President Barack Obama gave his personal testimony yesterday at the National Prayer Breakfast in Washington, D.C. Did you see it? What did you think?
I watched the address on a live stream from the White House website. It’s still there if you want to take it in for yourself.
Obama’s message was deeply personal and overtly Christian. I guess he’s been falsely accused of being a Muslim so much that he feels obligated to make that point pretty bluntly one more time.
Obama also talked about how his faith influences his daily life, but the address largely steered clear of controversial political references. His remarks were charming and self-deprecating, funny and serious. Classic Obama.
I have to admit I have mixed reactions about all this.
Nobody questions Obama’s right to participate in the religion of his choice. Presidents don’t give up their constitutional protections when they move into the White House. I think it’s perfectly appropriate for Obama to attend the house of worship of his choice – or stay home.
The National Prayer Breakfast – despite its official-sounding name – is privately sponsored. So participation in the event by elected officials doesn’t directly raise constitutional concerns. This isn’t a governmental event, it’s a privately organized worship service.
But that’s where one of the major problems comes in. The breakfast is privately sponsored by The Fellowship Foundation, a shadowy evangelical Christian outfit that is hymnal-deep in controversy. The Fellowship, also known as the Family, has a well-documented record of political shenanigans both here and abroad. (See "C-Street House.”) Its leaders achieve power by holding networking events such as the prayer breakfast -- officially non-political but unofficially very much so. (Search “National Prayer Breakfast” on Google News and see the list of political figures, great and small, who proudly announced that they were attending this year’s heavy-hitter get-together.)
Most recently, Fellowship cronies have been involved in the disgraceful attempts in Uganda to impose the death penalty and other draconian punishments on gay people. That’s why protesters gathered outside the Washington Hilton to call our national leaders to account.
Why, the protesters wanted to know, were Obama and a cavalcade of government officials, gathering under the aegis of such a reprehensible group?
I’d like to know that too.
The National Prayer Breakfast is a well-established fixture on the political scene, and I don’t think it’s going to go away. But at a bare minimum, the president and members of Congress ought to insist that this event be sponsored by another group. How about an interfaith network that includes the full array of America’s religious and secular traditions?
If that doesn’t happen next year, Obama ought to exercise his constitutional right to stay home. Members of Congress ought to do so, too.
And one other thing: I don’t think it’s appropriate to broadcast this kind of event on the White House website. It’s already on C-SPAN and a lot of the other news networks. Is it really in keeping with the constitutional separation of church and state for the president to use official governmental channels to tell America about his conversion experience and his prayer life?
I don’t think so.
We’re getting to the point in America that every politician feels obligated to give his personal testimony as a required step in running for office, and that’s a step in the wrong direction.