I’ll be honest: I’m not a huge fan of the National Prayer Breakfast. It’s a privately sponsored event, but every year the president attends and there’s often a lot of talk about God and country. It seems like another example of the annoying “civil religion” that so plagues our nation.
The breakfast took place this morning, and sure enough, President Barack Obama was there. He gave pretty extensive remarks – and among them was a strong defense of separation of church and state.
The president spoke about the need for religious people to be humble. He then added, “And the second thing we need is to uphold the distinction between our faith and our government. Between church and between state. The United States is one of the most religious countries in the world – far more religious than most Western developed countries. And one of the reasons is that our founders wisely embraced the separation of church and state.
“Our government does not sponsor a religion, nor does it pressure anyone to practice a particular faith, or any faith at all. And the result is a culture where people of all backgrounds and beliefs can freely and proudly worship, without fear, or coercion….”
“That’s not the case in theocracies that restrict people’s choice of faith. It’s not the case in authoritarian governments that elevate an individual leader or a political party above the people, or in some cases, above the concept of God Himself. So the freedom of religion is a value we will continue to protect here at home and stand up for around the world, and is one that we guard vigilantly here in the United States.”
The National Prayer Breakfast is sponsored by the Fellowship Foundation, an evangelical group that is closely connected to far-right politics. In 2010, some groups called on Obama to skip the event because of the Fellowship’s ties to an extreme anti-gay legislator in Uganda who was pushing a bill that called for imprisonment and execution of gays. Obama went to the breakfast that year, but he blasted the anti-gay bill, calling it “odious.”
If the breakfast is going to occur – and it’s more than 50 years old at this point – a message affirming church-state separation is exactly what its organizers need to hear. They need someone to explain to them, as Obama did this morning, that the separation principle is the protector of religion, not its enemy.
I’d still prefer there were no National Prayer Breakfast. But if the president feels compelled to attend, I’m glad he took some time to spread the gospel of separation of church and state.