Several of us on the Americans United staff tuned into the National Prayer Breakfast this morning. This annual event, while it is often portrayed as interfaith and inclusive, is sponsored by the Christian nationalist group The Family and is saturated with Christian rhetoric. Nevertheless, it draws politicians from both sides of the aisle every year. Due to the coronavirus pandemic, this year the breakfast was virtual and featured a series of pre-recorded videos.
Americans United is no fan of this event. While it’s privately sponsored, the breakfast tends to merge the worst features of civil religion and “Christian nation” mythology. Several members of Congress are honorary co-sponsors and speak at the event, and every U.S. president has participated since the event’s inception – giving the breakfast the feeling of an official, government-sponsored program. The overwhelming message is that prayer and religion are the natural go-to’s for Americans in the face of any obstacle. If fails to recognize the true scope of religious and non-religious thought in this vast nation.
For the past four years, President Donald Trump used the event to either unveil harmful policy proposals or belittle and insult others. Aware that President Joe Biden would address the event this year, AU was hopeful for a change in tone, even as we acknowledge the limitations of the event.
AU President and CEO Rachel Laser told the Associated Press that if the event must occur, it would be better to get it out of the hands of The Family.
“We would love to work with the administration to figure out a way to change the sponsorship of an event like this and to make it a place for Americans of all different religious beliefs,” Laser. (AU has also advocated for the Biden administration to use language that includes the non-religious.)
Biden’s message this morning was brief, and ironically, his remarks were among the more secular ones offered. Biden stressed some of the same themes he has been highlighting since the election: He called for unity and reminded us that if Americans work together, there’s little we can’t achieve.
And while the tone of the event was very Christian, with prayers in the name of Jesus and a performance by a Christian rock band, I was pleased to hear U.S. Sen. Chris Coons (D-Del.) during his introduction of Biden say that our new president will be “a president for all Americans – Americans of faith and Americans who practice no particular faith."
The National Prayer Breakfast’s roots stretch back to the 1950s, an era when “God and country” rhetoric was employed to fend off the threat of “godless communism.” It’s an echo of an America where the white Protestant power structure was still ensconced, and the best outsiders could hope for was not true equality but a measure of toleration.
The America of 2021 looks nothing like the America of 1951. There are still plenty of Christians of all stripes in our country, but they live alongside Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus, Humanists, Pagans, atheists and millions of Americans whose beliefs aren’t so easily categorized – all enjoy the same rights.
Most Americans embrace this diversity, but The Family, the group that sponsors the Prayer Breakfast, is stuck in the same tiresome mold of white Christian nationalism.
We can do better. While it was a relief this year not to see the breakfast descend into the kind of embarrassment it often was during the Trump years, that hardly means the event is worth saving. This year ought to be its last.
Photo: President Joe Biden speaks during this morning’s National Prayer Breakfast. Screenshot from C-SPAN.