A new vision for the National Prayer Breakfast

Will the new organizers of this annual event embrace our founding principle of freedom of belief for all?

From left, President Joe Biden, Speaker of the House Kevin McCarthy of California, House Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries of New York, and House Majority Leader Steve Scalise, R-La., listen during a sermon as they sit together at the National Prayer Breakfast, at the Capitol in Washington, Feb. 2, 2023. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)

(RNS) — Most Americans probably haven’t give much thought to how the National Prayer Breakfast came to be or what happens there. If I had to guess, I imagine most believe it to be an anodyne expression of civic religion. In fact, until this year, this annual event at the Washington Hilton was funded and organized by a conservative Protestant advocacy organization variously known as the International Foundation, the Fellowship Foundation or simply “The Family.” 

But this year, present and former members of Congress, concerned about an apparent lack of vetting of the guest list at a recent breakfast, broke with The Family. On Thursday (Feb. 2), there were two prayer breakfasts: one at the U.S. Capitol, where President Joe Biden and two Christian ministers spoke and congressional leaders were recognized; the other, still sponsored by The Family, at the Hilton.

The news that the event has split away from The Family’s control is welcome, but I’m not ready to breathe a sigh of relief. Past prayer breakfasts, ostensibly intended for all members of Congress, were in actuality overtly Christian in orientation, with other faiths considered secondary.

At Thursday’s congressional event, little seemed to have changed. While I deeply respect both of the guest speakers, Jim Cymbala, pastor of the Brooklyn Tabernacle (whose famous choir also performed), and Bishop Vashti McKenzie of the African Methodist Episcopal Church, they only continue the event’s strict Christian orientation. 

This is not at all what our country’s founders envisioned for America, but more importantly it’s not what the current diversity of our nation demands. 

Attendees mingle at the 68th annual National Prayer Breakfast, at the Washington Hilton, Feb. 6, 2020, in Washington. RNS photo by Bob Smietana

Attendees mingle at the 68th annual National Prayer Breakfast, at the Washington Hilton, Feb. 6, 2020, in Washington. RNS photo by Bob Smietana

Some argue there is no room for a National Prayer Breakfast whatsoever. I disagree. There is every reason for our national leaders to gather in prayer with faith leaders. Individuals and communities of all faiths find tremendous power in prayer, in times both difficult and joyous. Those of no faith often find similar comfort and growth in meditation and other forms of spirituality. This shared human experience can bring us together across lines of division. 

But the National Prayer Breakfast has never honored our nation’s religious diversity. As it moves into a new phase, its organizers have an opportunity to mold it into a genuine celebration of pluralism. Rather than platforming Christianity alone, we should hear from people who represent the true diversity of faith in this country. Representatives of different beliefs should be invited to speak authentically about moral commitments.

At a truly national prayer breakfast, a rabbi would feel as comfortable describing how the Torah guides their life as an evangelical Christian is sharing in this forum what the New Testament means to them — or a Hindu explaining how their Dharmic path led them to a life in public service. And those who profess no specific faith but also have deep moral commitments — I want to hear from them as well.

If lawmakers make room for people of diverse faiths to participate in the prayer breakfast, they should also honor all beliefs in public policy and in the rights afforded all forms of belief. When it comes to reproductive choice, for instance, the laws made in Washington should reflect the constitutional guarantee that Americans are all free to believe as they wish and exercise those beliefs in their personal lives. When religious beliefs curtail the rights of others to live freely, then we are trampling on, not honoring, our nation’s promise of religious freedom. 

Members of the religious right often claim that clergy like myself are anti-religion or want to remove religion from public life. Nothing could be further from the truth. I believe we can celebrate the power and deep history of faith in this nation by ensuring it is an authentic representation of the mosaic of beliefs held across the country. And to do that, we must respect the proper boundaries between religion and government — by opening forums like the National Prayer Breakfast up to everyone.

The Rev. Paul Brandeis Raushenbush. Courtesy photo

The Rev. Paul Brandeis Raushenbush. Courtesy photo

The new organizers of the prayer breakfast have an opportunity to turn the page on the event’s exclusive past. Will the change in leadership truly embrace our founding principle of freedom of belief for all? I sincerely hope so. 

(The Rev. Paul Brandeis Raushenbush, a Baptist minister, is president and CEO of Interfaith Alliance, a national organization championing an inclusive vision of religious freedom. The views expressed in this commentary do not necessarily reflect those of Religion News Service.)

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