WASHINGTON (AP) — The National Prayer Breakfast, one of Washington’s most visible and longest-running events to bring together religion and politics, is splitting from the private faith group that oversaw it for decades, amid concerns the gathering has become too divisive.
This year’s breakfast, scheduled for Thursday, will be organized and hosted by the National Prayer Breakfast Foundation, chaired by former Sen. Mark Pryor, D-Ark.
Sen. Chris Coons, a regular attendee and chairman of the Senate Ethics Committee, said the move was prompted in part by concerns in recent years that members of Congress did not know important details about the larger, multi-day gathering.
Coons, D-Del., said in the past he and Republican Sen. James Lankford of Oklahoma, the committee’s vice chairman, have had questions about who is invited and how the money is raised.
The annual event “lasted several days, had thousands of people attending, and a very large and somewhat complex organization,” Coons said in an interview. “Some questions have been raised about our ability as members of Congress to say that we know exactly how it was organized, who was invited, how it was financed. Many of us in leadership roles really couldn’t answer those questions.”
This led to legislators deciding to take over the organization of the prayer breakfast itself.
Pryor, the new foundation’s president, said the COVID-19 shutdown gave members a chance to “reset” the breakfast and bring it back to its roots — a change he said had been discussed for years.
“The whole reason the House and the Senate wanted to do this is to bring it back to its roots, when members of the House and members of the Senate can come together and pray for the president, pray for his family and administration, pray for our government, the world, Pryor said.
Pryor said members of Congress, the president, vice president and other administration officials and their guests are invited to Thursday’s prayer breakfast, which will be held at the Capitol visitors center. He predicted that between 200 and 300 people would attend.
Pryor said he hopes the smaller event will restore an intimacy similar to the weekly non-denominational prayer gatherings on Capitol Hill. Groups of senators and representatives have long held informal meetings for fellowship and to temporarily put political differences aside.
The prayer breakfast addressed by the president has been the highlight of the multi-day event for 70 years. Dwight D. Eisenhower was the first president to attend, in February 1953, and all presidents since have addressed the gathering.
The larger event, organized by a private religious group called the International Foundation, has always centered around “the person and principles of Jesus, with a focus on prayer for leaders in our nation and around the world,” the group’s spokesman, A. Larry Ross, said in email.
More than 1,400 people registered for the two-day event, one-third of them from outside the United States.
President Joe Biden, who has spoken at the breakfast for the past two years, will do so again. In 2021, he made the remarks from the White House during a virtual breakfast a month after the building was attacked by supporters of former President Donald Trump with the intention of stopping the 2020 election confirmation.
In last year’s address from the Capitol, Biden talked about the need for members of Congress to know each other better.
“It’s hard to really not love someone when you know what they’re going through is what you’re going through,” he said.
In recent years, questions about the International Foundation, its funding and participants have led some to question Congressional involvement.
Sen. Tim Kaine, D-Va., stopped coming in 2016 because the event “became an entertainment and lobbying extravaganza rather than an opportunity for spiritual reflection,” a Kaine spokeswoman wrote in an emailed response to questions. Kaine will attend on Thursday.
The rally came under sharp criticism in 2018 when Marija Butina, a Russian operative, pleaded guilty in 2018 to conspiring to infiltrate conservative American political groups to advance Russian interests. According to court documents, she attended two breakfasts in hopes of establishing unofficial ties between Russian and American officials.
It took on a political tone when Trump broke with the custom of making the address a break from partisan bickering. He used his 2020 speech to criticize his first impeachment and attack political opponents, including Sen. Mitt Romney, R-Utah, and then-House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif.
Earlier this month, the Freedom From Religion Foundation sent a letter signed by 30 groups to the White House and members of Congress asking them to boycott the event over questions about the International Foundation.
The organization’s co-president, Annie Laurie Gaylor, said the foundation’s core concerns about the breakfast still remain despite the separation with the larger religious gathering.
“For decades, the FFRF has protested that the National Prayer Breakfast appears to be a quasi-governmental gathering, pressuring the president and Congress to show piety that sends the message that the United States is a Christian nation,” she wrote. .