claiming the imprimatur of the presidency and official Washington.
Sharlet has suggested that the new event's ties to The Family mean that the split is "largely cosmetic." But the makeover appears to have worked.
With Pryor touting reforms and new rules (including the one Gosar broke by bringing Lake), Democratic leaders who had dropped the event came back this year. The ranks of returning Democratic leaders included Rep. Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., and Sen. Tim Kaine, D-Va. Sen. Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., and House Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries, D-N.Y., also attended.
And Lake's invitation apparently was extended after Pryor made those rules known publicly. During Bannon's podcast, she said Gosar invited her when they ran into each other at their state party elections less than a week before the breakfast. As it turned out, the Arizona GOP elected a chair, endorsed by Gosar and Lake, who's also an election denier.
Anti-democratic rejection of elections, however, is nothing new for The Family. Cameron, the GOP megadonor – and a number of other Family leaders – made campaign contributions after the 2020 election to candidates who were actively engaged in pushing Trump's election lies, as TYT reported. In fact, some Family insiders engaged in these tactics even before Trump did.
Sen. James Inhofe, R-Okla., who retired in January, in 2011 promoted the lie that Christian Cote D'Ivoire dictator Laurent Gbagbo had his presidency stolen from him in fraudulent elections. Gbagbo's refusal to step down led to considerably more bloodshed than the U.S. saw on Jan. 6, 2021. The Christian right in the U.S. even had a Fox analogue at the time, with the Christian Broadcasting Network investigating baseless claims of election fraud.
Perhaps the most notorious Big Lie acolyte, MyPillow CEO Mike Lindell, was radicalized both religiously and politically with help from The Family. Lindell himself has cited the National Prayer Breakfast as an important part of his religious and political transformation.
One of Lindell's attorneys – who has served alongside a Family associate on the board of the Lindell Legal Offense Fund – is now representing Lake in her own legal efforts challenging election integrity. That lawyer, Kurt Olsen, and another Lake attorney, did not respond to TYT's email requesting comment.
By contrast, Family leaders have been considerably more comfortable with actual election theft when it's them or their allies doing the stealing.
As TYT revealed last year, a range of Family insiders were involved in a concerted effort to protect Guatemala's evangelical president when he was suspected of gaining power by violating campaign-finance laws. The Family and some of its top allies in Congress successfully destroyed a popular and effective UN anti-corruption task force before it could investigate then-Pres. Jimmy Morales.
And former Rep. Jeff Fortenberry, R-Okla., is now on probation for lying about illegal campaign donations that helped him get re-elected. But as TYT revealed, first Fortenberry made misleading public statements about how closely The Family was tied to the religious nonprofit at the heart of the campaign funding scheme.
With additional research by TYT Interns Nathan Galang and Madison Shaw.