In gods we trust

ribbon2Every year since 1953, an extremely mysterious Christian group called The Fellowship has hosted a National Prayer Breakfast in Washington. At $400+ a pop, tickets for the breakfast are some of the hottest in town (don’t worry, it’s free on C-SPAN for us plebeians). Leaders of Christian groups across the country make sure to attend, as do dignitaries from around the world. Every president has attended for the last 50 years. Tables are full of senators and Congress members.

In any case, the Associated Press’ Frederic Frommer reports on a dramatic change with this year’s event, being held this morning:

WASHINGTON — The annual National Prayer Breakfast will be co-chaired by Sen. Norm Coleman, the first time in memory that a Jew will lead the gathering, and at a time when some rabbis have expressed misgivings about what they see as the event’s overtly Christian tone. . . .

Coleman, a Minnesota Republican, raised some eyebrows himself at last year’s breakfast when he said, “I have a profound respect for the tangibility and accessibility of God that my colleagues find in Jesus.”

A New Jersey rabbi in attendance, Shmuel Goldin, was taken aback by that, and by registration material that said “Jesus Christ transcends all religions.” He wrote to Coleman to express his concerns.

So a private Christian group hosts a popular prayer breakfast and has now decided to make it overtly interfaith. The article also says that Coleman is making sure that there will be no explicitly Christian pamphlets.

I find it endlessly fascinating that stories like presume there are no problems with Christian organizations or functions becoming interfaith. My Lutheran peeps abhor events like this — not only because they tend to confuse the religious and political spheres but because they always require a watering down of religious doctrines. We’re Lutheran for a reason and we don’t believe that all paths are equally valid, contrary to the predominant American viewpoint. People think we’re awful and horribly unpatriotic because of this. Fox News’ theological heavyweight Bill O’Reilly once accused us of not being Christian on account of our views against participating in civil religious gatherings. Opposition to syncretism is hardly unique to Lutherans and yet the folks who find Druid drum circles to be an unseemly addition to Vespers are invisible to many reporters.

Anyway, the article goes on to repeatedly quote the rabbi wondering why there were so many references to Jesus at last year’s breakfast if the prayer event was nondenominational. Beyond the vagueness of the term nondenominational (which makes a great argument against its use by anyone at any time), does an event hosted by an evangelical, if secretive, Christian group need to include adherents of other religions? Let’s see:

Foundation officials referred questions to former Rep. Jim Slattery, D-Kan., who conceded that phrases such as “spirit of Jesus” could be offensive to Jews but noted the significance of Coleman’s role this year.

“It makes a statement that this is an event for Jews and Muslims and Christians and Hindus and Buddhists,” said Slattery, who has worked with the foundation on the breakfast.

Well there you go. Pray to whichever god or gods you want. As long as you have similar political objectives, it’s all good.

In order to even begin making sense of this story, reporters simply must understand and inform readers how this National Prayer Breakfast embodies civil religion, as opposed to the Christian religion. Religion professor Rowland Sherrill defined civil religion as “the mysterious way that religion, politics, ideas of nationhood, patriotism, etc. — energized by faith outlooks — represent a national force.”

pancakeExamples of civil religion include the invocation of a non-specific God at political events (“God bless America!”) and the quotation or reference of sacred texts in political speeches. We are quite accustomed to biblical references, but President Bush has begun including the Koran in his political rhetoric. His second inaugural highlighted the truths of the Koran, for instance. He called Islam a “noble faith” at his most recent State of the Union speech. Civil religion has its own hymns, such as the Star Spangled Banner, and venerates past political leaders and deceased veterans of wars. Since the terrorist attacks of 2001, the nation has seen a rise in religious events gathered by political leaders. These events have become increasingly interfaith.

The changes happening to this breakfast gathering this morning are emblematic of the changes happening with American civil religion, and highlight the need for reporters to study this pervasive phenomenon. For an absolutely excellent primer on civil religion, try this one prepared specifically for reporters by FACS.

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  • Herb

    Good entry. We need more input on this modern day idolatry that is all to present in our churches, especially here in the South, where I live. There is a difference between Christians being thankful, and asking God (whoever that means) to bless our plans and actions.

    All Christians who live in this country should read Noll, Hatch, and Marsden and get a more balanced view of our history.

  • Herb

    Oops, this blog wouldn’t let me post that link above, I suppose because it doesn’t want advertising. The book title is In Search of Christian America.

  • Andy Crouch

    Linking to Jeff Sharlet’s scurrilous Harpers article is, unfortunately, about all one can do for people who want reporting on the Fellowship. However, Princeton’s Michael Lindsay (soon to go to Rice) has a forthcoming article in the Journal of the American Academy of Religion that does a much, much better job of explaining this organization. It would be very interesting to get his opinion on whether the Fellowship actually qualifies as “civil religion” in the classic sense. My own feeling is that the Prayer Breakfast is indeed civil religion at its finest (irony alert), but that the Fellowship is something else altogether. And yet the two are inextricably linked. It’s a fascinating story that the media simply hasn’t yet told.

  • Andy

    Truth in advertising might be a solution: calling it the “National Christian Prayer Breakfast” would forestall complaints that it is insufficiently ecumenical, and free organizers to make it as Christian as they want it to be. Currently, it’s the presumption that prayer=Christianity that folks like Goldin so rightly object to, especially when the formula is endorsed by our political establishment. I doubt Goldin would object if it became a celebration of the participants’ Christianity.

  • dk

    Sharlett is plenty scurrilous but not his Harper’s articles, including the one on “The Family.” It certainly touched a lot of nerves, but what exactly is scurrilous about it?

  • Tony Pivetta

    The state distrusts religion as a competing focus of people’s loyalty. That’s why it seeks either to abolish religion, as it did in the erstwhile Soviet Union, or co-opt it, as it does in today’s United States. What true faith (and reason, for that matter) calls atrocity, the state and civil religion dismiss as collateral damage. Uplift is always worth some ghastly price.

  • Andy Crouch

    What is scurrilous about Sharlet’s Harper’s article is that it was obtained under false pretenses and jumps to wildly wrong, predictably (for Harper’s) scaremongering conclusions about the nature of the Fellowship’s influence in Washington.

    Admittedly the Fellowship, both intentionally and as a by-product of its strangely liminal existence, does not make it easy for reporters to do a better or more honest job than Sharlet did.

  • Philocrites

    Andy, if I wanted to learn how Sharlet’s conclusions were wildly wrong, where would I go? What would I read? I can’t just take your word for it.

  • dk

    Sure you can take his word for it. I have footage of Mr. Crouch making the secret Family “cornutus” sign. I am sure he is one of their adepts.

    There is nothing illegal about “obtaining” a story under false pretences. Formerly more common, it is currently considered unethical in mainstream journalism, but it’s one of those things where the value is in the truth one thinks has been gained.

    Almost anything on “the religious right” in publications like Harper’s implies “scaremongering” in its “life among the hottentots” style. But what Jeff actually, factually revealed is valuable for very different reasons.

    I say that as someone who has criticized Jeff more than complimented him. The last time we were emailing I think he was trying to impress me with his ability to swear like a gangsta.

  • Andy Crouch

    Philocrites – Like I said, definitely check out Michael Lindsay’s forthcoming article.

    dk – I didn’t say it was illegal. I said it was scurrilous. Most mainstream journalists would agree. Speaking of illegal, the only time mainstream journalism would allow this kind of reporting is when you uncover (by going undercover) some really juicy illegal activity. But all Sharlet found was a bunch of young adepts, to use your term, whose naivety he exploited to build the scaffolding for unsubstantiated, and frankly wrong, extrapolations about the alleged political aims of the Fellowship. That end can hardly justify the means.

    Unfortunately Jeff Sharlet is in the process of compiling quite a resume as someone who violates confidences in search of Harper’s-friendly stories about conservative Christians. It’s a bummer because (a) he’s a great writer and (b) he continues to see himself as an innocent, harmless friend of the people whose confidences he betrays. Ultimately it’s a bummer for his career as a religion writer. Word travels fast about which reporters you can trust to be fair and which you can’t.

    And in any case, he missed the big story: The absolutely bizarre thing about the Fellowship is how much access it has to power and how little it uses that access for political aims of any sort. The way those two items are linked is the essence of its fascination for many of us.

  • Julia Duin

    Folks- On our Feb. 3 Washington Times blog I wrote a piece about what it’s like to cover the prayer breakfast. Check it out: It’s called “Covering the NPB.” Should have read “Fear and Loathing at the NPB.”

  • Jeff Sharlet

    Thanks to Dan for reminding Andy Crouch of the proper definition of “scurrilous,” a charge to which I plead guilty, b***h. (that’s a joke I trust Dan, if not Andy, will understand).

    Unfortunately, I think Crouch meant something much more offensive, and I take serious issue. Crouch writes that my article was “obtained under false pretenses.” That’s “libel.” Look it up, Andy, and either ante up your evidence or email so we can sort this out privately.

    For the rest of you: I didn’t obtain that article under “false pretenses.” I was invited into the group by a man who’d known me for years, knew my religious beliefs, knew I was a journalist, and knew I was writing a book about unconventional religious communities. I made this known to the men I lived with; whether they paid it much mind is their concern.

    As for the question of illegal activitiy on the part of the Fellowship, there’s a case to be made that there has been. Most obviously, many core members seem to be in violation of the Logan Act, which forbids private citizens from practicing international diplomacy. Of course, that’s a law that’s rarely if ever been prosecuted. The irony is that Rep. Joe Pitts, a long time member of the Fellowship, threatened Jesse Jackson with it.

    Then, there are other, more serious questions of illegal activitiy. I’m not a lawyer, so I can’t say for sure, but I’m pretty certain that someone might make a case that the Fellowship’s unregistered lobbying on behalf of foreign officials — one of whom was later convicted in a U.S. Court of ordering torture and murder — might be illegal.

    But it’s true that I didn’t know any of this when I joined the Fellowship. Indeed, I thought it was a quirky fraternity that had helped an acquaintance of mine become a better person. By the third time I’d heard Hitler cited as a “leadership model,” I had my doubts. I expressed them openly.

    Crouch, it’s apology time. You may not like my politics, you may not like my prose, you may not like my ethics, you may not like my religion — but you’ve no right to make false statements about me.

    One last irony — Crouch is one of my favorite Christianity Today writers, someone who I thought was pushing evangelicalism beyond the fundamentally anti-democratic premises at the core of the of the Fellowship and too much of elite evangelical activism. It’s a shame to see him fall prey to evangelical tribalism. I thought he was a better journalist, and a better Christian.

  • Andy Crouch

    Jeff -

    Thanks for this. I have no opinion about your politics, I like your prose very much, and based on what I’ve seen I don’t like your ethics at all. I’ve never quite figured out your religion. :) As for the Fellowship, anyone can read my opinion pieces and my journalism and judge whether I carry any water for the Fellowship and its approach to faith and politics.

    Based on what you say above, what I said about your article being obtained “under false pretenses” is wrong. I am sorry.

    However, I would be interested to know if you checked quotes with any of your subjects or secured their permission to be portrayed by name in print — specifically, Doug and David Coe. Did they know you were working on a “book” in which their movement would be included? Didn’t think so. Do mainstream editors allow this kind of reporting (with rare exceptions as noted above)? I don’t think so. Unless my editors at CT have higher standards?

    Based on what I read in the article and know (very much third- and fourth-hand) from those involved in the case, I stand by my assessment in my post on the 5th: that you exploited the naivety of some young people and misinterpreted what you found, or at the very least enabled Harper’s readers to draw false conclusions. You did the same, in my assessment, in your piece on Colorado Springs, and in that case I do know some of the parties involved first hand. You have squandered a lot of trust with the way you have handled your access to theologically conservative Christians.

    I measure my excellence as a journalist partly by whether my subjects think I have accurately and fairly represented them (whether they are secular activists or Jerry B. Jenkins), even if they disagree with my writing overall. I would hope that you do too. As for being a better Christian, all I can do on that front, beyond the apology above, is to offer to buy you a drink any time you are in Philadelphia. But should that happy occasion come to pass, our conversation (and may it be the first of many) will need to be off the record. Really.

  • Jeff Sharlet

    First, with regard to your “off the record” remark. I have NEVER violated otr. If I did, my story about the Fellowship would have been considerably more damning. Likewise the latest Brownback story. Likewise the Ted Haggard profile. Some reporters refuse to listen to otr comments. I listen to whatever a subject wants to talk about. One hears some startling things.

    Thanks for your apology, Andy. Perhaps I’ll take you up on the drink. In the meantime, I have to ask you how you “know” that Harper’s didn’t attempt to check quotes? Do you know something about my fact checker — now a fine editor named Ben Austen — that I didn’t? Because last I knew, he did indeed call the Fellowship, and Ivanwald, many times. No comment. In that case, they relied on the notes I took at the time. I should add that they weren’t reporter’s notes — I was there as a participant, and like many of the men, kept a journal.

    Nobody disputed a word after. One of the main subjects of the story, in fact, told me that everything was accurate — the only thing that bothered him was that it was supposed to be secret.

    As for whether the Coes knew I was writing a book: The man who invited me to join knew I was writing a book. One of the men I wrote about, the de facto leader of the house, knew I was writing a book, and we talked about it at some length. It was called “Killing the Buddha: A Heretic’s Bible,” so it wasn’t exactly a good “cover.” I told the men there all the publications I had written for to date. The other de facto leader of the house suggested I write a book about the house (I declined.)

    Doug Coe has not spoken truth to power; he speaks soothing words to power. He introduces people. Pretty rough people. He does not challenge world leaders to be more loving, he challenges them to be more devoted to a very peculiar concept of Jesus. I’ve heard it said that he’s a Knoxian, but that, to my thinking, is too kind. His concept of God strikes me as the most frightening kind of Paganism, and I like Pagans.

    Do mainstream editors allow that kind of reporting? Well, first, I wasn’t reporting. I was participating, and I wrote about my experience. It’s reporting if you go into report — it’s memoir if you expereince something and write about what you experienced. Was Thomas Merton (not to inflate my abilities) violating otr when he wrote about his experiences?

    I then researched it to learn more about what I’d experienced. I had no idea when I went that there was anything political about it.

    However, to answer your question: Yes, “mainstream” editors (as if “mainstream” was some worthwile standard) allow this kind of reporting. Most notably, the LA Times, AP, and the Norwegian Dagbladet (the country’s second biggest paper), all of which wrote about the Fellowship and did so investigatively, since the Fellowship representatives lie about the organization. “Lie” is not too strong a word for an organization that sometimes denies its own existence, despite IRS records to the contrary.

    Do CT editors have higher standards? In the case of Tony Carnes, Bob Smietana, Ted Olsen, Randall Balmer, and a few others — I would have thought you — yes, the standards are high and rightly so, more intellectually sound than those of many magazines. In the case of Chuck Colson? No fact ever got in the way of his faith, or his ghosted prose.

    Most seriously, though, I’d take issue with the “standard” of having all the people you write about feel they’ve been fairly represented. That’s pretty pollyanna. Whaddya think — did Nixon think Woodward and Bernstein were “fair”? Did Colson? Those are extreme examples. At NYU, I teach my students that their number one responsibility is to the story itself. It’s not about making the subject feel good, or fluffing the reader’s views. I’ve written only one hagiographic piece in my life, a 10,000 word openly adoring profile of a writer I love, and she’ll never talk to me again. She didn’t like the way I described her yard.

    As for Co Springs, I assume you’re talking about — well, I won’t name them, since I like them even if they don’t like me. I read their quotes back to them, and even sent them full prose, which, as you know, is an ethical violation in itself. But that’s how much I wanted them to be cool with it. They weren’t, even tho they’d read what I wrote. As for Ted Haggard, I was fair, he wasn’t, and so what? I’ll stake my Harper’s piece against that mediocrity in Christianity Today anyday, which included glaring misinterpretations of American religious history in the lead and then, uh, puffed Ted for a couple thousand words. Ted got more voice time in my story than in that one. More of his own words. That CT piece was a prime example of the ugliest aspect of contemporary evangelical Christianity, the persecution complex. American Christians are among the most powerful people in the world. They have no call to cry persecution, not since, oh, 1968.

    This is especially repugnant to me as a Jew who grew up in a little anti-Semitic town, where I fought more than once — althought “fought” is a euphemism for being surrounded by half a dozen kids — for being a Jew. But, you know, so what? I don’t suffer.

    American evangelicals need to stop crying victim. It’s a false witness.