The United States Needs to Drop the National Prayer BreakfastRoundup
tags: National Prayer Breakfast, Christian Nationalism, Church-State Separation
Anthea Butler is a professor of religious studies and Africana studies at the University of Pennsylvania. Her most recent book, White Evangelical Racism: The Politics of Morality in America, was published in March.
At Thursday’s 69th National Prayer Breakfast in Washington, D.C., President Joe Biden provided a jarring sound bite that demonstrates why America doesn’t need the National Prayer Breakfast. In his remarks, Biden called Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) his friend. Then he said of the man who created a new standard to block President Barack Obama’s nominee to the Supreme Court and then ignored that same standard four years later, “You’ve always done exactly what you’ve said. You’re a man of your word. And you’re a man of honor.”
Gee, with friends like that, who needs enemies? And when did prayer become about valorizing one’s friends instead of God? Watching the president call for unity while calling the Senate minority leader a man of honor was a slap in the face to the people who have been harmed by his unprincipled stances and his obstructionism. Biden’s kudos to McConnell were galling, but the real question is, why do our elected officials even participate in the National Prayer Breakfast?
The annual event, which started in 1953 with President Dwight Eisenhower and evangelist Billy Graham, is on its surface a way for lawmakers and others on Capitol Hill to pause to reflect on and pray for the nation. It is not run by Congress but has a history with the secretive conservative organization The Family, sometimes known as The Fellowship, which Abraham Vierede started in 1935. The Family’s aim is to see political and business leadership as led by God while avoiding the word “Christian.” Author Jeff Sharlet wrote about the organization in his book “The Family: The Secret Fundamentalism at the Heart of American Power.” That book, which was made into a Netflix series, exposes the inner workings of the organization, whose sole public event is the National Prayer Breakfast. The Family’s prayer meetings and Bible studies are a focal point of its activities in Washington, and over the years, many political figures have been members of the organization.
The breakfast has seen some political intrigue. Russian operative Maria Butina, who pleaded guilty in 2018 to conspiring to infiltrate influential conservative organizations, organized a Russian delegation to the 2017 National Prayer Breakfast to further the interests of the Russian Federation.
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