Saturday, February 4, 2017

What about the National Prayer Breakfast?

You likely have heard various things about the National Prayer Breakfast that was held on Thursday morning. The first thing I saw reported was about DJT asking those in attendance to “pray for Arnold” (Schwarzenegger) and his ratings on The Apprentice.
Fair enough, I guess. Good speakers usually start off with something in a light-hearted vein—although ordinarily not quite so vain.
The Good
The POTUS had some good lines in his speech, which you can read here in its entirety. For example, even though he is a billionaire, DJT declared that “the quality of our lives is not defined by our material success, but by our spiritual success.” Quite true.
The President also emphasized that “we are all united by our faith, in our creator and our firm knowledge that we are all equal in His eyes.” No disagreement there.
While there may be some discrepancy between these words of DJT and what he has said and done in the past, most of us are able to applaud those statements.
The Bad
The worst part of the talk by the POTUS was his promise to eradicate an important safeguard in the separation of church and state. "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," he said.
As most of you know, the Johnson Amendment, enacted in 1954, states that tax-exempt entities, such as churches and charitable organizations, are unable to directly or indirectly participate in any political campaign on behalf of, or in opposition to, any candidate if they wish to maintain their tax exemption.
The Christian Right has been trying to get that changed in the name of religious freedom, and it looks as if DJT is willing to seek that—perhaps partially in payment for the support he received from evangelicals in the past election.
This is a disturbing proposal that some quickly opposed. For example, the Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty, an organization of traditional Baptists, who have always been outspoken proponents of the separation of church and state, issued an opposing statement on the same day.
To change the law would hinder the church’s prophetic witness, threatening to turn pulpit prophets into political puppets,” they said.
The Questionable
The whole idea of having a National Prayer Breakfast, which was started, and continues to be supported, largely by conservative Christians, is highly questionable.
(Although it was written in February of last year, I encourage you to read this article by Thinking Friend and eminent Kansas City blogger Bill Tammeus.)
The National Prayer Breakfast, which has been held every year since 1953, was created by The Fellowship, also known as The Family, a religious and political organization founded in 1935 by Abraham Vereide.
The Fellowship/Family is a very questionable organization as Jeff Sharlet’s book The Family: The Secret Fundamentalism at the Heart of American Power (2008) points out well. Sharlet’s work is perhaps a bit exaggerated, but he raises many questions that ought to be taken seriously.
So as a long-time advocate of the separation of church and state, as almost all baptists (small “b” intentional) in this country have been since the time of Roger Williams in the 1630s, I think that not only were the remarks of DJT on Thursday highly questionable but also that the annual observance of a National Prayer Breakfast itself is questionable. 
I am not against praying and certainly not against breakfasts, but perhaps it is not a good idea to have a “national” prayer breakfast, especially when it focusses on prayers to God primarily as understood and worshipped by conservative evangelical Christians.


  1. Here are comments from Thinking Friend Bill Locke in Colorado:

    "Good morning Dr Seat--Bill Locke here--seems to me the Right has perhaps forever used the idea of religious freedom as the facade for their prejudicial views of how the USA (and the world?) should be governed. Trump is a willing participant in that scheme and contributes to the idea that religion is more about intolerance and power than anything else. Hope these four years pass quickly--starting to seem the USA is no longer the USA."

  2. Why any religious organization would want to openly join the political fray amazes me. Consider the low repute of both major national parties. Does any sensible religious organization really want to go there? And they would, because if political donations to and from churches become possible, then churches will become a vehicle for tax-deductible political contributions. Indeed, churches would become almost indistinguishable from political organizations, and might even become co-opted by political organizations. Why bother having separate political and religious organizations if you can have both in one?

    Religious organizations have a long history of political involvement concerning specific issues. Even this has sometimes lead to significant blowback, as the LDS discovered in California when they got deeply involved in California gender politics, and were shocked to discoverer a great deal negative publicity aimed at their church. Now multiply that to see the magnitude of what would happen if churches were openly and fully political. Now think of the compromises and strange bedfellows of politics, and image what that could do to the churches' witness for the kingdom of God. And when the town mosque and synagogue endorsed other candidates, that would do wonders for interfaith dialogue. Not!

    To paraphrase "Fiddler on the Roof," may God bless and keep this POTUS far away from my church!

    1. Craig, you regularly post substantial comments, and sometimes I fail to acknowledge your posts sufficiently. But I thought these comments you posted this morning were especially good. Thanks!

  3. Anonymous posted these comments earlier today, but they somehow disappeared, so I am posting them again:

    Sadly, Religion and State have been intertwined for a very long time - millennia. Including this country, from the beginning. The Johnson Amendment was a good thought, but certainly not practiced very well. Having been to several African American churches through the years, I know that politics by name is regularly a topic included in the homily. But not just those churches. The least egregious have been the evangelical denominations (not necessarily the independents) and Catholics, who intentionally site the Amendment. The State has also used its weight to attack the Church - both Johnson and Clinton did in this election cycle, calling for mandatory changes to certain beliefs and religious practices.

    The concept of praying is good. I have been to two breakfasts which actually focused on prayer. Most are focused on speeches. I would rather have a time of prayer and fasting, much like the National Day of Prayer. The best breakfast I attended had the President and CEO of John Deere speak on prayer (a short Bible study), then lead off the time of prayer, which remained focused for the next 45 minutes. Sadly, many just came to meet him, not to pray.

    All US Presidents carry too much political baggage to speak at a prayer breakfast. But they should be invited, and permitted to pray along with other citizens - but not in a political way. Something more like the liturgical "Jesus Prayer", and prayers for wisdom.

    1. Why do so many preachers whose churches I have visited in my torn READ their sermon? I can't stand it and wiggle and am bored. I went to a church where there was a wonderful old fashioned sermon, preacher moving around, great affect as from the Lord, then I found out after he was a retired visiting preacher. I am thinking maybe sermons are read and filed as proof if needed for tax exempt that they didn't go political.

  4. Thinking Friend Glenn Hinson once again made brief, but quite important comments:

    "Amen! Baptists need to keep examining themselves to see whether they adhere any longer to separation of church and state as a way to conserve religious liberty.

    "Trump has brought our nation to a very critical moment re the survival of democracy."

  5. Here are noteworthy comments from Thinking Friend Frank Shore:

    "I wish religion would take a holiday from politics. Especially Baptists who have and continue to endorse racism, hate, exclusionism, and endorse the work of a bully. I was extremely upset by the 'Prayer Breakfast'; it was and is a total tragedy in the life of the American people.

    'I wish those who call themselves Christian and endorse the WH would research the final outcomes of such alliances. As Bonhoeffer saw the danger of the state draping a flag across the cross, it is just as dangerous to paint a cross on the White House!'

    1. I have heard some have trouble posting. I have a blue publish I click on and sometimes a box comes up and I have to put my google password in, then click and it publishes. This seems to only be required the first comment of a day or maybe a blog.

  6. Thinking Friend Eric Dollard again shares pertinent comments:

    "Conservative evangelicals should be careful to wish for the repeal of the Johnson Amendment, which will require an act of Congress. Repeal could easily backfire. It should be noted that the Johnson Amendment only forbids charitable organizations [those qualified under 501(c)(3) of the IRS code] from endorsing or funding candidates for political office. These organizations are free to speak out on issues."

    1. Except the holes in it already exist from court cases, executive interpretation, and public opinion. This cynic thinks the first amendment is becoming weak in an evolutionary, postmodern way. Both major parties have made it so for a very long time.

  7. I appreciate local Thinking Friend, and personal friend, Charlie Broomfield for sending the following comments and for giving me permission to post them here.

    "Appreciate your good article on the 'Trumper' and your reminding your readers, especially Baptists, of their early commitment to separation of church and state.

    "It has always been my opinion that Separation of Church and State is one of the great founding principles of America, not the least of which is the fact that it permits each individual to worship his or her God as they choose, or to not worship at all. History proves, I think, that forced worship brings less worship than giving people the right and responsibility to make such decisions on their own.

    "I particularly appreciated your quote having to do with 'turning pulpit prophets into political puppets.' Unfortunately, that has already happened as you know. And, if you can believe Ralph Reed, perhaps the best example of a 'political puppet,' there are 117,000 of these 'pulpit prophets' turned 'political puppets.'"

  8. Here are comments from Thinking Friend Judy Trullinger, who lives in Worth County, Mo. Earlier today I received permission to post her comments here.

    "I read Bill Tammeus’ article and totally agree with it. The last line in the article was the best: 'We should be the most religiously welcoming country on the planet. Events like the National Prayer Breakfast send a different message.'

    "The need for separation of church and state is so fundamental to our country. It is such a clear concept that surely it is not misunderstood—-unless someone really doesn’t know the history of our nation--which leads me to blame the current mainline, egotistical Christianity as so much emphasis is placed on this belief that conservative (fundamental, literal) Christianity is the ONLY legitimate religion. This then filters over into the Republican Conservative Radical Right—-which seems to be about all of the Republicans now! They believe they have the only right way to govern this country, so right that there is no need for discussion, so right that everyone else is wrong and somehow less worthy. Right enough to use money and power and dishonesty to get their way. Right enough that the very laws that shape this nation do not have to followed.

    "It’s sad, to use DJT’s word. I hope one day we can return to a Congress where the left and right can respect each other and discuss problems back and forth and come to agreement on solutions-—using the best from both sides. It’s a little hard to do with the greed getting in the way. That leads me to wonder if the Right is pumping up Christianity hoping to camouflage their greed."

    1. Thanks, Judy, for sharing your insightful comments.

      I hope you readers of this blog will take note that even though she is very much in the minority, there are people even in rural northwest Missouri who have a good understanding of both politics and what I consider real Christianity, and I much appreciate Judy sharing her views with me and now with you.

    2. I loved the scriptures and prayers of the inauguration but shuddered with the language being to Jesus only though I love him dearly but I was so conscious of how those must be feeling excluded. We have carefully used inclusive language so many yrs. it is like some of the women marching and saying we will not go back to the 1950s.

  9. And here are comments from Thinking Friend Dickson Yagi, my former colleague at Seinan Gakuin University who now lives in California and remains very active in interfaith activities. I was also happy to receive permission today to post his comments here.

    "Thanks for well researched and thought out writing. I agree that the Johnson Amendment should be protected.

    "In 1957 I transferred from Baylor University to George Washington U. in D.C. for training in Christian living in the home of Waldron Scott the D.C. representative of Navigators, a Christian evangelical para-church organization. I lived in Embassy Row.

    "Navigators had close relations with Abraham Vereide’s group who ran the Prayer Breakfasts. Their home and our home were only several blocks apart. I was the Bible Study Leader for InterVarsity Christian Fellowship at George Washington University and Vereide’s grandson, John Abrahamson, my good friend and companion, was the President. I was dinner guest once at Vereide’s home. I was also recruited to collect the breakfast fee from passengers in the chartered buses bringing people to the Breakfast.

    One of our sharp, rising leaders in Navigators, Doug Coe, became the leader of Vereide’s latter religious/political movement that recruited congressional personnel. I was shocked when the book described him as an admirer of Adolf Hitler in political strategy. Hitler’s totalitarianism was more likely to bring society under Jesus Christ than uncontrollable democracy.

    "Blessings, these experiences feel like memories from a previous lifetime."

  10. Wow, Dickson, I knew you went to George Washington University, but I did not know of your association with Vereide's grandson and with Doug Coe. Thanks so much for sharing about that.

    Yes, your faith journey has taken you a long ways from where you were in D.C. in the late 1950s.