It’s time for official Washington to stop pretending the National Prayer Breakfast is a rare demonstration of bipartisan religious unity and recognize it for what it is: a marketing event for a shadowy, fundamentalist religious organization that incites discrimination against gays. In past years, my organization, Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, has unsuccessfully called on government leaders to boycott this event.
Every year since 1953, presidents have attended the National Prayer Breakfast, sponsored by the Family, or the Fellowship, which is headed by Doug Coe. Coe has been a spiritual adviser to presidents, political leaders, businessmen, and military leaders — both in the United States and abroad — preaching an unconventional brand of Christianity focused on meeting Jesus “man-to-man.” As has been well-documented by journalist Jeff Sharlet, the Fellowship operates under a veil of secrecy, concealing the sources of its funding, its financial holdings, and its political goals.
The National Prayer Breakfast is the Fellowship’s marquee event. This large-scale function serves as a recruiting tool for the group but is often misconstrued by attendees as an official government event — a perception reinforced by frequent presidential addresses at the breakfast, presidential seals strategically located around the room, and an organizing committee made up of members of Congress. Coe, however, is the breakfast’s true organizer, even though he remains in the background, perhaps afraid that acknowledgment of the Fellowship’s involvement would diminish attendance.
The Fellowship has also been tied to a variety of secret, back-door diplomatic actions. At past breakfasts, organizers facilitated meetings between foreign dignitaries and the president as well as members of Congress, outside the reach of the Department of State and traditional U.S. diplomatic protocol. Away from the breakfast, Coe and Fellowship members have met with and occasionally played host to foreign dignitaries from around the world, including dictators and despots such François “Papa Doc” Duvalier of Haiti.
The Fellowship has financed foreign trips for affiliated members of Congress, who have then mixed religion and official duties while meeting with foreign dignitaries. At least two senators, Oklahoma Republicans Tom Coburn and Jim Inhofe, have worked on behalf of the Fellowship while on official, congressionally sponsored trips abroad.
In addition, Ugandan lawmaker David Bahati, an outspoken participant in the Fellowship, drafted draconian antigay legislation that included the death penalty for any HIV-infected individual convicted of having gay sex. As a result of international criticism, the death penalty may be replaced with life imprisonment. While President Obama decried the legislation at the 2010 breakfast, the continued presence of the president and congressional leaders at an event produced by those who support such odious measures undermines American condemnation of discrimination against gay people everywhere.
Moreover, for years the Fellowship operated a tax-exempt discount boardinghouse — known as the C Street House — for members of Congress under the guise of a church. Even though the group was forced to correct the building’s tax status after a rash of bad publicity involving some of its previous residents, including disgraced former Republican senator John Ensign of Nevada, the Capitol Hill row house continues to serve both as lodging and as a meeting place for members, some of whom have had a pact not to discuss their living situation.
In response to reporters’ questions about the president’s attendance at this year’s event, White House press secretary Jay Carney weakly responded by saying he hadn’t “focused” on the breakfast’s organizers, and explaining that the president is “not responsible for the views of every organization or person who participates. His views on these issues, as you just noted in your question, are quite clear.”
Of course, President Obama wasn’t the only prominent attendee: Senators Jeff Sessions, an Alabama Republican and Mark Pryor, a Democrat from Arkansas, served as cochairs. Sen. Chuck Schumer of New York and House minority leader Nancy Pelosi, both Democrats, were also present, as were newly installed Secretary of State John Kerry and outgoing Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar.
By attending the National Prayer Breakfast, government officials lend legitimacy to an organization whose ideas and practices are antithetical to the American ideals of equality, transparency, and high ethical standards. Maybe next year our political leaders will think harder about the message their attendance sends and worship elsewhere.
MELANIE SLOAN is executive director of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington.