President Obama and much of official Washington, D.C. will troupe to the Washington Hilton Hotel on Thursday for the 59th National Prayer Breakfast. Past speakers have included every president since Dwight Eisenhower, along with luminaries such as Mother Teresa, former British Prime Minister Tony Blair, and Spanish Socialist leader José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero. Jordan’s King Abdullah II has also spoken at an affiliated event. Although it’s a largely nonpartisan and interfaith celebration of civil religion, secularists and some liberal religionists have never liked it. Their dislike is partly owing to the organizer, the sometimes mysterious Fellowship Foundation.
According to a writer for “Americans United for the Separation of Church and State,” the Fellowship is a “shadowy fundamentalist Christian group” whose “infamous ‘C Street House'” on Capitol Hill has facilitated congressional sex scandals. (Former U.S. Senator John Ensign and former South Carolina Governor Mark Sanford once lived there with other then members of the U.S. House of Representatives.) More intrinsically “annoying” to ultra-strict separationists like Americans United is that the National Prayer Breakfast, though privately sponsored, “has all the trappings of an official governmental worship service, with the president, members of Congress and other dignitaries gathering in a way that appears to merge religion and state.”
Admitting it may not “technically violate” the First Amendment’s prohibition against “establishing religion,” Americans United still frets the morning prayer session “tramples on the church-state separationist spirit that infuses the Constitution.” Their writer also complains that this year’s National Prayer Breakfast invitation quotes Thomas Jefferson lauding the “pure principles which Jesus taught.” This writer worries that Jefferson, who disagreed with the “theology of ultra-conservative Christians,” has been unjustly “pressed into service by ultra-conservative Christians to promote their theocratic agenda.”
Actually, the quote about Jesus from Jefferson is quite appropriate for the prayer breakfast. Like Jefferson, organizers have traditionally de-emphasized Christian orthodox beliefs about Jesus Christ in favor of more widely citing Jesus of Nazareth as teacher. The Fellowship has long cherished its premier event for its outreach to non-Christian elites, including Muslim ambassadors and heads of state.
“I wish our national leaders would quit attending it,” the Americans United writer complained. “And I wish the group sponsoring it would quit trying to claim Thomas Jefferson as an ally.” Americans United has been beating this same drum for decades. More interestingly, religious voices aligned with “Occupy DC.” are this year hosting their own alternative “People’s Prayer Breakfast.”
“While the 1% attend the National Prayer Breakfast, the 99% will ‘…reflect, pray, and draw attention to the suffering and marginalization of millions of U.S. citizens languishing in economic distress, uncertainty and poverty,” explained one organizer of the People’s Prayer Breakfast in the Huffington Post. Besides their own much less expensive breakfast at the Church of the Pilgrims United Church of Christ (UCC) congregation near Dupont Circle, these champions of the “people” will also convene a “Silent Witness” outside the upscale National Prayer Breakfast at the Washington Hilton. The National Prayer breakfast is by invitation only and costs $650 per plate.
According to Occupy Faith DC, the sponsoring Fellowship is a “secretive conservative group” that “explicitly cultivates the wealthy and the powerful for political influence.” In contrast to what typically occurs inside the rarefied Washington Hilton International Ballroom, Occupy Faith DC wants President Obama and his several thousand elite morning prayer partners to “focus their conversations and prayers on the suffering of the 99%.”
Occupy Faith DC conveniently relocated their Monday press D.C. conference about the People’s Prayer Breakfast to McPherson Square, where media were already assembled to watch an anticipated clash between Occupiers and D.C. police. The National Park Service had informed Occupiers over the weekend that their encampment in the downtown park was to end. Stubborn Occupiers responded Monday by mounting a defiantly huge blue tarp over the equestrian statue of General James McPherson. Perhaps the same defiant spirit will guide the People’s Prayer Breakfast and the “Silent Witness” outside the National Prayer Breakfast on Thursday.
At their Monday press conference, Occupy Faith DC denounced the National Prayer Breakfast’s focus on the “rich and famous.” (I’m indebted to a report from my colleague Jeff Walton, who attended.) “Who is going to be represented in the other event are the representatives of the one percent,” complained the UCC pastor of Church of the Pilgrims, who called for religious people to “be the revolutionaries that our spiritual traditions call us to be.”
A Presbyterian clergy at the press conference justified Occupy Faith DC’s stance against the National Prayer Breakfast: “I don’t think there is a problem challenging a small group of business interests.” After all, “Prayer is not just about access to powerful people — it moves us forward in action.” An imam from the Falls Church, Virginia mosque attended by some 9/11 hijackers and the Fort Hood shooter also spoke at the press conference. “If you believe what is right and what is just, you have faith,” inclusively declared Imam Johari Abdul-Malikhe, who is the mosque’s outreach director. “Where it comes from doesn’t matter.” Another Muslim representative, Ibrahim Abdil-Mu’id Ramey of the Muslim American Society, was more aggressive: “As Jesus said in the temple, sometimes righteousness requires a little butt kicking.”
Of course, the National Prayer Breakfast is primarily about schmoozing, not “butt kicking.” Exposés like Jeff Sharlet’s 2008 book, The Family: The Secret Fundamentalism at the Heart of American Power, have imagined The Fellowship as a high octane push for Christian theocracy. Whatever the fanciful theories about its organizer, the National Prayer Breakfast is a mostly admirable tradition that provokes politicians into at least momentarily expressing high minded religious principles. They also must at least seem to mix convivially with their political opponents. In the fog of security details and limousines outside the Washington Hilton on Thursday, the “Silent Witness” by Occupy Faith DC likely will gain little attention and cause even less harm.