Speaker Mike Johnson to Allow Privately Run National Prayer Breakfast into the Heart of the Capitol

Statuary Hall. Image: Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain

Thursday’s National Prayer Breakfast will take place in the U.S. Capitol Building’s National Statuary Hall for the first time, congressional sources tell me.

Use of the hall is controlled by the House, meaning the move had to be approved by the office of Speaker Mike Johnson (R-LA), widely seen as the most religiously extreme speaker in modern U.S. history.

Rep. Jared Huffman (D-CA), co-chair and co-founder of the Congressional Freethought Caucus, called Statuary Hall “a very disturbing venue” for the privately run Christian event. “It is the heart of our Capitol, the heart of our democracy.”

Word of the new location comes as tensions over the breakfast have reached historic levels, paralleling both the political rise of Christian nationalism and a growing willingness by some Democrats to confront it. This week alone has seen multiple examples of Republicans pushing conservative, theocratic religiosity into public spheres, and some Democrats increasingly standing up to it.

Johnson, for instance, not only addressed the right-wing prayer event he co-founded, the National Day of Prayer and Repentance, but also invited far-right anti-LGBTQ pastor Jack Hibbs to deliver the daily House prayer. 

Meanwhile, Rep. Mark Pocan (D-WI), chair of the Congressional Equality Caucus, mounted the most robust political challenge ever to the controversial group behind the National Prayer Breakfast. In a letter to the Fellowship Foundation, also known as The Family, he asked for sweeping details about the organization’s global operations.

Pocan cited my report last month on The Family paying to send Rep. Tim Walberg (R-MI), the co-chair of last year’s prayer breakfast, to Uganda. In his keynote speech for Uganda’s National Prayer Breakfast, Walberg urged national resolve against pressure by the U.S. and others to drop its death penalty for “aggravated homosexuality.”

Pres. Joe Biden is expected to participate despite the controversy. He even greeted The Family’s guests remotely last year, presumably unaware that he was addressing some of the people involved with anti-LGBTQ+ political networks.

This year’s honorary co-chairs in the U.S.—Reps. Tracey Mann (R-KS), a longtime Family insider, and Frank Mrvan (D-IN)—backed a bill in November to relocate the National Prayer Breakfast from the Capitol Visitor Center to the Capitol rotunda, long considered the symbolic heart of Congress.

Nothing has happened with the bill, but Statuary Hall is the next best thing, and rich with its own history and symbolic implications for any events taking place there. 

Statuary Hall was used early in its history for presidential inaugurations and more recently for distinguished political leaders to lie in state.

The Family historically has sought to cloak the event in the trappings of government, using images of the Capitol dome and even the Great Seal of the United States. The breakfast was always, however, held miles away at the Washington Hilton—where thousands of Family guests convened for days of meetings and breakout sessions.

That tradition was disrupted by the pandemic. Last year, the breakfast was held at the modern-era Capitol Visitor Center. On Thursday, apparently, it will inch even closer to the heart of the U.S. government.

“Every time these guys get a beachhead into government for their version of Christianity,” Huffman said, “they point to it as a precedent and they try to do more.”

Referring to the 1950s anti-communist wave of religious incursions into government institutions and traditions, Huffman said, “I see this in the full context of ‘In God We Trust’ on our currency, and adding ‘under God’ to the pledge.”

Huffman also tied the new breakfast location to local efforts to enshrine the Ten Commandments in public spaces around the country. “They’re on this relentless mission to seed religion into government as much as they can.”

The Freedom From Religion Foundation (FFRF) also raised alarms about the move. The FFRF last year led a coalition of 30 faith, LGBTQ+, and secular groups working with organizers of the event to address their concerns.

Last year was the first in which the NPB was run not by The Family but by the new National Prayer Breakfast Foundation, led at the time by former Sen. Mark Pryor (D-AR). Pryor said last January that the ostensibly new event would shed the secrecy and right-wing politics of the original.

FFRF Co-President and Founder Annie Laurie Gaylor referred to those pledges in a statement to me Wednesday night. “[M]ore than a year has passed, and it’s becoming evident that the board maintains profound ties with the Fellowship Foundation, and their Christian nationalist perspective continues to prevail.”

The NPB Foundation board hasn’t released any of the details Pryor promised about its donors, let alone about Family involvement. But its new chair, former Sen. Heidi Heitkamp (D-ND), gave me a statement earlier this week distancing herself from The Family, which she referred to by its d/b/a. “I have not had any affiliation with the International Foundation,” she said.

Heitkamp acknowledged that other members of the board do not share what she called her “proud history of supporting human rights, including LGBTQ+ rights.” She said that the politics of individual board members “play no role” in its decisions.

News of the new venue came in a Jan. 15 email to members of Congress. Heitkamp and fellow board member former Rep. Randy Hultgren (R-IL) provided members with new details on the event and location. (Hultgren is a longtime Family insider who has met with anti-LGBTQ+ leaders on trips paid for by The Family.)

In their email, Heitkamp and Hultgren announced that the NPB Foundation would hold a preliminary event at 7am on Thursday, “in the Rayburn Room right off the House Floor.” Serving baked goods and barista coffee, they wrote, “Our goal is to allow for a time of fellowship before the program starts.”

The program—typically speakers and musical performance—the email said, would take place in Statuary Hall. Heitkamp did not immediately respond to my email Wednesday night asking about the venue change.

One longtime Family member, former Rep. Don Bonker (D-WA), wrote last year before his death that he had concerns about the new event, citing what he called the “unprecedented” presence of clergy at the podium for 2023’s NPB, and adding “I also worry that a House Member could put on the stage a right-wing evangelical who would wrap faith around a political agenda.”

This report first appeared on the TFN Substack and is republished with permission. You can support Larsen’s independent reporting by becoming a paid subscriber.