Pocan Takes On "The Family"
Rep. Mark Pocan (D-WI), chair of the Congressional Equality Caucus, demanded answers Tuesday night from the secretive Christian group that paid for a member of Congress to travel to Uganda and urge defiance of international pressure against that nation’s anti-LGBTQ+ death penalty.
Pocan’s letter effectively asks the Fellowship Foundation, also known as The Family, to reveal the nature and extent of its operations around the world, including but not limited to its spinoffs of the National Prayer Breakfast, which The Family started in the U.S. in 1953.
Pocan also asks about continuing ties with the new National Prayer Breakfast, which is being held Thursday.
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The letter is addressed to Katherine Crane, who heads The Family’s board. It was Crane who signed off on The Family’s payment to fly Rep. Tim Walberg (R-MI) to the Ugandan National Prayer Breakfast in October. That’s when he told attendees, including Uganda’s president, to “stand firm” against the Biden administration, the UN, the World Bank, and the World Health Organization.
All have condemned the 2023 Anti-Homosexuality Act, and U.S. sanctions threaten to undermine support for Pres. Yoweri Museveni, who Walberg praised in his remarks, along with MP David Bahati, the prayer breakfast leader there who pushed the bill for 15 years. Walberg has denied supporting the law, but has not denied telling Uganda to stick with it and has not called for its repeal.
Walberg’s remarks were first noted by the Take Care Tim blog shortly after the Oct. 8 prayer breakfast in Uganda. Last month, I reported The Family’s involvement, and that Walberg justified the trip in his Ethics Committee filing by citing his role as co-chair of last year’s National Prayer Breakfast in the U.S.
I also reported that other speakers, some of whom Walberg also praised, used explicitly anti-LGBTQ+ and theocratic language.
LGBTQ+ advocacy organizations and even members of Congress then began condemning Walberg’s remarks.
In his letter, Pocan says he has the “strongest concerns about the Fellowship Foundation’s potential involvement in legislation abroad that imposes the death penalty and further criminalizes LGBTQI+ people.”
Pocan also raises questions about ongoing entanglements between The Family, which continues to convene thousands of allies and friends every year on the first Thursday of February — and the spun-off National Prayer Breakfast, which moved to Capitol Hill under the auspices of the new NPB Foundation last year.
The two events take place simultaneously and last year the NPB was simulcast to The Family’s NPB Gathering. Pres. Joe Biden even addressed The Family and their guests remotely, apparently unaware he was greeting a number of guests involved in African anti-LGBTQ+ legislation.
“Questions,” Pocan writes, “have continued to be raised about the Fellowship Foundation’s continued involvement with the National Prayer Breakfast.”
Pocan’s letter is cc’ed to the chair of the new NPB Foundation board, former Sen. Heidi Heitkamp (D-ND). On Tuesday morning I had emailed her board about a separate story — not yet published — that raises some of the same issues.
Heitkamp responded before Pocan’s letter, telling me, she has “not had any affiliation with the International Foundation” (The Family’s d/b/a). She said the new NPB Foundation’s only purpose “is to facilitate an intimate gathering of Members of Congress and the President to pray for the President and the Country.”
Citing her own support for LGBTQ+ rights, Heitkamp noted that “Some of the Board members do not share my views.” She said, however, that the politics of individual board members “play no role” in the board’s decisions.
Heitkamp did not address how it is that Family insiders remain so closely connected to the ostensibly new event. Longtime Family insider Rep. Tracey Mann (R-KS), for instance, addressed last year’s NPB and is honorary co-chair for Thursday’s NPB.
Mann’s co-chair, Rep. Frank Mrvan (D-IN), was the sole co-sponsor of Mann’s bill in November to move the NPB into the symbolic heart of the U.S. legislature, the Capitol rotunda.
And Heitkamp did not address the possibility of Family insiders using the ostensibly separate new NPB for The Family’s ends or their own. As I reported last year, Rep. Paul Gosar (R-AZ) violated the new event’s rules to bring Kari Lake, who then used the event to boost her political profile and hint at divine retribution against Biden.
In the past, individual members of Congress have responded to Family controversies — such as the activities of Russian operatives Maria Butina and Alexander Torshin — by swearing off the event.
Many returned after last year’s revamp. But an internal NPB Foundation board email sent to its then-chair — and apparently accidentally cc’ed to me — revealed The Family’s active interest in remaining involved.
That email, from former Rep. Zach Wamp (R-TN), a longtime Family insider and breakfast leader, pressured the board’s then-chair, former Sen. Mark Pryor (D-AR), that speaking to me would lead to “more slander [and] … more division.”
Wamp also said Family insiders were complaining about “the new group.” Public remarks by Sen. Chris Coons (D-DE) regarding Democratic concerns, Wamp wrote, led Fellowship members to say that “the new group is just throwing us under the bus.”
Although Pocan’s letter doesn’t carry any legal threat or the force of law, it is the most serious official challenge posed to date against The Family or the 71-year-old National Prayer Breakfast. In it, Pocan gives Crane a deadline of Feb. 28 to respond to six questions.
Among them, Pocan asks what communications Family employees and associates have had with Museveni or other Ugandan officials regarding the Anti-Homosexuality Act. Pocan also asks where The Family stands on the new law, and whether the group will publicly condemn any bills criminalizing LGBTQI+ people.
Pocan also asks for hard numbers regarding The Family’s financial support for “organizations and individuals in Uganda.” As author Jeff Sharlet wrote in the bill’s early days, The Family has a record of sending money to its allies, some of which appear to have included traditional charitable efforts to provide relief to one of the poorest nations in the world.
But some of the money from The Family and its wealthy backers has also gone to religious and even borderline theocratic organizations closely tied to the Christian political networks behind the bill. The Family’s point man in Uganda might not have liked the so-called “Kill the Gays” bill, but that didn’t stop him from spending years supporting the rise of its proponents and nurturing a generation of young men to be Christian leaders.
Pocan also asks The Family to disclose all the other countries where the group provides financial support, including but not limited to prayer breakfasts. (Although tax law requires some disclosure by non-profits in this area, organizations have broad latitude to supply only vague and sweeping generalities.)
In addition to the Ugandan network explored by Sharlet, my own reporting has revealed new details about The Family’s anti-LGBTQ+ alliances in Ukraine, as well as the remarkable destruction of a widely popular and effective UN anti-corruption task force — after the task force set its sights on Guatemala’s evangelical, anti-LGBTQ+ president, who had had the foresight to tap The Family’s point man there as his ambassador to the U.S.
Finally, Pocan asks The Family to disclose its ties to the new NPB. “Does the Fellowship Foundation still see itself as a separate entity from the National Prayer Breakfast Foundation?” Pocan writes. “Are members of the National Prayer Breakfast board or their close family members affiliated with the Fellowship Foundation?”
Historically, The Family has successfully veiled its involvement in the breakfast, cloaking it in as much government adornment as possible. Longtime Family insider Rep. Robert Aderholt (R-AL), whose wife sits on the NPB Foundation board, used the Great Seal of the United States on breakfast invitations even after secret guidance from the Senate Ethics Committee not to.
And even last year, guests at the The Family’s new NPB Gathering — several miles from where Biden was speaking — boosted their status at home by conflating the two events. As I reported last week, only some of them were caught by local media claiming they were officially invited by the U.S. government.
Pocan’s letter was revealed in a press release by the Congressional Equality Caucus Tuesday night. Both the NPB at the Capitol Visitor Center and the NPB Gathering at the Washington Hilton are set to take place Thursday morning.
Jonathan Larsen is a veteran reporter and TV news producer. He created Up with Chris Hayes at MSNBC and was a key part of the teams that launched Anderson Cooper 360 at CNN and led MSNBC’s Countdown w/ Keith Olbermann. Most recently he oversaw all original and investigative reporting at TYT.