Taking down the National Prayer Breakfast (as Congress knew it)

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Sure, tomorrow morning the president and many members of Congress will still gather together to piously and publicly pray, as they have for the past 70 years on the first Thursday in February, the chosen date for the sanctimonious National Prayer Breakfast.

The Freedom From Religion Foundation is delighted, however, that the pressure placed by FFRF and a broad coalition of civil rights, religious and secular organizations — along with superlative investigative reporting by TYT’s reporter Jonathan Larsen and by journalist and author Jeff Sharlet — has wrought a wondrous change this year.

For the first time in 70 years, since that first National Prayer Breakfast was called by the Fellowship Foundation (aka “The Family” or the “International Foundation”) in 1953, the attendees at tomorrow’s event have distanced themselves from their original sponsor. A new group, the National Prayer Breakfast Foundation, announced it was created for the sole purpose of putting on the annual breakfast, and for ethical reasons is separated from The Family. (Of course, its board members all happen to be acolytes of The Fellowship, and its stated purpose is still to promote “the spirit of the teachings of Jesus of Nazareth.” But subterfuge or not, the fact that backers understand the need for window-dressing shows the secular movement’s accomplishment.)

And in a truly lovely twist of the knife, the new foundation found it necessary to announce it had refused funding by the breakfast’s main funder in recent years: Rev. Franklin Graham. Graham had openly admitted to The New Yorker, “Everybody in that room has the same agenda. They’re wanting to be able to rub elbows with somebody that they normally couldn’t rub elbows with.” For Graham to hear “your money’s no good here” is music to our ears.

So is the fact that the Family, Rev. Graham and other white Christian nationalists behind the annual breakfast have become political hot potatoes, if not pariahs. This annual spectacle had kicked off scandal-ridden days of influence-peddling, rubbing shoulders with foreign despots and lobbying in Congress for reactionary and anti-LGBTQ policies far less benign than the vaunted togetherness of political pandering. As more and more members of Congress dropped the breakfast (including even then-House Speaker Nancy Pelosi last year), it appears the Family got the message that it would have to change its tactics.

Hence, former Sen. Mark Pryor’s announcement Monday that there would be two separate events and never the twain shall meet. Of course, the Fellowship isn’t going away. It isn’t canceling its usual megabreakfast at the Washington Hilton, where it is expecting more than 1,000 attendees, a third of them non-American. It’s announcing that the centerpiece of its event will be President Biden addressing the prayer breakfast Thursday. But at least he’ll be doing that from the visitor’s center in the Capitol. Attending members of Congress will be at that Capitol venue, not the Hilton. If they want to hobnob with the politically dubious individuals assembling at the Hilton at the behest of The Family, they’ll have to expend a little more effort this year.

No matter who officially sponsors this National Prayer Breakfast, of course, the underlying problem remains the same. The president and members of Congress should not be at the beck and call of Christian groups summoning them to pray. They take an oath of office to defend our godless Constitution — a Constitution adopted without prayer at the Constitutional Convention, and which explicitly prohibits religious tests for public office. Yet, the National Prayer Breakfast has served as a de facto religious test, with members of Congress genuflecting before it out of fear of being perceived as impious. The president and members of Congress should not be sending a message that our nation is a Christian, or even a religious nation. The truly devout pray privately rather than making a spectacle of themselves, as Jesus famously cautioned against in the Sermon on the Mount.

FFRF Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor told Associated Press: “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.”

Besides all that: Nothing fails like prayer, which is one of the mottos of FFRF, coined by its principal founder Anne Gaylor. Congress doesn’t need a prayer, it needs to double down to do what it takes an oath to do: Form a more perfect union, establish justice, promote the general welfare and “secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity.” That’s a “hymn” even FFRF can get behind.

While it took far too long, decades of complaints by FFRF and others, plus all the investigative books, documentaries, and dogged reporting, finally got action. The secular movement can indeed celebrate.

The Freedom From Religion Foundation is a national nonprofit organization with more than 39,000 members across the country. FFRF protects the constitutional separation between state and church and educates about nontheism.

Freedom From Religion Foundation

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