The National Prayer Breakfast: Yuck!
This morning is the National Prayer Breakfast. It is a gaudy affair, held in a ballroom not in a sanctuary, at which politicians are invited to strut their spiritual feathers. It permits reporters to write articles like the one in this morning’s paper entitled "Obama’s spiritual life largely private" which always send up alarm bells for me: When you find the words "faith" and "private" in the same breathe, you know you are in a Protestant culture.
There is nothing "private" about the Prayer Breakfast but the event is sponsored by a group that is something less than public, the Family. This is a group of conservative Christians, some of whom have recently been in the news for their support of a Uganda law that would require pastors and confessors to tell authorities if they know their parishioners are gay, so they can be put to death. Nice.
The Family was one of a myriad of conservative groups that flourished in the 1950s. (The Prayer Breakfast began in 1953.) The John Birch Society was another. The National Review was a third. This last, founded by William F. Buckley in 1955, made genuine contributions to the nation’s political life by bringing conservative ideas, articulately and intelligently defended, into the discussions of the intelligentsia. The journal today, like the conservative movement more generally, seems stuck in a rut of nostalgia. They pine for Reagan, although they criticized Reagan mercilessly at the time for being insufficiently conservative. They prefer the Old Rite. They long for the neighborhoods of the Cleavers of "Leave it to Beaver" fame, which did not have any of the multi-racial pluralism of today’s neighborhoods. Indeed, pluralism is not their strong suit: They may defend the free market, but they are horrified by the free market of ideas that is one of the West’s most significant cultural achievements.
The Prayer Breakfast itself will not be particularly ideological, especially not with Socialist Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero from Spain on the dais. (Was this a conservative set up? Obama with a real Socialist? Of course, the Pope greeted Zapatero when he was in Spain too.) But, there is an ideology underneath the event that is more problematic than usually admitted. The President will speak in the words of our "civic religion." He will, according to a source quoted in the Post "stress the importance of an openness to compromise and differing perspectives," which is a fine governing idea but a less fine theological one. The assembled in the Hilton ballroom will invoke the blessing of God upon America, an America that all the gathered politicians are trying mightily to recommit to material spending (and therefore hiring), but I wonder if any will note, with the psalmist, that "Whom God loveth, He chasteneth." (A propos of last week’s "Saturday Night Live," God must really love Martha Coakley.)
I long for the day when a President has the guts to RSVP in the negative to the National Prayer Breakfast. I long for the day when a President whose faith is truly "private" will decline to make his advisors available to reporters to inform the public that he gets "daily devotionals" on his email, or the details of his chapel attendance. That said, there was one very interesting comment in the Post’s article: A source "said that Obama has consulted religious leaders less often for his own personal guidance than for help walking through major public decisions – such as during the Afghanistan review process, when he sought advice on the ethical implications of war." (So, Cardinal McCarrick is ushered into the Oval not to pray but to plan!) This admission of the public consequences and implications of faith is a welcome tonic against the "my faith is intensely private" meme that most politicians adopt. To be clear: Faith, at least the Christian faith, is not private. It involves a community of believers, the Church, whose worship, creeds, and other teachings are as public as public can be. The Christian faith is rooted not in esoteric nostalgia but in historic claims about events in Jerusalem two thousand years ago. And, the God of America’s "civic religion," the God who will be invoked at this morning’s Prayer Breakfast is an idol, not a God, although the nostalgists in the Family may not recognize that. And, I wish Obama would skip the breakfast and go to morning Mass at St. Matthew's down the street!