Hot breakfast can be an irreplaceable occasion—just ask the 3,500 notables who attended the National Prayer Breakfast last week. The event, which was attended by Congressmen, diplomats, religious, business and military leaders, and President Barack Obama, is held annually at the Washington Hilton in order to help these leaders make cross-field connections that they otherwise might not. Yet the event is not without controversy; The Fellowship Foundation, a “secretive evangelical Christian network,” also known as The Family, sponsors the event. Though high-level politicians on both sides of the aisle have frequented the organization’s events, it has caused quite a stir among gay-rights and other activists—among other homophobic and xenophobic actions, The Family has recently been connected with a Ugandan legislator who is sponsoring a bill calling for the imprisonment or execution of homosexuals. We agree that The Family’s objectives and the manner in which they try to achieve them are reprehensible. Yet, although many activists called on Obama to boycott the National Prayer Breakfast in order to demonstrate his opposition to The Family’s goals, we believe that he made the correct decision in attending the event. The best way to stop The Family’s influence is to stand up to them and reprimand them directly.
Administrators of The Family have been documented using dangerous rhetorical devices to compel the loyalty of followers. Doug Coe, its leader, has compared the blind devotion demanded by Jesus—and thus by one of its interlocutors on Earth, The Family, to that demanded by Adolf Hilter, Joseph Goebbels, Joseph Stalin and Mao Zedong, thus legitimizing the latter tyrants. Such untempered comparison is irresponsible, dangerous, and wrong. It leads to such invidious situations as The Family’s accused support for Ugandan politician David Bahati, who is proposing a bill containing the death penalty for HIV-infected people who have sex with someone of the same gender. Although The Family has since distanced itself from this scandal, one of its members could very easily follow its logic to support this bill.
Yet boycotting an event sponsored by the National Prayer Breakfast would not have been the best way for Obama to declare his views in opposition to the ones linked to The Family. Obama made a wise decision in attending the breakfast and using it as an occasion to to declare, “It is unconscionable to target gays and lesbians for who they are—whether it's here in the United States or…more extremely in odious laws that are being proposed most recently in Uganda.” Going to the breakfast was the best way for the president to disseminate this view to the exact people who needed to hear it the most. If Obama had boycotted the breakfast, The Family’s shady and inappropriate tenets would perhaps never have been chastised so publicly by the leader of our nation.
Some protestors called for the complete dissolution of the National Prayer Breakfast, claiming that the separation of church and state means Obama should not listen to religious leaders. Yet religious voices need to be heard by the president as much as the voices of any other group of people. Other constituency groups such as businesses, gender-based groups, and race-based groups receive opportunities to consult with political leaders in a personal setting, and it would be unfair for those who choose religion as their primary affiliation to not have the same opportunity.
However, the National Prayer Breakfast does create an uncomfortable pressure for attendees to support religious groups and religion in general. Inherent in the word “prayer” is the assumption that one’s spiritual choices involve supplicating a higher being. This is discomfiting to atheists and others whose religious beliefs do not involve praying to a God. This nominal objection is important because, in a country with a commitment to the separation of church and state, for any group to be disadvantaged or not included in the breakfast by virtue of their lack of faith in God, would be unfair. This event was meant to be an occasion to promote inclusivity and concord, and it would be sadly ironic if it ended up doing the opposite.
Whether or not religious leaders continue to meet with the president in the format of a National Prayer Breakfast, an organization as discriminating and prejudiced as The Family should not be allowed to sponsor such an event in the future. The U.S. Congress technically hosts the National Prayer Breakfast, and we urge it to choose other, less embattled organizers for such occasions. There are other faith-based groups that do not share such extreme, antagonizing views as The Family, and they would be more suited to head an event primarily dedicated to friendship building. Although Obama made the right decision in attending the National Prayer Breakfast, there should not have been reason for him to consider a boycott at all.