Why presidents should boycott prayer breakfasts

Statement by Annie Laurie Gaylor
FFRF Co-President


President Barack Obama’s 2,562-word speech to the National Prayer Breakfast yesterday was an exercise in pure unadulterated political pandering. Blithely ignoring FFRF’s formal requests that he not participate, he’s given similar talks the past two years at the National Prayer Breakfast — a private event with a public name organized by the shadowy Christian-right Fellowship Foundation. Many other presidents, Cabinet members and high-ranking politicians since the 1950s have “taken a knee” at this event. Yet seeing and reading Obama’s speech on Thursday (view video here and transcript here) was still a shock, even to this veteran separationist.

Obama did throw a few bones to unbelievers, Jews and Muslims (sometimes almost humorously). Whole paragraphs are basically secular generalities. Obama can’t quite put aside his law professor pedigree, fortunately. He observes: “We know that part of living in a pluralistic society means that our personal religious beliefs alone can’t dictate our response to every challenge we face.” He admits caring for the poor is espoused “among many believers and among many nonbelievers.” When he quotes the Golden Rule, he correctly adds it is “found in every major religion and every set of beliefs” (although he left out Confucius). Obama mentions growing up “in a household that wasn’t particularly religious . . . before finding Christ.”

But he plays his part as the pious politician with disturbing gusto, schmoozing with theocrats, establishing his daily routine of prayer, indulging in a little “only God is perfect” self-deprecation and reveling in having a literal “holier than thou” pulpit on which to campaign.

A quick recital of the parade of piety: “I wake up each morning and I say a brief prayer, and I spend a little time in scripture and devotion. And from time to time, friends of mine . . . like Joel Hunter or T.D. Jakes, will come by the Oval Office . . . and we pray together.” (“Bishop” J.D. Jakes is one of those unsavory prosperity preachers. He’s the pastor at The Potter’s House, a Dallas megachurch claiming 30,000 members.) Obama alludes to being inspired by seeing “thousands of young Christians filling the Georgia Dome at the Passion Conference.” He identifies several times as a Christian.

He makes an irritating generality by crediting “faith” when lauding reformers such as “Frederick Douglass, Abraham Lincoln, Jane Addams, Martin Luther King., Jr., Dorothy Day, Abraham Heschel.” Obama claims that “the majority of great reformers in American history did their work not just because it was sound policy, . . . but because their faith and their values dictated it.” Douglass famously noted that when he prayed for liberation as a slave, his prayers weren’t answered until he “prayed with my legs.” Lincoln was a Deist but not an orthodox Christian. Jane Addams, whose Hull House sadly was just closed in Chicago, ran a secular settlement complex because, as she observed in Twenty Years at Hull-House: “A wise man has told us that ‘men are once for all so made that they prefer a rational word to believe in and live in.’ ” In fact, most major reforms in our nation have been kindled by those willing to speak truth and rationality to orthodoxy, and have been opposed by the organized church lobbies, including abolition, the fight against corporal punishment/capital punishment; humane treatment of the mentally ill; women’s rights including the right to vote, to birth control and abortion, and equality for gays.

Obama’s long anecdote about how honored he was to be prayed for by that presidential parasite, Billy Graham, was just too much. Graham’s political influence was not in fact “kind and gentle,” but interfering and hawkish.

Obama concluded the speech with shameless posturing: “I have fallen on my knees with great regularity. . .  asking God for guidance not just in my personal life and my Christian walk, but in the life of this nation. . . I know that He will guide us. He always has, and He always will.”

As if all of this was not enough to solidify his evangelical base, Obama then rah-rah’ed for Bush’s faith-based initiative: “Since we’ve expanded and strengthened the White House faith-based initiative, we’ve partnered with Catholic Charities to help Americans who are struggling with poverty; worked with organizations like World Vision and American Jewish World Service and Islamic Relief to bring hope to those suffering around the world. . . From promoting responsible fatherhood to strengthening adoption, from helping people find jobs to serving our veterans, we’re linking arms with faith-based groups all across the country.”

This is a dishonest characterization. U.S., state, and many local governments for years had contracted for services with various religion-identified groups, such as Catholic Charities. Religious charities receiving huge infusions of taxpayer funds to deliver services often got the credit, while taxpayers got the bill, but at least there was oversight. What Bush changed was the clear delineation between the religious arm of such charities, and what was once their secular arm. Prior to Bush, religious entities vying to be providers of public services had to create secular arms, separate the bookkeeping and take down their crosses, clearly agreeing not to proselytize while delivering those public services. Our country never “discriminated” against a bonafide social service agency that was religion-identified. We simply required them to toe the constitutional line, and to account for themselves. Now that check on the public giveaway of tax dollars to religion is gone. The line between religion and government is hopelessly blurred.

It was already a constitutional tragedy that today’s presidential candidates are expected to wear religion on their sleeves, to campaign on their personal religious views, and in short are submitted to the very religious test for public office our Constitution precludes. But it is a positively insidious that candidates and public officials are now additionally expected to court votes by throwing public money at and “linking arms with faith-based groups all across the country.”

The Freedom From Religion Foundation, based in Madison, Wis., a 501(c)(3) nonprofit educational charity, is the nation's largest association of freethinkers (atheists, agnostics), and has been working since 1978 to keep religion and government separate.

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