A Modest Proposal Regarding Prayer Breakfasts

A Modest Proposal Regarding Prayer Breakfasts April 25, 2018

And whenever you pray, do not be like the hypocrites; for they love to stand and pray in the churches and at the street corners, so that they may be seen by others.

“Gov. Eric Greitens … is scheduled to be the keynote speaker at a St. Louis Area Police Chiefs Association prayer breakfast on Wednesday,” the St. Louis Post-Dispatch reported yesterday. Let’s break this down and attempt to enumerate some of the many Bad Things involved in that short sentence.

1. Missouri Gov. Eric Greitens is currently facing two felony charges and other allegations of serious ethical violations. One felony charge involves his alleged attempt to blackmail the woman with whom he was having an affair (the woman has also accused Greitens of coerced, non-consensual sex — i.e., rape and assault). The second charge, “computer tampering,” involves the alleged misuse of a charitable database for political fundraising.

It’s astonishing that Greitens is still in office. The financial allegations are deeply sleazy and the sexual/blackmail allegations are stomach-turning. How is this man still getting invited to offer spiritual insight at a prayer breakfast?

2. I’m not a lawyer, but as I understand it, “in the criminal justice system, the people are represented by two separate yet equally important groups: The police, who investigate crime, and the district attorneys, who prosecute the offenders.” (Dun dun.) The efforts of those district attorneys seem to be undermined if the police chiefs, in concert, heap pious honors on accused offenders by inviting them to be the keynote speakers at official police prayer breakfasts. This would seem to constitute an unwelcome meddling in the prosecution of Mr. Greitens.

3. Eric Greitens seems to be a Very Bad person and a Very Bad governor, but apart from that, governors in general should not be invited to speak at prayer breakfasts. Government officials and politicians, as a rule, should not be invited to speak at prayer breakfasts.

Yet such invitations are routinely extended and accepted. So much so that they’ve become a kind of political ritual. The bigger the politician, the bigger a deal the prayer breakfast is seen to be. This is also Very Bad.

Governors get invited to speak at prayer breakfasts because religion is seeking validation from the state and from partisan political identification. Governors accept such invitations because they are seeking validation from religion. Both sides of that bargain are corrupt and corrupting.

Inviting the governor to speak at your prayer breakfast is like inviting Herod to join the disciples in the Upper Room. Or like inviting Pilate to Gethsemane.

Oh, wait, someone actually did invite Pilate to Gethsemane. Remember who did that? Yeah, it was Judas. Maybe try not to emulate Judas?

4. Police Chiefs Associations shouldn’t be having prayer breakfasts. All of the problems with point No. 3 above are compounded and multiplied by the idea of a Police Chiefs Association prayer breakfast, an event at which not just the guest speakers, but everyone in attendance is a government official. A Police Chiefs Association prayer breakfast is a transparent, cynical attempt to wrap the police in a mantle of sanctimonious piety. It’s an exploitation of religion, not an expression of it. That’s Very Bad.

5. This is the St. Louis Area Police Chiefs Association. You know, the bozos who brought us this:

That’s from the hyper-militarized cos-playing reaction of St. Louis Area police chiefs to unarmed citizens peacefully exercising their right to protest the extrajudicial killing of an unarmed man by Ferguson police. Those same St. Louis Area police chiefs also approved the use of tear gas on the population they are paid to “serve and protect,” gassing women, children and clergy.

The St. Louis Area Police Chiefs need to get Jesus’ name out of their mouths. I don’t want to hear a word about prayer from this bunch unless it’s prayers of confession and repentance. They need a fast, not a breakfast. Sackcloth and ashes, not pancakes and sausage.

6. Prayer breakfasts tend to be either pervasively sectarian or else so flaccidly vague and generic as to be meaningless expressions of nothing more than the politicized civil religion of the status quo. Either of those is Very Bad. In this case, I suspect the prayer breakfast in question manages the tricky feat of being both. This is Even Worse.

7. Officially, this event is the “Police Officer Memorial Prayer Breakfast.” That seems more defensible, in general. Mourning the dead is always good and proper, after all, and prayer certainly seems like a traditional and appropriate aspect of that. Honoring the memory of police officers, particularly of those who died in the line of duty, is surely above reproach.

But it’s because such memorializing of the dead is beyond reproach that this whole affair seems even sleazier. See again point No. 3 above and consider what it is that the memory of the dead is here being used to validate, how this whole political/sectarian/status-quo-worshipping ritual is exploiting their memory in service of political/sectarian/status-quo-worshipping ends.

8. There shouldn’t be “prayer breakfasts.” At all.

I will refrain here from making an extended Baptist/Anabaptist argument against these ceremonies of public piety and civil religion and just point out the basic risk/reward arithmetic involved in the decision to organize any given prayer breakfast. Make a pro-/con- list if you like. On the con- side, consider all of the above and all of the potential damage done to religion and politics, to church and to state, posed by any given prayer breakfast. Include also the actual damage done to religion and to politics, to church and to state, by numerous actual prayer breakfasts that have actually occurred.

Now, on the pro- side, list all of the Good Things that have resulted from prayer breakfasts in the past.

Can you think of any? Can you point to any such positive results? I cannot. Or, at least, I cannot think of any that could not better have been produced through other, less dangerous, less corrupting means. The very best prayer breakfast seems to contribute less good to society than the very worst monthly Rotary luncheon.

If “abolish prayer breakfasts” seems like an extreme or dangerous notion to you, then take a moment to reflect on how vanishingly little any of us would stand to lose from such a proposition. Get rid of prayer breakfasts. No one will miss them when they’re gone, and religion and politics would both be better off for their absence.

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