Bad Breakfast: Annual Prayer Confab Offers Another Helping Of Religion Mixed With Politics

The National Prayer Breakfast is predicated on a mentality of “us” (good, godly Americans who embrace faith, preferably the conservative Christian kind) and “them” (everyone else).

I came into the office early this morning so I could watch the National Prayer Breakfast on C-SPAN. I wish I had stayed in bed.

As I noted the other day, this confab takes places every year. It’s sponsored by a group called The Fellowship Foundation (also known as The Family), a right-wing fundamentalist Christian outfit that has taken on the job of evangelizing the wealthy and powerful.

Americans United has some serious concerns about the Fellowship Foundation. The group runs the infamous “C Street House” here in D.C. and is known for its secrecy. It also has ties to extremist groups overseas.

Nevertheless, every year leading elected officials troop to the Washington Hilton for this exercise in political piety. It’s plugged as an opportunity for unity. Politicians may not agree on policy, organizers say, but they can get along for an hour or two in prayer.

Please. We all know that the men and women who talked nice over their ham and eggs this morning are even now right back to attacking one another on the floors of Congress, in the media and any other venue they can find. The Prayer Breakfast is now 60 years old, and politics is more of a blood sport than ever. Why are we pretending otherwise?

In fact, the breakfast has only fueled these divisions. The event is predicated on a mentality of “us” (good, godly Americans who embrace faith, preferably the conservative Christian kind) and “them” (everyone else).

One of the speakers this morning was Eric Metaxas, a writer and apologist for fundamentalism who unleashed a string of lame jokes (Eric, don’t quit your day job!) interspersed with ridicule aimed at those of us who have expressed concerns about the Fellowship Foundation.

Metaxas seems to think we’re engaged in conspiracy-theory-based fear mongering. Actually, it’s not a conspiracy theory if it’s true.  The Fellowship Foundation has a lot of money, has a far-right political agenda, woos politicians and avoids public scrutiny. We are concerned that so many of our political leaders have cozied up to this sketchy group. Any questions?

Also, culture-war politics often rears an ugly head at the gathering. During his remarks, Metaxas criticized legal abortion and same-sex marriage, actually implying that those who hold right-wing views on these questions are somehow being discriminated against. Same tiresome line there.

President Barack Obama followed Metaxas at the podium. Like a lot of Americans, I admire the president’s rhetorical skills, but today he seemed off his game. To his credit, Obama took pains to point out that important ethical principles are found in all religions and philosophies. The rest of what he had to offer was pretty much election-season boilerplate. Obama even bragged about his “faith-based” initiative, a policy program inherited from George W. Bush that many church-state separationists wish would simply go away.

In a country of hundreds of religious perspectives, it is becoming increasingly difficult to pretend that there is a common theological glue that binds us all together. The organizers of the National Prayer Breakfast try to pretend that the event is open to all, but speakers are generally drawn from conservative Christianity and the political rhetoric that works its way into the event tends to come from the right side of the equation.

The Prayer Breakfast celebrated its 60th anniversary this year. The best thing the organizers could do to mark that milestone is make sure there’s never a 61st. In our increasingly diverse society, this event is an anachronism that long ago outlived whatever thin value it ever had.