National Commentary

Obama’s ‘Prayer Breakfast’ Blunder

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President Obama had the opportunity of the currently-unfolding crisis in Egypt and spreading to other predominantly Islamic nations in the Middle East to decline the invitation to attend today’s National Prayer Breakfast hosted by a shadowy ultra-conservative Christian organization in Washington, D.C.

President Obama had the opportunity of the currently-unfolding crisis in Egypt and spreading to other predominantly Islamic nations in the Middle East to decline the invitation to attend today’s National Prayer Breakfast hosted by a shadowy ultra-conservative Christian organization in Washington, D.C.

The president could have evoked concern for the sensibilities of the struggles  of predominantly Islamic populations in Egypt, Tunisia and elsewhere, and also of the  Jewish population of Israel, where there is due alarm over the developments in its neighborhood.

After all, the National Prayer Breakfast is very exclusively right-wing Christian, an event where Moslems, Jews or anyone else need not apply. The president’s scheduled presence there this morning hardly cut the image of the ecumenically-sensitive man the world desperately needs to help navigate peace, stability and change in a religiously heterogeneous powder keg portion of the world.

Moreover, organizers of the event have ties to activists working for draconian anti-homosexuality laws in Uganda.

Unfolding conflicts around the globe today, and the importance of the U.S. leadership role in their context, underscore the wisdom of a clear separation of church and state that was written into the U.S. Constitution by the nation’s founders.

To a man, virtually all the U.S.’s founders were not religious, even if some belonged to churches as a matter of rote and because they were often centers of community life. They shared the sentiments of the fiery Thomas Paine in their passionate disdain for religious superstition and manipulation of followers.  At best, they could be called “deists” who believed in natural law, but not in an authoritarian religious system or any religious claim to control over citizens’ lives.

The Constitutional separation of church and state, it can be argued, protects both institutions, each from the other.

But this did not prevent a group of industrialists in the U.S. during the Great Depression in the 1930s from forging a united front against labor unions and many of the policies of the Franklin D. Roosevelt administration. The group, cementing its solidarity on the basis of certain Christian fundamentalist principles, sought openly to exert a profound influence on government in the U.S.
That group is responsible for founding and maintaining the annual National Prayer Breakfast in the nation’s capital.

Author Jeff Sharlet’s groundbreaking 2009 expose, “The Family: The Secret Fundamentalism at the Heart of American Power,” followed last year by “C Street:  The Fundamentalist Threat to American Democracy,” has ripped the deceptive mask off of this movement, which officially went “underground” in the 1960s to work through a series of fronts.

Sharlet described the process of launching the National Prayer Breakfast in the early 1950s. The new President Eisenhower refused to participate when invited to the first one on “separation of church and state” grounds. But a “Family” plant high up in his administration talked him into it.

Since then, the event has been used to parlay political influence throughout Washington, D.C. to serve the advancement of radical free market policies, Christian fundamentalist-infused “American exceptionalism” in foreign policy, and anti-regulatory, anti-social entitlement and anti-labor policies at home.

This group, known as “The Fellowship” or “The Family,” got its toehold in official Washington in the context of the friendly environment, for them, of the McCarthy era witch hunts. Their seminal successes included not only arm-twisting Eisenhower to attend their National Prayer Breakfasts, but in cowing Congress and the president to add the phrase, “under God,” to the Pledge of Allegiance in 1954.

Whereas to most Americans, that addition presented no problem, to them it marked a decisive victory in breaching the separation of church and state.

So it is to this day. The president might go along with the “tradition,” by now, of attending these breakfasts as a matter of routine. However, those organizing them are using his presence to callously advance their own cause, drawing support and credibility from it to grow a sense of power in the eyes of both their friends and enemies.

The National Prayer Breakfast is a sinister conspiracy of those with a hidden agenda that means no good for Obama, his agenda and his aspirations for a more inclusive, fair and peaceful world.


Nicholas Benton may be emailed at [email protected]

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