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The National Prayer Breakfast is not what America needs

Given America's increasing polarization, elected officials should not be elevating Christianity above other faiths.
Image: Joe Biden
President Joe Biden addresses the National Prayer Breakfast at the U.S. Capitol on Feb. 3 in Washington.Greg Nash / Getty Images

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.”

President Joe Biden provided a jarring soundbite that demonstrates why America doesn’t need the National Prayer Breakfast.

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.

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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.

Because of The Family’s conservative Christian beliefs, it includes a strong anti-LGBTQ contingent. The prayer breakfast also claims to be open to all religions. Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) , who’s Jewish, recited the Shema prayer Thursday, but the breakfast is explicitly Christian at its core.

Lawmakers’ participation is a tacit acknowledgement that The Family’s goals are acceptable.

One wonders why these lawmakers make time to pat one another on the back and pray at breakfast in a country that was founded to escape an established state religion. The Family’s sponsorship not only shows its close relationship with lawmakers, but lawmakers’ participation is a tacit acknowledgement that The Family’s goals are acceptable. This is why the Freedom From Religion Foundation called on Congress last year to boycott the National Prayer Breakfast. Given the increasing violence and polarization in our country, our nation’s leaders should not be elevating Christianity above every other religion.

At a time when Christian nationalist beliefs are being acted out in the form of book bans, book burnings, restrictive abortion laws, anti-vaccine stances and campaigns against lessons about slavery, a prayer breakfast isn’t what America needs. American democracy is slipping away, and a sumptuous breakfast accompanied by prayer is not sufficient to save it. And it is highly inappropriate for lawmakers to sit at a table set by an organization that would likely be pleased with an American theocracy.