The National Prayer Breakfast shouldn’t exist

Last Thursday, President Obama addressed a large gathering of politicians and other self-professed people of faith at our country’s annual National Prayer Breakfast.

His remarks were, for the most part, familiar recitations of the Christian Left: odes to religion’s social value and dogged insistence that any moral transgressions inspired by religion aren’t actually religious.

But unlike most years’ Prayer Breakfasts, which rarely constitute more than a footnote in that week’s news cycle, conservatives have spent the last few days flipping tables over one particular heresy in the President’s remarks:

[How] do we, as people of faith, reconcile…the profound good, the strength, the tenacity, the compassion and love that can flow from all of our faiths, operating alongside those who seek to hijack religious for their own murderous ends?

Humanity has been grappling with these questions throughout human history. And lest we get on our high horse and think this is unique to some other place, remember that during the Crusades and the Inquisition, people committed terrible deeds in the name of Christ. In our home country, slavery and Jim Crow all too often was justified in the name of Christ.

At a gathering sponsored by The Fellowship, one of the most influential Christian organizations in the world, this was a huge party foul.

President Ronald Reagan and Nancy Reagan greet Billy Graham at the National Prayer Breakfast held at the Hilton Washington, 1981. (Source: White House photo.)

President Ronald Reagan and Nancy Reagan greet Billy Graham at the National Prayer Breakfast held at the Hilton Washington, 1981. (Source: White House photo.)

Reminding the audience that Christians aren’t always the good guys in religious stories was “the most offensive [comment] I’ve ever heard a president  make in my lifetime,” said Republican and former Virginia governor Jim Gilmore. The hosts of Fox and Friends went a step further, accusing President Obama of justifying the Islamic State’s violence and equating Christians with religious militants. By Saturday, the front page of the National Review’s website featured not one, not two, but three responses to the episode. Media Matters has a fairly comprehensive rundown of conservative heads exploding over Obama’s comments here.

But regardless as to where one comes down on the question of whether Christians have ever done bad things and, if so, how bad they were in comparison to the actions of the Islamic State, the firestorm that arose out of Thursday’s event shows at least one thing:

The National Prayer Breakfast shouldn’t exist, at least not in its present form.

While the event is an overwhelmingly Christian gathering, the breakfast is billed as an ecumenical event that celebrates prayer in generic terms. Since members of Congress help organize and host the event, it would be constitutionally questionable if it was officially focused on Christian prayer. So, in the spirit of inclusion and diversity, the event features a few members of other religious traditions. For instance, Dalai Lama attended this year’s breakfast as a special guest.

(As an aside, Sudanese foreign minister Ali Ahmed Karti and Dr. Ibrahim Ghandur, a member of Sudan’s ruling National Congress Party, were also at this year’s event. While Karti and Ghandur’s Muslim faith isn’t of particular interest, their attendance stands out because they arguably shouldn’t have even been allowed in the United States. As high-ranking officials in a government designated as a state sponsor of terrorism, making the guest list at a quasi-official event in the United States is particularly eyebrow-raising.)

In any case, despite the event’s nominal ecumenicism, the conservative, Christian explosion in response to the relatively modest claim that religions other than Islam have the potential to harbor violent sub-denominations shows that the National Prayer Breakfast doesn’t come close to putting all faiths on an equal, elevated playing field. Instead, it is a demonstrably Christian event, organized to further the idea that America is a Christian nation, with a few non-Christians scattered throughout the audience to give the event legitimacy it doesn’t deserve.

With two sentences about Christianity’s less-rosy past, President Obama scratched the surface of the National Prayer Breakfast’s nominal ecumenicism, showing that the event’s overwhelmingly Christian attendees were fully expecting to hear a series of obediently Christian propitiations, perhaps with some of them shrouded in more inclusive rhetoric. This should go without saying, but apparently it doesn’t: The fact that this is the expectation at an event organized by Congress and attended by the President is wildly problematic.

As unlikely as it may be, it would be a good start if our next president doesn’t go.


Jon Green graduated from Kenyon College with a B.A. in Political Science and high honors in Political Cognition. He worked as a field organizer for Congressman Tom Perriello in 2010 and a Regional Field Director for President Obama's re-election campaign in 2012. Jon writes on a number of topics, but pays especially close attention to elections, religion and political cognition. Follow him on Twitter at @_Jon_Green, and on Google+. .

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