News and Notes: National Breach Breakfast

Published by Minnesota Atheists on

By George Francis Kane

Head shot of George, smiling in jacket and tie.

In late December I got to binge on The West Wing on HLN. During a Season 1 episode, President Jed Bartlett’s new body man, Charley Young, was surprised to learn that the president would be speaking at the National Prayer Breakfast. “Doesn’t that violate the separation of church and state?” he asked. He was told, indirectly, that no one pays attention to that because everyone expects that they will make political gains by attending it.

The National Prayer Breakfast is an annual event held on the first Thursday in February. It is a forum for political and business leaders that is heavily attended by members of Congress. There are typically about 3,500 attendees, who are there to gain access to public officials. The event is organized by The Fellowship Foundation, a Christian organization that was featured in the Netflix series “The Family,” based on the book by Jeff Sharlet.

Every U.S. president since Eisenhower has spoken at the Prayer Breakfast, giving the event credibility as bipartisan. Actually, it is permeated by conservative Christian themes, and Democrats who attend are being used as tokens of diversity. They are also signaling that their office endorses the event’s religious message.

Democrats often complain that they have surrendered the “religious vote,” and look for opportunities to proclaim the strength of their faith. However, Charlie Young was right: government officials participating in the National Prayer Breakfast often transgress the separation between church and state. If they are attending as private citizens, they are protected by the First Amendment’s Free Exercise Clause. But if they indicate that their office calls on all Americans to join them in prayer, or vow to enshrine any religious dogmas with the force of law, they are breaching the Establishment Clause.

A Pew Research Center report issued in January found that only two of the 534 incoming members of the 118th Congress self-identify as having no religious affiliation. This is in sharp contrast to the 30% of Americans who now identify their religious affiliation as “None.” The report states that Congress “remains largely untouched by two trends that have long marked religious life in the United States: a decades-long decline in the share of Americans who identify as Christian, and a corresponding increase in the percentage who say they have no religious affiliation.”

I expect that “Nones” are reliable supporters of the separation of church and state. Many religious adherents are also, but not as a pro-separation bloc. That is important because the current Supreme Court has dispensed with all Establishment Clause precedent and is close to discarding the Establishment Clause itself. Until the composition of the Court significantly changes, we can only rely on the elected branches of government to repair it. That requires more than a large bloc of pro-separation voters. It also requires pro-separation candidates, and those are few and quiet.

The Republican Party has solid backing among Christian Nationalists, who want to transform America into a Christian Nation, but also an edge within mainstream Christian denominations. Democrats, too, though, do not hesitate to turn religious services into political events. On the Sunday before the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday, President Joe Biden delivered the sermon at Ebenezer Baptist Church, where Martin Luther King Jr. had been the pastor.

How can the President of the United States deliver a sermon without endorsing religion? President Biden called on the congregation “to re- deem the soul of America.” He interwove religious and political messages when he said “The soul of America is embodied in the sacred proposition that we’re all created equal in the image of God. That was the sacred proposition for which Dr. King gave his life. It was a sacred proposition rooted in Scripture and enshrined in the Declaration of Independence.”

The National Prayer Breakfast and a presidential sermon at a religious service are inherently endorsements of religion by government officials, that is welcomed by political activists who demand that government work for their religious goals. They corrupt both government and religion.

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