Churches and Elections

The National Prayer Breakfast Offers Thin Gruel

  Rob Boston

Tomorrow is the National Prayer Breakfast. Despite the word “national” in its name, it’s not a government-sponsored event. The prayer breakfast is run by the Fellowship Foundation (aka “The Family”), a shadowy Religious Right group that seeks to evangelize people in positions of power. (The Family also owns the infamous “C Street House” in Washington, D.C.)

Like so many other manifestations of “civil religion” (“under God” in the Pledge of Allegiance, “In God We Trust” stamped on money, the tendency of political leaders to end every speech with “God bless America,” etc.), the breakfast has its roots in the Cold War era. The first one was held in 1953. Presidents, of course, are not required to attend the breakfast, but they always do. The affair is bipartisan, and you’ll see Republicans and Democrats in attendance.

What can we expect from President Donald Trump tomorrow? Who can say? In 2017, Trump used the prayer breakfast to unleash his famous vow to do away with the Johnson Amendment, a federal law that bars houses of worship and other tax-exempt non-profits from intervening in elections by endorsing or opposing candidates for public office.

“I will get rid of and totally destroy the Johnson Amendment and allow our representatives of faith to speak freely and without fear of retribution,” Trump said. “I will do that. Remember.”

I do remember, and he didn’t do that. A few months after the breakfast, Trump issued an executive order that he said did away with the Johnson Amendment, but it was mere verbiage and achieved nothing. The Johnson Amendment is a federal law; Trump can’t just overturn it unilaterally. (And, by the way, our faith leaders can speak freely on a host of issues – they just can’t behave like political action committees and use church resources to help elect or defeat candidiates.)

Perhaps burned by that experience, Trump was much more low key at the 2018 breakfast. He offered only brief remarks, and they were devoid of any policy proposals.

One thing we’re sure to hear tomorrow are a bunch of “God and country” platitudes, with the overwhelming impression being that you aren’t a good, upstanding American if you don’t believe certain things about God. It’s offensive because our Constitution specifically guarantees us the right to believe, or not, as we see fit. Instead of smugly lecturing us about what we ought to believe during high-powered events sponsored by well-heeled Religious Right groups, political leaders should celebrate our right to make our own choices and recommit to defending that principle.

In short, this is one breakfast worth skipping.

P.S. It’s possible that Trump might take another shot at the Johnson Amendment during the prayer breakfast, and if he does, Americans United and its allies will be ready. Today AU, joined by a remarkable coalition of 130 national organizations, sent a letter to U.S. Sen. Charles Grassley (R-Iowa), chair of the Senate Finance Committee, and U.S. Rep. Richard Neal (D-Mass.), chair of the House Ways and Means Committee, reminding them of the importance of the amendment and asking them to support it. 

(Photo: President Trump at the 2018 National Prayer Breakfast. Screenshot from C-SPAN.)

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