President Barack Obama spoke at the National Prayer Breakfast Feb. 3 despite a lingering controversy over the Religious Right organization that sponsors the event.
Despite its official-sounding name, the National Prayer Breakfast is privately sponsored. It is organized by the Fellowship Foundation, a shadowy evangelical Christian group also known as “The Family.”
The Fellowship Foundation has a long history of targeting powerful political leaders for its conservative evangelical theology. In Washington, the group runs a boarding house for members of Congress on C Street that became infamous after several residents were embroiled in sex scandals. (See “Behind The Green Door,” September 2009 Church & State.)
Most recently the Fellowship Foundation came under fire for its ties to a federal legislator in Uganda named David Bahati, who has introduced legislation mandating the death penalty and other draconian punishments for homosexuals.
Although Bahati’s bill has not become law, he and other anti-gay activists have continued to inflame public opinion over the issue. In late January, David Kato, a Ugandan gay activist, was murdered in his home after being targeted by a Ugandan newspaper, which called him and other gay leaders “known homos.”
A band of protesters marched outside the Washington Hilton Hotel, site of the annual breakfast. Mitchell Gold, founder of the group Faith in America, said the activists were motivated to speak out after Kato’s murder.
“We can no longer allow the anti-gay religious industry operating here or abroad to place a devastating stamp of religious and moral disapproval on the innocent lives of LGBT people, especially our youth,” Gold said.
During last year’s prayer breakfast, Obama addressed the controversy in Uganda, calling the proposed bill “odious.” While the hubbub has died down, critics say Obama and other top officials should stop attending the event as long as it is sponsored by the Fellowship Foundation.
At this year’s event, Obama talked about his personal faith and mentioned things that he prays for.
“My Christian faith, then, has been a sustaining force for me over these last few years,” Obama said. “All the more so, when Michelle and I hear our faith questioned from time to time, we are reminded that ultimately what matters is not what other people say about us but whether we’re being true to our conscience and true to our God. ‘Seek first His kingdom and His righteousness and all these things will be given to you as well.’”
Americans United has urged Obama and other governmental leaders to distance themselves from the Fellowship Foundation. Writing on the group’s “Wall of Separation” blog, AU Director of Communications Joe Conn suggested that it’s time for some other organization to take over the event.
“The National Prayer Breakfast is a well-established fixture on the political scene, and I don’t think it’s going to go away,” wrote Conn. “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.”