Congress Takes Over Longstanding National Prayer Breakfast — Claims it Had Become ‘More Decisive’

The National Prayer Breakfast, one of the most long-standing and visible events that unites politics and religion in the nation’s capital, is breaking off from the private religious group overseeing it for decades because of concerns the gathering had become ‘too decisive.’

The host and organizer for this year’s business, scheduled for Thursday, will be the National Prayer Breakfast Foundation, headed by Democrat former Senator Mark Pryor from Arkansas.

Senator Chris Coons, who is the chairman of the Senate ethics committee and a regular participant, said the move was sparked in part by concerns in recent years that members of Congress didn’t know critical details about the multiday gathering

Coons, a Democrat from Delaware, said that in the past, he and the committee’s vice chairman, Republican Senator James Lankford of Oklahoma, had questions about how money was being raised and questions about who was invited.

The event, held annually, “went on several days, had thousands of people attending, and a very large and somewhat complex,” said Coons in an interview. “Some questions had been raised about our ability as members of Congress to say that we knew exactly how it was being organized, who was being invited, how it was being funded. Many of us who’d been in leadership roles really couldn’t answer those questions.”

The situation led lawmakers to take over organizing the prayer breakfast itself.

Pryor said the Covid-19 shutdown gave members a chance to ‘reset’

Pryor, named president of the new foundation, said the Covid-19 pandemic shutdown gave members a chance to “reset” the breakfast and restore it to its origins — a change Pryor said had been discussed for years. 

“The whole reason the House and Senate wanted to do this was to return it to its roots when House members and Senate members can come together and pray for our government, the world,” said Pryor.

Senator Pryor said the president, members of Congress, vice president, and other officials from the administration and their guests are invited to the prayer breakfast Thursday, which will be held at the visitors’ center at the Capitol. Between 200 and 300 are expected to attend.

Prior said he hopes the smaller gathering will regain the intimacy similar to the Capitol Hill weekly nondenominational prayer gatherings. Groups of representatives and senators have long hosted unofficial meetings to set aside political differences temporarily and for fellowship.

The prayer breakfast, usually addressed by the president, has long been the highlight of the multiday event for 70 years. President Dwight D. Eisenhower was the first to attend in February 1953, and every president since him has spoken at the gathering. 

The bigger event was hosted by a private religious group called the International Foundation. It has long focused on “the person and principles of Jesus, with a focus on praying for leaders of our nation and from around the world,” said A. Larry Ross, the group’s spokesman, in an email.

Over 1,400 people are registered for the two-day-long event. One-third of them are from outside the U.S.

President Joe Biden is set to speak at this year’s breakfast.

Senator Tim Kaine, Democrat from Virginia, stopped attending in 2016 because the event “had become an entertainment and lobbying extravaganza rather than an opportunity for spiritual reflection,” wrote a spokeswoman from Kaine in an email response to questions. Kaine has confirmed he will attend Thursday.

Earlier in the month, the Freedom From Religion Foundation sent a letter to members of Congress and the White House that was signed by 30 groups, asking them to boycott the event because of lingering questions about the International Foundation. 

The organization’s co-president, Annie Laurie Gaylor, said the fundamental concerns of the foundation remain despite the split from the bigger religious gathering. 

“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 Gaylor.