There are only three things wrong with the National Prayer Breakfast: the past, the present, and the future. Last week, President Obama presided at the annual Washington event before what the New York Times called “a bipartisan array’’ of national and international figures. “I assure you,’’ he told them, “I’m praying a lot these days.’’ The president went with the flow of public piety, singing prayer’s praises as a source of calm, strength, and civility. It “can touch our hearts with humility,’’ he said. That had the ring of truth, since the prayer breakfast confronts the president with how little personal freedom he has. He could no more boycott the toe-curling display of religiosity than he could remove that flag pin from his lapel. Religion is not supposed to be coercive in this country, but the prayer breakfast is the ultimate command performance, and that is only part of the problem.
Washington is the Vatican of a larger cult. In municipalities across the country, and on US military bases worldwide, government officials gather to bow their heads and invoke God’s blessing - an exercise that should seem benign. But these official liturgies are fraught with dangerous implications. As often happens, there were complaints last week from First Amendment advocacy groups that the prayer breakfasts veer too closely to “establishment,’’ especially when they take place within the military chain-of-command. The breakfasts are “ecumenical,’’ with Jews and Muslims prominently invited, yet the organizing network, the Fellowship Foundation, aggressively promotes Jesus, who has become a kind of mascot of American military culture. (Last month it was revealed that the manufacturer of Army rifle sights engraves references to New Testament verses beside the cross-hairs.) A non-believing junior officer is not likely to decline a place at his commander’s sacred table. I once observed to an Air Force general that his “voluntary’’ prayer breakfasts had to feel coercive to his juniors, and he squinted at me, “I’ll call off my prayer breakfast when the commander-in-chief calls off his.’’
It all began in 1953, when Dwight D. Eisenhower presided at the first “Presidential Prayer Breakfast,’’ as it was called then. That year Ike was baptized, and Jesus was openly conscripted into the fight against what Secretary of State John Foster Dulles called “the godless atheism’’ of Communism. Billy Graham, with his “Crusades,’’ was installed as the American pope, and “under God’’ was added to the Pledge of Allegiance. The good-versus-evil bi-polarity of the Cold War was enshrined, with its high priest the other Dulles brother, Allen, at the CIA, where divine ends justified demonic means. America’s self-assurance as God’s ally underwrote the toppling of “atheistic’’ regimes in Iran (1953) and Guatemala (1954), with John Foster Dulles warning the world that neutrality was immoral. America had reinvented itself as a Messiah nation, with apocalyptic fervor justifying a nuclear readiness to destroy civilization: Better dead than Red. Under Eisenhower, the US nuclear arsenal grew from a few hundred to nearly 19,000 nukes. Jesus, indeed.
The national prayer breakfast cannot be fully understood without reference to this history. However “ecumenical’’ its trappings, and whatever the small number of non-Christian participants make of it, the tradition amounts to a religious festival of American Christian nationalism. President Obama spoke of humility, but this overtly theological claim on God’s favor goes to the heart of the imperial hubris that has led to one foreign policy disaster after another - up to and including today’s wars that, despite all protestations, can truly be perceived as religious. The sanctimonious Dulles brothers, America’s good-versus-evil twins, set these blocks in place, and their steady falling has amounted to the true domino theory - remembering that the root of the word domino is lord.
The framers of the US Constitution were wary of all such public piety. Not for nothing did they omit the word “God’’ from its clauses. Official government exercises that assume divine license for the nation, whether celebrated with china and linen in Washington or with meals-ready-to-eat at Special Forces camps in Afghanistan, are bad politics. Equally troubling, their presumptuous appropriation of God’s will makes them bad religion. With an ideological past, and a banal present, the national prayer breakfast, given our self-sanctifying wars, bodes ill for the future.