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Controversy surrounds Prayer Breakfast

President Barack Obama and first lady Michelle Obama bow their heads as Sen. Orrin Hatch leads them in prayer.
President Barack Obama and first lady Michelle Obama bow their heads as Sen. Orrin Hatch leads them in prayer.
Pablo Martinez Monsivais, AP

The way President Barack Obama sees things, Americans should be able to find unity in prayer — even if they disagree on the details of faith and politics.

That's true in the current debates about health care, poverty and even gay marriage, he said, at the recent National Prayer Breakfast.

"Surely we can agree to find common ground when possible, parting ways when necessary," said Obama. "But in doing so, let us be guided by our faith and by prayer. For while prayer can buck us up when we are down, keep us calm in a storm, while prayer can stiffen our spines to surmount an obstacle — and I assure you I'm praying a lot these days — prayer can also do something else. It can touch our hearts with humility. ...

"Through faith, but not through faith alone, we can unite people to serve the common good."

But while the president preached unity, this year's National Prayer Breakfast was surrounded by controversy. There were signs this event on the semi-official Washington calendar may no longer be able to serve as a safe forum in which a wide variety of religious and political leaders can unite their voices. The breakfasts began in 1953, and every president since Dwight Eisenhower has taken part.

Before the event, the leaders of the watchdog group Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington sent a letter to the White House and to congressional leaders calling for a boycott. They also urged C-SPAN not to televise the breakfast. Meanwhile, a coalition of gay-rights activists and religious liberals announced a series of alternative "American Prayer Hour" events in Washington and other cities nationwide.

Both groups focused intense criticism on The Fellowship, the nondenominational Christian organization that sponsors the prayer breakfast and similar networking events in Washington and around the world. The key is that numerous Ugandan leaders are active in Fellowship activities in that country, including the politician who introduced anti-gay legislation that includes capital punishment for some offenses.

The ethics group's letter accused this organization — often called "The Family" — of being a "cultlike secret society with unknown motivations and backing" that preaches an "unconventional brand of Christianity focusing on meeting Jesus 'man-to-man.' " The American Prayer Hour coalition simply called it a "secretive fundamentalist organization." The New York Times noted that the group has no "identifiable Internet site, no office number and no official spokesman."

However, some religious conservatives have also expressed doubts about The Fellowship. In an investigation of its property holdings in and around Washington, World magazine called attention to The Fellowship's "muddy theology," its "disdain for the established church" and an emphasis on privacy that "grew into an obsessive culture of secrecy."

Describing the participants in Fellowship events, Republican Sen. James Inhofe of Oklahoma told World: "Some of them are Muslims. Some of them are Christians. But they meet in the spirit of Jesus, so it's not a denominational thing, it's not even a Christian thing, it's a Jesus thing."

The ultimate issue is that this organization needs to admit that it exists and talk openly about its activities and goals, said journalist Jeff Sharlet, author of "The Family: The Secret Fundamentalism at the Heart of American Power." It's a sign of progress, for example, that many Americans who are active in the organization have rejected the Ugandan legislation and communicated their dismay to their contacts in Uganda.

When it comes to the National Prayer Breakfast, Fellowship leaders "should go completely public," said Sharlet by e-mail. They should "acknowledge their existence, the fact that this is their event, make their account of it accountable (it was not Ike's idea), explain the process by which people are invited and ... make explicit that this is about consecrating leadership to Jesus. Everybody is welcome, but it's about Jesus."

This kind of transparency might accelerate what already seems to be happening. Some leaders — on the left and right — might reject the big-tent approach offered by the National Prayer Breakfast and create their own events, which could focus on more explicit messages about faith and politics.

If Fellowship leaders are truly "serious about what they're about," noted Sharlet, this "would be great by their lights. They would lose a lot of clout, but the prayer-breakfast movement would at last become an actual movement, of many strands."

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities.