Last week, politicians decided to make the National Prayer Breakfast a smaller, more intimate gathering of Congress, splitting with the Christian group known as “The Family” that has run it for decades.
The most criminal part of the transition is that they will only serve bagels and coffee. The original menu was “sturdy” and included grits, sausage, and a whole spread of treats.
How did the National Prayer Breakfast begin?
A Norwegian immigrant and Methodist minister named Abraham Vereide started small breakfast prayer groups for members of Congress in 1942. President Dwight D. Eisenhower attended the meeting in 1953, and the breakfast evolved into the National Prayer Breakfast, which expanded the group into a larger organization called The Family.
The Family, also known as The Fellowship, The International Foundation, International Christian Leadership, and other names, became one of the most well-connected, secretive political groups that the public never knew about for decades.
It’s clear that there’s more to the National Prayer Breakfast than meets the eye.
So, why did Congress decide to hold the National Prayer Breakfast in a smaller, more intimate setting?
Was it political subterfuge?
Does it reflect America’s downward slide from Christian values?
Or were politicians simply tired of the growing divisiveness?
Who ran the national prayer breakfast? What is The Family?
All members of The Family, usually politicians or wealthy elites, take a vow of secrecy. They purport to uphold the teachings of Jesus and network with others to uphold what seems like peace, prayer, and prosperity by putting Jesus’ teachings into politics.
The complex, murky organization came into the public eye and fell into disfavor when an insider and journalist Jeff Sharlet wrote an exposé in 2009, The Family: The Secret Fundamentalism at the Heart of American Power.
Presented as an organization in the dark with a tangled web of connections, The Family seems like it could be the subject of a conspiratorial TV show. Netflix obliged, creating a show based on the book called The Family.
While the organization seemed to do ostensibly positive things like promote diplomacy and peace at the Camp David accords, the lack of transparency raises red flags. Is this a group of authentic believers trying to craftily pursue peace on an international stage while promoting the true gospel to elites and politicians? Possibly.
But according to Sharlet, The Family was founded on anti-labor principles and conservatism rather than a pure desire to spread the message of Jesus. The Family’s leadership training program also made some questionable remarks comparing Jesus’ calling of his disciples to complete devotion to tactics totalitarian fascists used, like Hitler, Stalin, and Mao Zedong. (I find this disturbing and riotously funny. How well did the “complete devotion” and “inner circle” leadership model work for those three men? One could hardly find worse, much less evil, leaders to imitate or compare to Jesus).
Suffice it to say, insofar as The Family really does spread prayer and the gospel in a bipartisan way, we should be grateful. But their massive budget, secretive nature, and other red flags should make us question its legitimacy.
Why did Congress take over the National Prayer Breakfast?
After this explanation, it probably makes more sense why Senator Chris Coons said, “Some questions had been raised about our ability as members of Congress to say that we knew exactly how [The National Prayer Breakfast] was being organized, who was being invited, how it was being funded. Many of us who’d been in leadership roles really couldn’t answer those questions.”
However, the Freedom From Religion Foundation also may have played a role. They asked Congress to boycott the Prayer Breakfast and wrote, “For decades, FFRF has protested the appearance of the National Prayer Breakfast being a quasi-governmental gathering, which pressures the president and Congress to put on a display of piety that sends a message that the United States is a Christian nation.”
So, is a Democrat-led Congress trying to remove the breakfast from its religious roots?
Senator Mark Pryor, president of the new National Prayer Breakfast Foundation, said, “The whole reason the House and Senate wanted to do this was to return it to its roots, when House members and Senate members can come together and pray for the president, pray for his family and administration, pray for our government, the world.”
The bipartisan purpose seems to rescue the Breakfast from its murky source and overblown pomp to its humbler origins. Rather than allow the massive event to continue its spiral into spectacle and more divisive politicizing, they appear to want it rescued.
Now, the Breakfast will be limited to Congress members who can bring their spouse or religious leader, and it will total two to three hundred attendees rather than several thousand. The president will still give a speech. The Family will still put on their event separately under a new name, “The Gathering,” without the politicians in attendance. They will live stream the president’s address.
If anyone wants to say the true reason for moving the breakfast to a private setting is because Democrats are trying to keep power from conservative, religious politicians, then they at once admit the Breakfast is about political power, not prayer.
If Congress members want to get away from the influence of power and money to take a breath of fresh air, who can blame them? It’s sad that to do that they needed to separate from a Christian organization that cast themselves as “following the teachings of Jesus.”
If Congress’s statement that they made this move to refocus on prayer and intimacy was made in good faith, I think the sentiment is a good one.
Why politicians need a prayer breakfast
Disciples who follow Jesus can legitimately hold disparate views about economics, immigration, election integrity, and a wide range of policies.
The idea of prayer and fellowship to join politicians from both sides of the aisle seems like a perfectly appealing unifier, something our country needs more of, not less. But as the National Prayer Breakfast grew, corruption seemed inevitable (like when a Russian national exploited the National Prayer Breakfast in a “conspiracy to act as an agent of the Russian Federation”).
To Christians, power is not evil per se. But the desire for power was there from the beginning when sin entered the world. The first humans listened to the snake who said, “When you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God,” and they “saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was to be desired to make one wise” and sinned (Genesis 3:6). They took their own wisdom into their own hands instead of trusting God.
This prototypical sin reminds us that when we act outside of obedience to God for what seems good to us, we sin. This returns us to the old anti-utilitarianism adage, “The ends don’t justify the means.”
Jesus called us to love our enemies (Matthew 5:44). Growing up, I remember thinking, “People don’t really seem to have enemies nowadays. How does this apply to us?”
Boy, was I in for a shock when I entered the world of politics in the United States of America.
If, as Americans, we’ve made mortal enemies out of “the other half,” the upside is that now we have enemies who live close by we can practice loving. Politicians often degrade and persecute each other. Good thing that the second half of Matthew 5:44 exists: “and pray for those who persecute you.”
We can join by praying for our political leaders of all levels, regardless of their politics, because in our obedience to Christ, we must love our very enemies.
“Should Christians pursue power? A conversation with David French”
“What does the Bible say about politics?”