Let’s see, where will I be eating breakfast Thursday? I’ve seen some really mouth-watering ads for a new dish at Denny’s (or maybe it was the International House of Pancakes) that involves hash browns covered with lots of cheese and meat and maybe some pancakes, too. But I can’t eat that. I’ve been sticking to my post-holiday diet for four weeks, dropping pounds and lowering my blood sugar. I can’t go back to cholesterol, fats and carbs.
There is another possibility: I could hightail over to the National Prayer Breakfast and eat with a bevy of Washington luminaries, including many members of Congress of both parties and the president. One drawback is that I’d have to be invited, and it looks like my invite got lost in the mail. The other is that the tickets are pricey, which would severely cut into my monthly budget for renting DVDs.
But the most important reason I don’t plan to go is the company I’d be keeping. I don’t mean the politicians who attend to pray and be seen (or is it be seen praying)? I’m talking about the sponsors.
This 60th anniversary eggs-and-muffin extravaganza is sponsored by an Arlington-based organization called The Fellowship, but more commonly known as The Family. One adjective used to describe the group is “shadowy,” but that doesn’t begin to tell the story.
Journalist Jeff Sharlet has doggedly researched The Family and written two books on the topic. The Family was founded in 1935 by Abraham Vereide, a Norwegian clergyman living in Seattle. Vereide formed the organization with a small group of businessmen who seemed untroubled by some of the extreme movements then sweeping Europe. According to Sharlet’s books, the group believes that God’s covenant with the Jews has been broken and that Family acolytes are the new chosen, destined to remake the world in Jesus’ honor.
Sharlet says The Family uses the National Prayer Breakfast to advance its goals in part by guiding the powerful attendees (and potentially future power brokers) to smaller, more frequent prayer meetings. At these events, the rich and powerful are told they can “meet Jesus man to man,” Sharlet writes.
But The Family isn’t just peddling theology. There’s a political angle, too. The Family has big dreams that transcend winning an election or passing some bill about a hot-button social issue. It wants to reshape the entire world’s “worldview” in accordance with its understanding of the Bible, according to Sharlet.
Group leaders aren’t big on going on CNN or even Fox News to discuss their agenda or methods, but annoying facts keep slipping out. As recently as 2009, The New York Times reported that an obscure Ugandan legislator who had participated in a set of homophobic workshops put on by American evangelicals introduced a bill that initially called for the death penalty for gay people in the country, later modified to offer extensive imprisonment and a chance while there to perhaps be “cured” of your gayness. Several researchers uncovered links between Family members and the legislator, although the Family claimed they hadn’t intended the legislation to be so draconian.
And, then, there were the sex scandals. In 2009, then-Sen. John Ensign admitted to having an affair with the wife of a top aide while living at the C Street house, a structure on Capitol Hill that is owned by The Family. He later resigned. Ex-South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford seems to have gotten advice from other politicians living on C Street after his much-publicized flight to Argentina with the love of his life who just didn’t happen to be his wife. But The Family doesn’t comment on such matters.
The National Prayer Breakfast is a privately sponsored event, so it’s not a constitutional issue when members of the government attend. It is a common-sense issue. What possible message does it send?
A 2010 Gallup Poll found that 83 percent of Americans believe that God answers at least some of their prayers. Since there is only one professed non-theist in Congress, I’d expect to find the same percentage there. The thing is, there is already a taxpayer-funded chaplain in each chamber who prays every morning. Members of Congress have plenty of opportunities to pray.
But I understand that sometime people want to pray in a group. Fine. But why should members of Congress let those prayers be organized by people who have been accused of thinking gays are sinners, any woman who has an abortion is a murderer and Muslims are members of a “false” religion?
Anyone who takes prayer seriously should avoid, not embrace, these folks. Why not have the courage to stand up for your faith by witnessing with those who share it, not blithely participate in an act of worship that offends your own deepest understandings of divine purpose?
Here’s my offer. If you must go to a prayer breakfast, come with me to a Denny’s or IHOP in Maryland. I’m a minister. I can lead a prayer; more importantly I can listen to you pray and not presume it is always the same as what is on my mind.
Maybe we could have a respectful chat about any differences over the meal. Just as I’m giving up those carbs, fats and cholesterol, you can give up the secrecy of The Family and embrace transparency. Drop the divisiveness of The Family’s theology and embrace some commonalities of all decent people. Skip the high ticket prices and by-invitation-only nature of The Family’s feast and break bread in a place with a menu that your constituents can afford.
It’s just a thought.The Rev.Barry W. Lynn is executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State.