We “have been put through a terrible ordeal by some very dishonest and corrupt people. They have done everything possible to destroy us. … So many people have been hurt, and we can’t let that go on.”
You would think these were a president’s words after a terrorist attack on the United States, or maybe upon an announcement that our country was going to war. No. Instead, this was how President Donald Trump opened his remarks on Feb. 6, 2020, at the 68th National Prayer Breakfast (after walking in waving two newspapers with headlines showing he had just been acquitted in the Senate impeachment trial).
I don’t really know why this rant took me by surprise. We hear rhetoric like this from Trump on a daily basis. And since coming to Americans United, I have learned what many of you already know: The National Prayer Breakfast is a private event sponsored by the Fellowship Foundation, aka The Family – a secretive, Christian nationalist political group.
The first National Prayer Breakfast was held in 1953, during a time when “civil religion” was on the upswing in America. President Dwight D. Eisenhower attended, and since then, every U.S. president has been at the event and usually speaks. While the prayer breakfast is often portrayed as a noble and laudatory opportunity to bring Republicans and Democrats together for fellowship and prayer, the gathering is really aimed at cultivating influence among powerful men and women in Washington, D.C.
Based on personal experience, I would guess that many attendees have no idea who is behind the Prayer Breakfast. Here’s my confession: Four years ago, I attended this event myself as an invited guest, clueless about its sponsorship and curious to experience what I thought was an interfaith power gathering after doing a great deal of interfaith work as deputy director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism.
The person who invited me is an evangelical Christian I met when, over a decade ago, I worked at a progressive Washington, D.C., think tank that specialized in reaching moderates. I had headed a project there that brought together white evangelical Christians and progressives to help turn down the heat and enable progress on some of the most divisive social issues of our times. This sounds terribly idealistic today, but remember it was during President Barack Obama’s presidency when so many of us were enchanted by his words: “There are no red states, blue states, just the United States.” Times change.
And now I have a second confession to make. When that same guy reached out to get together this year because he was in town for the Prayer Breakfast, I accepted his lunch invitation. Do we agree on everything? Not at all. But I refuse to let the corrosive vitriol of today make me give up on sitting down with those “on the other side” with whom I can have a rational conversation and potentially convince to see more of my perspective.
This time, though, before accepting my friend’s lunch invitation, I made sure to tell him about our keynote speaker for AU’s National Advocacy Summit – Jeff Sharlet, author of The Family: The Secret Fundamentalism at the Heart of American Power and executive producer of the Netflix documentary series based on the book – and to share my dismay at what I now understood the Prayer Breakfast to be.
You might be curious how that lunch went. Yes, there were a few moments when we made each other wince, but I also appreciated learning more about some of the driving motivators on his side and helping him see the world more clearly from my perspective.
When I came to Americans United, I had a reputation for my work bridging divides on charged issues. And as I have criticized Trump repeatedly over these past two years, I have sometimes questioned whether I can still claim to be someone who believes in bringing people together.
My answer: I can, and you can, too. At Americans United, we seek peaceful and constructive coexistence with those who believe differently – not a surrender to them or to the politics of division.
We must never let go of our shock and disgust upon hearing the president of the United States ignite hatred and rancor. But let’s also make a point of finding opportunities to sit down with those who may not share our point of view. Lunch by lunch, we can help others understand what it means to be truly inclusive.
Rachel L. Laser is president and CEO of Americans United for Separation of Church and State.