It’s been several years since I’ve attended a National Prayer Breakfast, the annual event held Thursday morning in Washington, D.C., attended by the President, members of Congress, and guests — about 2,500 of them.
When I lived and worked in D.C. I attended almost every year. Senator Mark Hatfield, for whom I worked, was a faithful member of the Senate Prayer breakfast group which met weekly, and with the group in the House, sponsors the this national event.
My worry always has been that such a gathering merely sprinkles holy water on the nation’s powerful leaders without any real accountability to the prophetic message of the Gospel. As a breakfast speaker one year, Hatfield called for national repentance for arrogance and sin, referring especially to the Vietnam War. His comments broke with the normal rhetorical decorum of the event and angered President Nixon, but received widespread coverage and much respect.
These days, the early-morning prayer breakfast is also accompanied by countless luncheons, dinners, and seminars for people who come from around the nation and the world to attend. The idea behind the prayer breakfast movement is simple: Gather politicians and leaders together in a country (or state, or city) to pray with one another “in the Spirit of Jesus,” and hope that this dependence on God will transcend differences to build a movement grounded in love for one another and one’s neighbor. It’s supposed to be devoid of “politics.”
Earlier this week, I listened to Ambassador Tony Hall, who now heads the Alliance to End Hunger and is a former democratic Congressman, talk to visiting African parliament members about how he became a prayer partner with Frank Wolf, a conservative Republican member of Congress. They couldn’t begin talking politics because of their sharp disagreements, but got to know one another at a deeply personal level, eventually even traveling together to Africa. One result of their relationship was a co-sponsored bill to outlaw “conflict diamonds,” which eventually became law.
African participants recounted stories of how various political factions, including some virtually at war with one another, had found ways to build communication and trust through such prayer breakfast efforts. Those kinds of stories are inspiring. But to be honest, I wish over the years I heard more of them.
And sometimes, connections forged at the prayer breakfast have been used or manipulated for less than godly purposes. It’s easy for politics to intrude.
Thursday morning, after the usual words of greetings from leaders of the Senate and House prayer groups, Nancy Pelosi and Senator Tom Coburn read scripture, prayers were offered, and then the author Eric Metaxas delivered the keynote address. Metaxas has written several best-selling books, one about William Wilberforce (Amazing Grace) and most recently a biography of Dietrich Bonhoeffer.
During his address, Metaxas powerfully contrasted “dead religion” with vital faith that makes a striking difference in our lives, causing us to go against the conformity of our dominant culture. That’s what Wilberforce did in opposing and helping to end the slave trade, and what Bonhoeffer did in opposing Hitler.
“Jesus is the enemy of dead religion,” Metaxas declared, as he castigated the appearance of religion that lacked the authenticity of radical commitment. It’s “dead religion which demonizes others,” he said, words highly appropriate for the toxic political rhetoric that many in the room considered simply to be the norm.
President Obama followed with his comments, as every president since Eisenhower has done before him. He was open and quite personal about his own Christian faith. Further, he described how the values rooted in his faith were carried forth in approaches to create fairness and shared responsibility, including in matters such as caring for the most vulnerable, taxation policy (“from whom much is given much will be required”), and assistance to the world’s most needy and victimized people.
But it was Obama's own stories of personal reliance on prayer, and how he discovered faith in Christ “almost accidentally” after being raised in a home without such an experience, that were a revealing window into his life. Perhaps most powerful example was his story of visiting 91-year-old Billy Graham at his home in North Carolina two years ago. After Billy prayed for him, President Obama offered a prayer for Dr. Graham. Obama described this as a truly humbling moment.
All this is was made highly ironic, of course, by the charges by GOP presidential candidates that Obama is waging a “war on religion.” The immediate issue is the controversy over whether Catholic institutions should be required to cover birth control prescriptions in their health care policies that cover many non-Catholic participants. The Catholic bishops see this as a matter of conscience. Others see it as a question of discrimination. It’s a complex legal and policy question, but hardly part of a “war on religion.” And President Obama’s efforts through his Office of Faith-based and Neighborhood Initiatives have, in fact, been far more comprehensive than those of President George W. Bush.
At every national prayer breakfast I’ve attended, leaders will mention all those of power and title who are assembled, and how we must know that the greatest power comes when we are joined in prayer. And all applaud.
My breakfast companions this year in included a congresswoman from the West, and the pastor of her local Presbyterian church. The congresswoman is running for re-election and I asked her about the time she spends fund-raising.
“About 2-3 hours every day,” she replied. In fact she was leaving the prayer breakfast, not to go to a Congressional committee hearing, but to spend a scheduled four hours making phone calls trying to raise money, something she doesn’t enjoy it one bit.
But the real problem, she said, are the Super PACs, which pour countless sums of money into the political process. They wield enormous power, and the average voter really doesn’t understand this. The Supreme Court decision of Citizens United, which made such contributions legal, has had a devastating and corrupting effect on the whole political process.
Money controls who gets elected and controls how laws and policies are made, I think, in utterly dangerous ways. More than ever, for those who gathered in prayer Thursday morning, money is power. And it’s the power of money in politics today that must be confronted — by people of faith — as a moral issue.
So I wondered (and prayed), where is the William Wilberforce of today, a leader who will take the message of the Bible to heart, rise up to confront the ways in which money enslaves our modern political life, lead a movement to end it, and then, one day, be celebrated for his or her courage and faithfulness to the gospel at a future prayer breakfast?
Wes Granberg-Michaelson is former General Secretary of the Reformed Church in America and author of the book Unexpected Destinations.