Concerns Prompt Congress to Take Over National Prayer Breakfast

January 30, 2023

The National Prayer Breakfast, a 70-year-old tradition bringing religion and politics together in Washington, is splitting from its private religious organization to be taken over by Congress.

This year’s event will be held Thursday at the Capitol visitors’ center, and will be much smaller than previous events. And as of this year the event will no longer be run by the International Foundation but by the newly-created National Prayer Breakfast Foundation, led by former Sen. Mark Pryor (D-AR).

Sen. Chris Coons (D-DE), a regular participant and Chair of the Senate Ethics Committee, said the move was prompted in part by concerns that members of Congress did not know important details about the larger multi-day gathering, adding that he and Ethics Vice Chair Sen. James Lankford (R-OK) had questions about the invitation list and how money was being raised.

In the past, the Prayer Breakfast “went on several days, had thousands of people attending, and a very large and somewhat complex organization,” Coons said in an interview.

For example, in 2018 Maria Butina, who had attended two past breakfasts, pleaded guilty to conspiracy charges that she acted as an unregistered foreign agent with the aim of advancing the Russian government’s interests.

The first National Prayer Breakfast took place in 1953 during President Eisenhower’s Administration. At the urging of evangelist Billy Graham, a reportedly reluctant Eisenhower offered remarks at that first event about the relationship between religion and government.

Presidential addresses have been a key part of the event ever since, although leaders are often as likely to talk about politics as they are about faith.

President Biden has spoken at the National Prayer Breakfast the past two years, although in 2021 he did so virtually from the White House as the event occurred shortly after the January 6 insurrection on the Capitol. 

Former Sen. Pryor, now in charge of the new breakfast, said the shutdown during Covid gave members a chance to “reset” the breakfast and “return it to its roots, when House members and Senate members can come together and pray for the President, pray for his family and Administration, pray for our government, the world.” 

The larger event, put on by the International Foundation, takes place over two days. More than 1,400 people are registered for it, one-third of whom are from outside the United States.

Earlier this month, the Freedom From Religion Foundation (FFRF) sent a letter signed by 30 groups to the White House and members of Congress asking them to boycott the National Prayer Breakfast because of questions about the International Foundation—despite the breakfast’s split from the foundation.

“For decades, FFRF has protested the appearance of the National Prayer Breakfast being a quasi-governmental gathering, which pressures the president and Congress to put on a display of piety that sends a message that the United States is a Christian nation,” wrote Annie Laurie Gaylor, FFRF’s co-president.

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