National Prayer Breakfast Draws Criticism From Religious and Secular Communities

President Barack Obama will sit down with religious and public figures for the National Prayer Breakfast Thursday morning amid concerns from both religious and secular groups that the event should be amended.

The Fellowship Foundation held the inaugural National Prayer Breakfast in 1953. It has become precedence for the U.S. President to attend the event – usually held in a Washington D.C. area banquet hall – and public figures like Bono and Mother Theresa have previously attended the breakfast.

But while the gathering's intention is to call attention to the power of prayer, secular groups say the event comes dangerously close to blending church and state affairs while some religious figures think the event has become a token, meaningless gesture.

The Rev. Grayland Hagler, a pastor at Plymouth Congregational Universal Church of Christ in Washington, D.C., said the event could benefit from some spiritual guidance.

"For me, it was a theologically cold event," Hagler told Voice of America. "And when I say theologically cold event, it was the perfunctory engagement of prayer and not the substantial engagement of prayer that I would hope to see."

Robert Boston, senior policy analyst at Americans United for Separation of Church and State, acknowledged Hagler's point and added that the event reeks of false piety.

"There's always the suspicion that government officials will attend these events to appear to be pious and win votes. I believe it was the book of Matthew where Jesus warned of people who pray in public just to appear religious," Boston said.

"A truly devout person doesn't need to make a big show of it. People who wear religion on their sleeves can be accused of doing so for political reasons," he added.

Boston added that though the event is not an outright violation of religion and state mixing, Americans United is concerned about the perception created by such an event.

"The prayer breakfast creates the impression that there's some kind of quasi state religion and increasingly we are being told that it extends to both Christian and non-Christian faiths, but that still leaves out non-religious people. And many devout people are offended by these canned peas prayers," Boston said.

In its 60th year, the National Prayer Breakfast is an invitation-only event that collects dignitaries, religious leaders and celebrities from around the U.S. and abroad. Former President George W. Bush and current President Obama have each expressed their personal connection with prayer at past events.

"I believe in the power of prayer because I felt it in my own life," Bush said in 2008. "Prayer has strengthened me in times of personal challenge."

Obama carried on the tradition by telling the event's patrons that prayer "can touch our hearts with humility. It can fill us with a spirit of brotherhood. It can remind us that each of us are children of an awesome and loving God."

Boston thinks lawmakers already have enough outlets at their disposal to express their religiousness if they so choose.

"Certainly there's no lack of religious expression from members of Congress," Boston said. "Both the House and Senate in fact have chaplains. For those political leaders who feel the need for spiritual guidance there are many outlets."