50.50: Opinion

Why the National Prayer Breakfast must go

I hope I live to see the day when a president will break the pattern by refusing to participate in this annual Christian supremacist spectacle

Chrissy Stroop
Chrissy Stroop
4 February 2022, 12.57pm
Joe Biden attends the National Prayer Breakfast as vice president, February 2014
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Olivier Douliery / Pool / Sipa USA

On 3 February, US lawmakers convened in the Washington Hilton’s International Ballroom for the 70th annual National Prayer Breakfast – an event held every year on the first Thursday in February, at which every American president has spoken since 1953. 

President Biden used this year’s event to issue an unhelpful call for “unity”, which, while most likely sincere, is ultimately empty and impotent since unity with Republicans is impossible so long as they are not held accountable for the immeasurable harm their party – the party of 6 January – has done and continues to do to American democracy and society.

In any case, the National Prayer Breakfast is an event that, frankly, should cease to be held, as it not only undermines the constitutional separation of church and state, but it also creates space for a great deal of shady (and probably often illegal) dealing, power-brokering and shadow diplomacy among extremely rich, powerful Americans and their foreign counterparts, carried on conveniently outside official government channels and with no mechanisms for accountability.

Proponents of the National Prayer Breakfast will argue that, since it is hosted by the private Fellowship Foundation, it does not represent an unconstitutional comingling of Church and State. That argument may be true on a technical level, but it must surely fall flat on examination of the private entity behind the annual event (and the weeks of gatherings around it).

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Founded in 1935 by Norwegian immigrant Abraham Vereide to lend Christianity’s imprimatur to anti-labour politics in Seattle, Washington, the Fellowship – known to insiders as ‘the Family’ – has always pursued conservative Christian ends through collaboration with the rich and influential, including government leaders. 

The Fellowship Foundation, which was incorporated in 1949, is the group’s financial arm and the official sponsor of the National Prayer Breakfast. According to the organisation’s own sparse website, the group contends “that the name of Jesus is the most effective common denominator for the building of relationships, the deepening of friendships, and the establishment of mutual trust between people and nations”. 

Thus, while the National Prayer Breakfast itself is not technically unconstitutional, for American presidents to lend the gravitas of their office to such an exclusionary, anti-pluralist vision is certainly alienating to religious minorities and the non-religious, the latter of whom now make up almost a third of the adult population of the rapidly secularising United States. But the issues with the Fellowship go deeper than that.

‘Secret fundamentalism at the heart of American power’

Dartmouth College professor Jeff Sharlet, the author of two books on the subject, describes the Fellowship as “the secret fundamentalism at the heart of American power.” 

The organisation exists to provide networking opportunities and support for the wealthy and politically powerful, to whom it promotes a Christian ideology that teaches that such individuals – ‘friends’ or ‘key men’ in the group’s parlance –  are ‘chosen’ by God to lead. 

Vereide and his successor, Doug Coe, cultivated a peculiarly authoritarian vision of Jesus, and were known for admiring the ability of dictators such as Hitler and Stalin to command absolute loyalty. The Fellowship’s strongman vision of Jesus goes hand in hand with a commitment to capitalism and a disdain for democracy that plays out globally wherever the group has influence.

Despite the Fellowship’s deliberate efforts over decades to avoid publicity, a series of scandals has generated significant (and deserved) bad press that has brought the organisation to the public’s attention in recent years. 

For example, Russian agent Maria Butina, who was convicted of conspiracy by a US district court in 2018, was able to use the National Prayer Breakfast, as well as the NRA (National Rifle Association), to form relationships with powerful individuals and create back-channel lines of communication in pursuit of the Kremlin’s foreign policy goals. These include opposition to LGBTQ rights, as queer people have become one of the Kremlin’s favourite scapegoats over the last decade. 

The Kremlin’s adoption of a conservative Christian agenda has paved the way for the US Christian Right, the European hard Right, and right-wing Russians to collaborate with one another in a variety of venues in recent years. 

Meanwhile, some of the Fellowship’s foreign ‘key men’ have also been involved in furthering vicious anti-LGBTQ initiatives in countries including Uganda and Romania, and most of its known US affiliates are Republican legislators who support an anti-woman, anti-LGBTQ agenda in the US.

To be sure, there are some Democrats among the Fellowship’s members, including Senator Chris Coons of Delaware, a key organiser of recent National Prayer Breakfasts, who attempted to frame this year’s event as “a positive reset” after years of controversy. 

The 2021 National Prayer Breakfast was held virtually and this year’s event was limited to members of Congress, their families and speakers. This meant the crowd was much smaller than the typical thousands who usually gather from all over the world – if they can finagle an invitation, for which foreign dignitaries sometimes pay lobbyists very large sums, according to reporting in The New York Times that described the event as ”an international influence-peddling bazaar”. Such pay-to-play ugliness, along with the illegitimate shadow diplomacy, will most likely resume in subsequent years.

‘Unreformable’ 

I do not believe the National Prayer Breakfast is reformable. The dark side of the event that has come to light in recent years – the side that facilitated Russian infiltration of the American halls of power – serves the Fellowship’s interest in supporting a global authoritarian Christian agenda. 

However badly Senator Coons wants us to believe that the event is nonpartisan and innocuous, it simply is not, and his lack of self-awareness on this matter is astounding. According to Coons, 70 years of presidential participation in the National Prayer Breakfast sends “an important message”, namely this:

Even in times of difficulty and division, even as the control of the White House and Congress changes party, we can come together in a nonsectarian celebration of prayer in the spirit of Jesus – with people from a wide range of faith backgrounds – and still find time to listen to each other, to respect each other and to pray together.

I agree that the National Prayer breakfast sends an important message, but I disagree on what that message is. The message I get from it is this one: non-Christians are less than and dubiously American. 

As absurd as the notion of a “nonsectarian celebration of prayer in the spirit of Jesus” (um, hello?) is the idea that the president of the United States can, in his official, public capacity, participate in such an exclusively Christian event without signalling an unwillingness to serve all citizens, Christian and non-Christian alike, equally. 

In this respect, the Fellowship’s signature event is one of the most extreme examples of unacknowledged Christian privilege in the US, and that’s saying something.

In that capacity as well, the National Prayer Breakfast is a true artefact of the early Cold War, which, in the United States, saw numerous efforts by business, government and civil society leaders to promote religion in the public square as a means of combating “godless Communism”. 

Abraham Vereide and famous evangelist Billy Graham persuaded President Dwight D. Eisenhower to speak at the 1953 event, at around the same time that Congress was busying itself with such matters as the insertion of “under God” into the pledge of allegiance (1954) and the adoption of “in God we trust” as the national motto (1956), leaving a legacy of ammunition for future Christian nationalists to subvert secular governance. All of these initiatives should be undone.

Prior to 1953, presidents had rejected the overtures of Vereide to participate in a National Prayer Breakfast he hoped to organise. If a future president followed their lead, the event would immediately lose significance and, even if the Fellowship continued to hold it without presidential participation, it would surely lose much of its lustre for lobbyists and powerful foreign interests. 

Unfortunately, even Democratic presidents have danced to the Fellowship’s tune for the last 70 years. I hope I live to see the day when a brave American president will break that pattern, standing up for pluralism and the robust separation of church and state by refusing to participate in this annual Christian supremacist spectacle.

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