Political Protocol at a Prayer Breakfast

Among the many things I have not done is attend a prayer breakfast. People I have known who organize and convene prayer breakfasts seem to be all white males who promote business ventures and political agendas. They seem to be more conservative and more Republican than my circle of fellow Christians.

In a public prayer there is the awareness that one is speaking to an audience, be it a political group or in a mega-church arena. One who leads an audible public prayer does so with the challenge of speaking for a collective body of people with similar religious, political, economic, and cultural values. What is lost in this practice is directing your thoughts toward God rather than the audience.

Prayer seems to have contrasting connotative images. It is a solemn request or thanksgiving to God. Prayer is also a set of words used in such a request or petition, and the recitation thereof. Prayer is also a religious ritual, either in a religious or secular setting. There is some ambiguity in the admonition to "pray without ceasing." Some might interpret this as an inherent attitude of humility and gratitude rather than incessant utterance. Or it might be as the reference about Peter in prison, "prayer was made without ceasing of the church unto God for him" implying continuing repetition of group supplication.

In our culture we have embraced prayer as a cohesive bond for civic groups or other voluntary gatherings of people with a common purpose. As we have matured as a democracy we have separated our institutional church from our institutional state in respect for secular and religious diversity. We rightfully discontinued government sanctioned religious practices and sectarian content from affairs of civil government.

A continuing controversial event is the National Prayer Breakfast, which is sponsored by an Arlington based organization called The Fellowship, more commonly known as The Family. The group was founded in 1935 by a Norwegian clergyman who lived in Seattle.

The National Prayer Breakfast is a privately sponsored event, so it is not a constitutional issue when members of government attend. The Family is based at the C Street house that they own on Capitol Hill. The building also functions as a residence for some members of Congress of both parties. The Family was founded with a mission of "a worldview in accordance with its understanding of the Bible." Today the group does not only promote theology, but it has a political angle. Presidents and members of Congress have accepted or declined invitations to the breakfast with the awkward alternative of appearing hostile to religion or complicit with political rhetoric and controversial activity. The C Street house and its residents suffered from some damaging publicity. Senator John Ensign admitted to having an affair with the wife of one of his aids while living in the house. Ex-South Carolina Governor Mark Sanford was part of the group after his flight to Argentina in an extra-marital relationship. The Family also found itself in an entanglement with a Ugandan legislator who introduced legislation calling for the death penalty for gay people in his country.

There is a widely viewed video of the most recent National Prayer Breakfast in which the keynote speaker was a prominent black doctor who has become a revered voice for the Religious Right. His message was political, very critical of President Obama. The video has been shown to convey the President's obvious discomfort at an event he must have felt obligated to attend in respect for the public perception of something designated and portrayed as a prayer breakfast.

Bill Peach is a retired business owner who writes on faith and politics. He is the author of Politics, Preaching & Philosophy and lives in historic Franklin, TN.