The National Prayer Breakfast in February is one of the more annoying means by which American elites send their fellow citizens the none-too-subtle message that US society is – and will continue to be – dominated by Christians, and saturated with Christian privilege.
Held in Washington, DC, since 1953, it’s been hyped as ‘non-partisan’, ‘non-sectarian’ and ‘unifying’, even though its explicit centring of Jesus strikes a blow against pluralism. Furthermore, the Jesus envisioned by the National Prayer Breakfast’s founders and organisers – the Fellowship Foundation, also known as the International Foundation, and frequently referred to as simply the Family – isn’t some liberal, hippy figure.
This Jesus is a muscular, martial leader and obsessive anti-Communist who promotes capitalist paternalism, befriends dictators and despises labour unions – as thoroughly documented in journalist Jeff Sharlet’s 2009 book, ‘The Family: The Secret Fundamentalism at the Heart of American Power’.
Attended by presidents, congressional leaders and hundreds of foreign guests, the breakfast is where the Family facilitates private lobbying for hard-right policies with US public servants under the guise of ‘building relationships’ and coming together for prayer. It’s controversial and much-criticised; even The New York Times has described it as “an international influence-peddling bazaar”.
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Now, however, after years of mounting scandals, the 70-year-old status quo is changing – at least, superficially.
Media outlet TYT (which has broken much of the news about the National Prayer Breakfast in recent years) reported last week that the Fellowship Foundation will no longer run the event.
Instead, it will be organised by the National Prayer Breakfast Foundation, a legally distinct entity (though it has been reported that all its board members have close ties to the Family). Scheduled for tomorrow, it will also be a slimmed-down affair, involving a smaller, more elite group of invitees: the president, as well as senators and representatives who may bring a spouse, family member or guest.
Simultaneously, the Fellowship Foundation will hold a new two-day event with a larger, international invite list. Called ‘The Gathering’, this will have a separate agenda, but will share in some of the programming from the breakfast via video feed.
The White House has not yet confirmed if President Biden will attend the breakfast this year, but he did in 2021 and 2022 and has spoken favourably about it.
Using Christianity to fight Communism
The genesis of the National Prayer Breakfast goes back to the days of the early Cold War, when influential Americans became increasingly concerned that without a grand idea of their own with which to counter the grand Soviet idea of ‘godless Communism’, the American way of life would be at risk.
So they developed initiatives to promote religion, especially Christianity, within the public arena. In the mid-1950s, Congress inserted the phrase ‘under God’ into the pledge to the American flag and adopted ‘In God we trust’ as the official national motto.
The sense that only religion could compete with Communism as a source of ideological motivation led President Dwight D Eisenhower, who was not personally pious, to embrace the idea of the National Prayer Breakfast.
Methodist minister Abraham Vereide, who founded the Family in the 1930s, and world-renowned evangelist Billy Graham were the instigators of the first event in 1953. Every US president since has followed Eisenhower’s lead in addressing those gathered at the annual event.
In the 21st century, however, criticism and scandals have mounted, and several high-profile Democratic politicians abandoned the breakfast.
Convicted Russian spy Maria Butina used the event to seek access to and influence with US political leaders. (She also exploited the National Rifle Association for similar ends.) It also brought Mike Lindell – CEO of MyPillow and one of the most vocal and visible influencers pushing the ‘Big Lie’ of 2020 election denial – into the orbit of then president Donald Trump.
‘Largely cosmetic’ changes
The changes planned for this year look largely like a rebranding effort designed to quiet criticism and, perhaps, win back some of those who no longer attend. Jeff Sharlet himself told Religion News Service that “the change appears largely cosmetic.”
A memo from Democrat Mark Pryor, former attorney general and senator for Arkansas, emphasises that the new National Prayer Breakfast Foundation will have “only one purpose… hosting the annual National Prayer Breakfast while following Congressional ethical standards”. (The last clause in that sentence, of course, looks rather like a tacit admission that previous breakfasts have not met those ethical standards.)
In my view, there are compelling reasons to remain suspicious about the potential for influence-peddling under the new dispensation.