On Thursday morning, our nation’s top political leaders gathered in the U.S. Capitol for the 72nd annual National Prayer Breakfast. News coverage of the event emphasized that it was the first time President Joe Biden and House Speaker Mike Johnson appeared together. The two were seated next to each other, shook hands, and shed a few tears during “Amazing Grace.”
The NPB does the bare minimum of featuring various faith leaders in order to maintain a nonsectarian image, but it is and has always been fundamentally Christian. Religious pluralism is an afterthought, even on its website, where the NBP’s stated purpose is to convene political leaders “in the spirit of love and reconciliation as Jesus of Nazareth taught 2,000 years ago,” followed by a curt, “All faiths are welcome.”
The clear, albeit implicit, message of the NPB is that the 28% of us Americans without a faith are unwelcome and, further, that to be a good American, one must be a Christian American because, after all, America has always been a Christian nation. If that all sounds a little Christian nationalist-y to you, it’s because it is.
The tradition was started in 1953 and organized until 2023 by the Fellowship Foundation. (Our Communications Director, Melina Cohen, compiled some background on them that you can find later in this email.) But besides their many, many scandals, my primary issue with the NPB is the repeated calls for unity at a function that, by its very nature, excludes the majority of Americans.
The co-mingling of the President of the United States with a dominionist who thinks he’s Moses is not an image that gives me great comfort but rather grave concern. At the NPB, there is no separation of religion and government, and that is, of course, its objective: To undermine secularism, legitimize Christian nationalism, and promote a theocratic political agenda.
In his remarks to the invite-only assembly of high-ranking members from both parties, President Biden said his prayer was “to remember who we are. We’re the United States of America. There’s nothing, and I mean this sincerely, nothing beyond our capacity, if we act together.” He urged political rivals to not “look at each other as enemies but as fellow Americans.”
Speaker Johnson is part of a movement that is, in its own words, engaging in spiritual warfare against secularism. Even as the number of atheists and other non religious Americans is on the rise, the influence of far-right Christian nationalists is, too. They don’t need (and shouldn’t receive) any elected leader’s endorsement.
Their religiously-motivated political goals will never be compatible with a secular democracy. There is no compromise to be made there. There can be no reconciliation without conciliation. And “acting together” would require that the rest of us – the majority of us – be included and represented.
A good place to start? Acknowledging we’re fellow Americans, too.
PS: Register for our 2024 National Convention in Philadelphia, and read on for more information about the Fellowship!
I thought it would be helpful to include a bit of background about the National Prayer Breakfast – what it is and why we at American Atheists care about it:
The National Prayer Breakfast began in 1953 when President Dwight Eisenhower was persuaded to attend by evangelist Billy Graham. Eisenhower, of course, was also responsible for adding “In God We Trust” to our currency and “under God” to the Pledge of Allegiance at the height of the Red Scare when it was thought that Christian capitalism was the antidote to godless Communism.
The shadowy group behind the event is even older. It’s known as the Fellowship Foundation, DBA the International Foundation, AKA – creepily – “The Family.” It was founded in 1935 by a minister named Abraham Vereide who, like Speaker Johnson, believes he was visited by God. After this divine tête-à-tête, Vereide was convinced labor leader Harry Bridges was a Satanic Soviet agent and launched the Fellowship to oppose FDR’s New Deal.
Despite its conspiratorial origins and a What-Would-Jesus-Not-Do political agenda, the Fellowship has – like so many other Christian nationalist organizations – thrived. In fact, compared to other fundamentalist groups, the Fellowship is considered one of the most elite and politically well-connected ministries on the planet with ties to the very highest levels of domestic and foreign government. David Kuo, a former special assistant in George W. Bush’s Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives, said, “The Fellowship’s reach into governments around the world is almost impossible to overstate or even grasp.”
Indeed, it is difficult to grasp the power of the Fellowship, in part because members are required to take a vow of secrecy. Their efforts to cloister themselves and avoid public scrutiny were successful for decades, but things began to unravel after investigative reporter Jeff Sharlet published The Family: The Secret Fundamentalism at the Heart of American Power, which was also later released as a documentary on Netflix.
While serving as an intern for the Fellowship and living in one of their communal homes, Sharlet pored over the organization’s archives before they were sealed. He described their theology as an elite, “trickle-down fundamentalism” that fetishizes power, wealth, and the free market, which they believe is God’s will. They compare Jesus to Lenin, Bin Laden, and Hitler as examples of effective leaders and teach “instant forgiveness” to pardon powerful men for their crimes without any accountability.
Since Sharlet published, the Fellowship has been rocked with controversies. There were sex scandals involving prominent members, accusations of illegally subsidizing the rent of members of Congress, infiltration by a convicted Russian spy, and concerns about their involvement in lobbying for a Ugandan bill that would have imposed the death penalty for homosexuality. In October, the Fellowship paid to fly Representative Tim Walberg (R-MI) to the Ugandan National Prayer Breakfast, where he told attendees, including the president, to “stand firm” against the Biden administration, the UN, the World Bank, and the World Health Organization.
The national spotlight forced the Fellowship to retreat to a new dark corner, and last year, a new organization, the National Prayer Breakfast Foundation, officially took over. But several, if not all, of its board members have ties to the Fellowship, including one who’s been involved with the event for four decades. Just this week, Representative Mark Pocan (D-WI), chair of the Congressional Equality Caucus and member of the Congressional Freethought Caucus, launched an official inquiry into the Fellowship’s operations.
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