EMPTY CALORIES: Is this controversial religious breakfast borderline blasphemous?

EMPTY CALORIES: Is this controversial religious breakfast borderline blasphemous?

Every year in early February the president and other politicos are welcomed at the National Prayer Breakfast, which is promoted as a unifying event that includes people across all faiths.

As it turns out, this is largely an illusion, and now several groups are urging President Biden and others not to attend.

Dogged reporting by The Young Turks — along with revelations by journalist Jeff Sharlet for Mother Jones and in his book The Family: The Secret Fundamentalism at the Heart of American Power, which in turn inspired a Netflix series — have demonstrated the secretive power behind the gathering: an organization called the Fellowship Foundation, or – to adherents – The Family.

It sounds like a mafia clan, but in many ways, this family is more powerful.

Dating back to the 1930s, the extreme right-wing group has cultivated relationships with judges, governors, members of Congress, and, yes, numerous presidents.

President Eisenhower at the National Prayer Breakfast in 1956
President Kennedy sitting beside Billy Graham at the breakfast in 1961
Bill and Hillary Clinton attending in 1993
Trump using the Prayer Breakfast to boast about his acquittal in the Senate in 2020

The Family has a tremendous amount of influence in Washington, especially among the GOP, though Democrats have also been involved and have frequently attended the Prayer Breakfast.

The hub of the right-wing org’s power is a mansion out in Arlington called The Cedars, which hosts parties and houses dignitaries brought over from overseas.

The Cedars in Arlington

Douglas Coe, the longtime chief influencer of The Family, was friends with various power players in D.C. Here he is with Ronald and Nancy Reagan and again with George Bush:

Chatting with Ron and Nancy
Coe with George Bush

In the 1960s, Coe helped establish support for General Suharto of Indonesia to prop up his authoritarian regime.

After Coe’s predecessor, Abraham Vereide, the founder of the Fellowship Foundation, died in 1969, Coe took over the reins completely.

He started telling politicians working with the group never to talk publicly of “The Family,” though they were encouraged to work toward its interests behind the scenes.

In the 1980s, the group led the support for other dictators, including Siad Barre of Somalia and Yoweri Museveni of Uganda, who has only been “president” since the Mets last won the World Series (that’s 1986 for you non-New Yorkers).

Museveni signed an anti-homosexuality bill into law in 2014 that has been cited by numerous human rights groups for its brutality toward LGBTQ+ members.

In large part because of The Family’s support for anti-LGBTQ+ policies, many liberal groups, including the Freedom From Religion Foundation and the American Humanist Association, are urging leaders to avoid the National Prayer Breakfast.

Some appear to be responding.

Both former Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) and former VP candidate and current Senator Tim Kaine (D-VA) have started to distance themselves from the event, with Pelosi notably absent the past few years.

But other Dem politicians, including Senator Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) continue to attend. Republicans, for their part, have consistently shown strong support.

Also worth noting is the fact that, despite being billed as an inter-faith gathering, very few Jews are directly invited, though people are welcome to pony up $425 if they want to be one of the over 3,000 attendees who meet for the two-day religious extravaganza.

In his statement on “Religious Freedom Day” last year, President Biden made sure to say that we should respect people of all faiths or no faith.

He later told the meeting: “Saint Augustine wrote that, ‘A people was a multitude defined by a common object of their love.’  I believe the common objects of our love that define us as Americans are opportunity, liberty, dignity, respect, honor, service, truth — things everybody recognizes both here and around the world.”

Biden at the event last year

Despite the president’s sentiments being as genuine as one can expect they are, this is not what The Family truly stands for, and this ought to be recognized.

And while Biden may mistakenly see the National Prayer Breakfast as unifying, the Fellowship Foundation has been very successful at being different things to different people, all the while serving its own interests.

Trump used the National Prayer Breakfast to validate religious adoption centers that refuse to consider same-sex applicants in 2019.

And Putin has worked with The Family even as he continues to oppress LGBTQ+ people and solidify his dictatorial grip on power.

Biden and other Dems like Gillibrand and Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) should openly denounce this right-wing, Christo-fascist event.

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Ross Rosenfeld

is a news analysis and opinion writer whose work has also appeared in the New York Daily News and Newsweek. He lives in New York.