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.

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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!

 

 

 

 

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Beth Cioffoletti
7 years 8 months ago
Yuck, indeed.
In many ways, I think this gross display of religiousity is the elephant in America's living room.  Andrew Sullivan calls it "Christianism" - it infects a large part of our national consciousness. Sarah Palin taps into the myth and power of it all the time.  The very fact that Obama couldn't refuse to attend shows how much sway this false piety holds over us.
 
The only way to tackle it is to keep talking about it, exposing it for what it is.  And you're right, the Christian faith is public, but this kind of God-Bless-(and-Favor)-America publicity is a terrible distortion.
 
I always hope that Catholics can lead the way out of this confusion, rather than get bogged down in it.  What if all the Catholic politicians refused to attend?
7 years 8 months ago
"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."
 
And yet the ENTIRE blame for this unfortunate trend must be laid at the feet of Liberals, particularly Gov. Mario Cuomo.  For who, if not Cuomo and the Catholic liberals who heralded his 1984 Notre Dame speech, contributed if not defined the "my faith is private" view more?  
Beth Cioffoletti
7 years 8 months ago
I'd say that John F. Kennedy started it.  It was the only way he could get his foot in the door.  And you're right.  It started a precedent for Catholic politicians, both liberals and conservative.
7 years 8 months ago
Yes, but Cuomo "theolo-gized" it, and the Catholic liberals institutionalized it, ergo Nancy Pelosi's outright bizarre statements about how her voting record comports with what she was taught as a child.  Talk about a party stuck in a "rut of nostalgia".
 
 
MARY JO LILLY
7 years 8 months ago
Cuomo (and Kennedy?) did not mean that the practice of faith is an exclusively private activity.  They meant that public officials are not answerable to the government, or the general populace, for how they practice their faith, and if they are religiously answerable to their faiths or God for how they practice their politics is a matter for them, their faith community and God, not for the government or the general public.
7 years 8 months ago
"They meant that public officials are not answerable to the government, or the general populace, for how they practice their faith, and if they are religiously answerable to their faiths or God for how they practice their politics is a matter for them, their faith community and God, not for the government or the general public."
 
Huh?
William Kurtz
7 years 8 months ago
"Christianism" or "civil religion" predates both JFK and Mario Cuomo, and definitely assumes a nondenominational Protestantism. Its most succinct expression came from President Eisenhower: "Our government makes no sense unless it is founded on a deeply held religious belief- and I don't care what it is."
Gregory Popcak
7 years 8 months ago
Every Who down in Whoville liked Pray'r Breakfasts a lot, but o'l Michael Sean Winters,
Did he? 
He did not!
Public worship?  ''Good heavens!''  
''Gaudy'' prayers? They displeased him. Now, please don't ask why; no one quite knows the reason.
It could be, perhaps, that his shoes were too tight.
Or it could be that SoCons gave him sweats in the night.
But I think that the most likely reason of all 
was that Michael Sean's heart was two sizes too small.
Beth Cioffoletti
7 years 8 months ago
Prophets are among the grumpiest people I know.  Someone who knew MLK personally was asked what he was like, what motivated him.  He said, you know, Martin was pissed off a lot, very angry about injustice and the way things were going down.
 
But his heart was pretty big.
Pearce Shea
7 years 8 months ago
Apparently, my comment got yanked (presumably for the abbreviated name).
 
To sum up: The National Prayer Breakfast is frequented by arch-conservatives because, as we all know, to be publicly religious and a Democrat is professional suicide in a great many places. While there certainly is a bit of ostentatiousness about the religious displays of some conservatives, I don't think it's fair to ding them when so many of the liberals who _could_ go to the prayer breakfast (and take it back, rather like MSW urges the Democrats to take back the Church) fail to do so every year.
I know for a _fact_ that the breakfast gets the same fee (if not more) from each republican or conservative official that it gets from any other Joe Schmo who wants to get up that early and pay a lot of money for some scrambled eggs (the only exceptions that I know of are the conservatives and republicans invited to speak at the event).
If being religious means being part of a community, then ought we not go to such lengths to alienate and excoriate a portion of that community (going so far as to suggest that they prey to an idol!). Ouch.
Jim McCrea
7 years 8 months ago
If the prayer breakfast was organized by a Jewish or Muslim group, would the aficionados here be so vocal?
This is churchianity at an odious extreme.

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