I do not much care for the National Prayer Breakfast. This annual pageant of power dates back to 1953, so, like Noah Cross, it’s old enough to seem “respectable,” but it’s still a Very Bad Idea.
This is an event at which people display their patriotism by showing their disdain for the Constitution. It’s an event at which people display their piety by contradicting the words of Jesus in the Gospels. That makes the National Prayer Breakfast bad for the nation and bad for prayer.
At more than $400 a ticket, it’s probably also bad for breakfast. (I don’t know what tickets cost now. When I got an invite back in the 1990s, tickets were $300. In 2003 Jeff Sharlet wrote that they cost $425. I’m sure they’re way more than that now.) At that price, and with all the pomp and circumstance, this isn’t really a breakfast so much as it is a banquet scheduled too early in the day.
Jesus had a little something to say about prayer. And he had a lot to say about banquets. Here’s Jesus on the subject of prayer:
And whenever you pray, do not be like the hypocrites; for they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, so that they may be seen by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. But whenever you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.
And here’s Jesus on the subject of banquets:
When you give a luncheon or a dinner, do not invite your friends or your brothers or your relatives or rich neighbors, in case they may invite you in return, and you would be repaid. But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind. And you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you, for you will be repaid at the resurrection of the just.
That passage from Luke 14 hints at exactly the sort of quid-pro-quo corruption that’s built into the National Prayer Breakfast. It was and is designed to facilitate exactly that sort of exchange of payment and repayment. (Corruption, “networking.” Tomato, to-mah-to.)
As for the Constitution, the annual prayer breakfast is not an official government event, so it’s not as egregiously unconstitutional as, say, the National Day of Prayer. Here, again, is my standard joke on that annual event: In 1952, Congress passed a law establishing the National Day of Prayer as an annual religious observance. Quick: give me another sentence that uses the words “Congress,” “law,” “establish” and “religion.”
But while the prayer breakfast may not violate the letter of the First Amendment, it certainly seems to violate its spirit. It may not amount to an establishment of religion, but it elevates the religion of the establishment, further privileging the already privileged. It may not quite create a legal religious test for public office, but it attempts to create a cultural test — a requirement and an expectation that office holders be willing to display and to perform the religious gestures preferred by the elites who organize this thing.
And those elites, by the way, are a pretty odious bunch. This annual gig is a product of The Family — an organization that somehow manages to be even creepier and more cult-like than that name suggests. Read Jeff Sharlet’s The Family: The Secret Fundamentalism at the Heart of American Power. Or, for a shorter version, read Sharlet’s 2003 Harper’s article, “Jesus Plus Nothing: Undercover among America’s secret theocrats.” (Or read my standard WYLIE rant, about the youth-ministry offshoot of this same theology of what Family founder Abraham Vereide called the “up and out.”)
I’ve joked that the leaders of The Family are probably vampires. Not really, of course — but they are exactly the sort of predatory power-seekers whose existence causes us to tell vampire stories, encoding our legitimate fear of them in the wisdom of folklore.
All of which is to say, again, that I don’t much care for the National Prayer Breakfast. But, given the current hubbub over President Barack Obama’s remarks at the most recent pageant last weekend, I’m going to need to write about that. Needed to get this here said first so I could do that. OK, then.